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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

A Biblical Contradiction? Amalek and Hanukkah

There are two ways to harm Jews: attack them or assimilate them. With the holiday of Hanukkah being celebrated this week, it is useful to understand the difference between these two forms of national injury – and Judaism’s preferred response to each. This, especially so these days with a large part of world Jewry under anti-Semitic attack – and others of Jewish lineage blithely ignorant or apathetic to what the Jewish State is undergoing.

The quintessential “attack” is found in the Book of Exodus, chapter 17, verse 8: “And Amalek appeared, and fought against Israel, in [the place called] Refidim.” The response was a call to arms, with Moses’s arms raised up on the mount and Joshua leading the battle down below. The Israelites won – and then God commanded them to henceforth destroy all the Amalekites.

On the face of it, this seems to be somewhat harsh. Yes, the Amalekites had no reason to attack the Children of Israel (still a loosely bound rabble in the desert) and deserved to be fought and defeated. But perpetual oblivion? If so, why weren’t the Israelites commanded to do at least the same to the Egyptians who had enslaved them for a few centuries?

The answer to that question brings us to Hanukkah. True, here too we find a story of military heroism. However, that’s the not the crux of the holiday. What is? The haftorah of shabbat Hanukkah i.e., the last reading in synagogue from the post-Mosaic bible, provides the clue. Its ending includes the following verse (Zecharia, chapter 4, verse 6): “This is God’s word to Zerubavel [the Judean’s leader during the period when they began to return to the Holy Land from Babylonian exile] – not with soldiers and not with force, but rather in my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.” And indeed, soon thereafter the Second Temple was rebuilt.

Amalek, Egypt, Babylon, the Seleucids whom the Maccabees fought: the use of military force against the first and fourth, the reliance on religious spirit in the third, and… nothing against the second after freeing themselves! What’s the logic here?
In the case of Egypt and Babylon, neither power attempted to exterminate all the Jews physically, nor did they lay down the conditions for them to lose their religio-ethnic identity through assimilation. Indeed, in Egypt the Israelites preserved their ethnic identity over centuries of oppression because the Egyptians kept them apart in Goshen to prevent them from assimilating into Egyptian society. (The only one who assimilated successfully was Joseph: shaving his beard, changing his name and clothes – to the extent that his brothers didn’t even recognize him; that’s why there is no tribal land in his name.) The Babylonians, for their part, were even more solicitous: enabling the exiled (elite) Jews to continue their ancient religious practices without restriction. And the Seleucids? They actively sought to have the Judeans assimilate into Hellenistic culture – leading to the Maccabean revolt.

One can understand why Amalek became the bête noire of Jewish history, while Babylonia remained (and Egypt later became) places of Jewish refuge (especially in the late and post-Second Temple periods). Amalek (and Haman, Hitler et al through Jewish history) tried to eliminate the Israelite/Jewish People through physical force; the Seleucids, through cultural assimilation. However, Judaism does not consider these two “anti-Semitic” approaches (used anachronistically here) to require an identical response.

True, the Maccabees fought back militarily, but from the standpoint of the Rabbis later on, this turned into a travesty as their political power went to their head and no good came of their dynasty. That’s why a holiday that some think of as the epitome of “Jewish self-defense” was given the verse “NOT by might… but by spirit…”. Over the long term, cultural assimilation is as deadly as physical attack, but the way to fight assimilation is deeper Jewish education and identity-formation (Hannukah’s “candle lighting”), whereas physical attack needs to be met with counter-force.

Israel today faces bodily attack; its response is quintessentially Jewish: military pushback. Diaspora Jews, however, face no less a challenge. No, not anti-Semitic attacks (still a very minor phenomenon regarding the endangerment of Jewish lives, especially when western governments are actively fighting such anti-Semitism), but rather rampant assimilation. With only a small minority of Diaspora Jews receiving any serious Jewish education, and even some actively working against the interests of the Jewish State due to their ignorance of modern Jewish history, the real danger lies in Jewish ignorance and the “attraction” of assimilation.

Hanukkah’s message rings clear: only through a resurgent, rejuvenated Jewish identity based on religious spirit and traditional Jewish knowledge can the Jewish People remain united to overcome their enemies. Joining the Gentiles or trying to be just “Jew-ish” has never been an effective solution – not for the Jewish Hellenists in the era of the Maccabees, not during the height of the world’s most “cultured” nation (19th and early 20th century Germany) – and still not in the ostensibly “civilized” countries in which Jews reside these days.

If attacked, Jews need to fight back: absolutely! But only if they understand what it means to be Jewish beyond some vague historical feeling of “belonging” to an ancient people. In short: why Jews in rich Babylon migrated back to their resource-poor Jewish homeland; why the Maccabees refused to knuckle under an ostensibly “superior” Hellenistic culture; and why Jews continue to return to the modern Jewish State, despite and even because it is under attack.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published four books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com