Less than two months ago (!), the refrain of Adam Schiff’s electrifying statement closing the second day of the Trump impeachment trial was Colonel Alexander Vindman’s simple explanation for honoring a subpoena and offering testimony to the House Intelligence Committee against the wishes of President Trump: “Here, right matters.”
If right doesn’t matter, we’re lost. If the truth doesn’t matter, we’re lost..That’s what they do in the old country, that Colonel Vindman’s father came from. Or the old country that my great grandfather came from, or the old countries that your ancestors came from, or maybe you came from. But here, right is supposed to matter. It’s what’s made us the greatest nation on earth. No constitution can protect us, if right doesn’t matter anymore.
Schiff and Vindman, of course, are both Jewish. Although their devotion was focused here on the institutions and underlying values of American democracy, not their religious faith, it is not hard to see connections.
The Book of Esther identifies its antagonist, Haman, as an “Aggagite.” The rabbinic tradition sees this as a reference to Agag, the Amalekite king with whom King Saul waged war centuries earlier, as recorded in the book of Samuel. As such, it frames Haman’s plot to eliminate the Jewish people and the Jews’ triumphant retaliation as volleys in an ongoing war originally launched by the ambush by the Amalekites of the Israelites in the wilderness. In response to that attack, the first faced by the Israelites since leaving Egypt, God declares eternal war against the Amalekites, commanding the Israelites to always remember what Amalek did, and to eradicate them from the earth. The struggle against Amalek is a pervasive motif on Purim. Besides the reference in the Book of Esther itself, it is the subject of the Torah reading both on Purim itself, and even the Sabbath before.
For the Midrashists, the severity of the crime perpetrated by Amalek was a function of its being first. They explain how, having just miraculously crossed the Reed Sea as God decimated the Egyptian army, the Israelites, understandably, intimidated the surrounding nations. The Amalekites, though, did attack. Even though the Israelites defeated them handily, their aura of invincibility was gone; other nations became emboldened to launch attacks of their own.
The Torah’s depiction of Amalek’s ambush begins “They chanced upon you on the road.” Utilizing a Hebrew pun of the word קרך/qarkha — “chanced upon you,” the rabbis of the Midrash provided an alternate translation, “who cooled you.” (קר/qar — “cold”), and drew the metaphor of a bathtub filled with water so hot that people were scared to soak in it. However, then someone jumped in. Despite being scalded by the hot water, they succeed in cooling the water so that other people are able to follow.
Modern interpreters, whether grappling with the implications of a commandment to eradicate a people that has not existed for centuries or the moral unease with an ongoing command to commit genocide, have allegorized Amalek. Instead of an actual war against an actual nationality, as Samuel the Prophet commanded King Saul to wage in God’s name, the struggle against Amalek is now an internal, spiritual battle. Of the variations of this theme that have been formulated, that of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, late Lubavitcher Rebbe, speaks most directly to the crisis at the heart of our politics.
Schneerson explains that Amalek represents the deep cynicism that allows one to fully grasp the reality of a situation — and then casually disregard it. In his reading, the biblical Israelites marching unchallenged towards Sinai represent a principled life lived with accountability to values, foremost among them fidelity to truth. Amalek, in contrast, represents the ability to say “so what.” Significantly, Amalek does not claim that the truth is in doubt, but rather that it simply does not matter.
Though easily refuted, the very act of denying the unquestionable “cools the bath.” Being forced to defend the obvious weakens and erodes the power of truth itself. Having to defend principles that should be unchallengeable cannot help but “cool” them by introducing doubt where none should exist. In fact, rational debate is beside the point in the face of Amalek’s cynical, bad-faith challenges, because it only distracts and clouds the issue. At the end of the day, Amalek does not assert what they think is correct, but what they can get away with, simply because they can.
Voting against calling witnesses in the impeachment trial, Senator Lamar Alexander released a statement arguing that all of the allegations raised by the articles of impeachment were factual. But, he continued, they did not matter. He was going to vote to acquit anyway, so why bother with witnesses? In a perverse way, Alexander is correct — there is no benefit to calling witnesses and documenting evidence if the response is only ever going to be, “So what?”
Schneerson concluded that only passionate faith in the value of truth for its own sake, rather than rational debate, can transcend the nihilism of Amalek. In other words, to be on the side of the Israelites as opposed to Amalek is to passionately insist that “right matters.”
As professor and author Rebecca Gordon wrote last year, truth-telling is the foundation of democracy:
When we routinely assume that our fellow citizens and government officials are lying, it becomes impossible to work together to determine how our neighborhoods, our cities, or our country should function. When we abandon the effort to figure out what is true, we cede the field to anti-democratic leaders who derive their “just powers” not “from the consent of the governed” but from the acquiescence of the willingly deceived.
This is exactly what Schiff warned of as he echoed Vindman, who was born in Soviet-controlled Ukraine and raised with the Russian expats and refugees of Brighton Beach.
In that same spirit, I am sure that, in developing his teaching, Schneerson drew on his own formative experiences in Czarist and Bolshevik Russia, as well as his leadership of a community that included thousands of Jews trapped for decades behind the Iron Curtain. It cannot be a coincidence that his depiction of Amalek sounds so much like Masha Gessen’s analysis of Vladamir Putin and Donald Trump, particularly in how they use language “primarily to communicate not facts or opinions but power.”
It’s not just that both Putin and Trump lie, it is that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth itself…Putin’s power lies in being able to say what he wants, when he wants, regardless of the facts. He is president of his country and king of reality.
Their goal, she concludes, is to create a reality in which right does not matter, but only power. Delegitimizing the very concept of truth is, therefore, a step on the path towards authoritarianism.
Like Schneerson, Gessen finds even exhaustive fact-checking inadequate to the challenge. Debating each lie, though necessary, tends to only add to the overall confusion. As she urges:
It is time to raise the stakes from fact to truth. With a president who lies in order to demonstrate power, fact-checking is indeed useless if it’s the entire story. The media have to find a way to tell the bigger story — the story about the lies rather than the story of the lies.
The Book of Esther is set in a world where right does not matter. The Jews are saved at the end, but are not secure — nobody is when trapped in a reality defined only by the power wielded by King Ahasuerus, whose whims and impulses become law, and for whom the personal and political mix dangerously. As Gessen would put it, the story about Esther is not the salvation of the Jews, but the inherent peril of living in a world framed by an authoritarian despot. The Book of Esther has a Mordechai, who uses the tools of authoritarianism for nobler purposes than Haman, but it does not have an Adam Schiff to insist that “right matters.” That is left to us — the readers.
Schiff’s alarm was a reaction to confronting how much America has already been “cooled” by the cynical and nihilist forces that Rabbi Schneerson identified with Amalek. In a way, it means that America has become a battleground for a struggle that goes back to the Bible — one that Jews know well. Perhaps uniquely, we appreciate the stakes.