About fourteen years ago, when I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, I was invited by the then incumbent of the Lady Margaret’s Professorship of Divinity at Cambridge University to give a paper at a conference celebrating the Chair’s 500th anniversary. At his request, I went to his office to discuss the subject of my paper. The general theme of the conference was interpreting scripture. I told him I wanted to speak about the command in Deuteronomy 25:17-19 to ‘blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven’. I felt compelled to wrestle with the question of how to interpret sacred texts that incite hatred and cost innocent lives.
Do Jews ever hear this text, the Lady Margaret’s Professor asked? He’d worked on ancient Jewish lectionary calendars, but assumed that modern Jews, like Christians, can choose what they read aloud in religious services. I explained that ‘Amalek’ is recited twice a year in Orthodox synagogues and that, on one of these occasions, the Shabbat is named for its opening word: Zakhor, Remember! Baruch Goldstein’s appalling massacre of Muslims at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron took place in 1994 on Purim, so Shabbat Zakhor was a few days earlier.
After this conversation, I knew I’d have to think creatively about how to convey to my audience of mainly Christian theologians the extent of the ethical challenge posed to Jews by the command to blot out the memory of Amalek. Beyond asking why Jews don’t simply omit the ‘problematic’ parts of the Torah, as Christians do, they might wonder what was problematic in the first place about the command to destroy a long-vanished people (if not for the Torah, who would have heard of the Amalekites?). After all, the New Testament speaks in extremely negative terms about a surviving people — the Jews.
I settled on two innovations. I began my academic lecture by chanting the Amalek text according to the traditional ta’amim, musical trope, used in synagogues. And I put on the overhead projector a photograph of my older son Jacob, taken just before his Bar Mitzvah by Noam, a brilliant photographer then (aged 14) and now, and still among Jacob’s closest friends (the photo’s in deep storage, but I found the OHP slide among some papers). I hoped to make the point that the Torah is a powerful force and, even in moderate Jewish communities, it’s the responsibility of parents, educators and religious leaders to ensure that their beautiful, innocent children are influenced for good and not bad.
This in outline is what I said: Deuteronomy transforms Exodus’s divine promise (issued in a military context) to destroy physically an external enemy, into a divine order (issued at the end of a series of laws relating to a just society) to eliminate the brutal exploitation of the weak once practiced by this enemy against Israel, but now practiced by Israel against its own vulnerable citizens. Don’t blot out Amalek; blot out memorials to Amalek in the form of your own indifference! If you want to know the details, you can read my paper here (apikorsus alert!).
I thought about all this last week when I read that, a few streets away from our apartment in Jerusalem’s German Colony, an 89-year-old man and his wife woke up to find a knife and an envelope containing a death threat. Their garden wall had been spray-painted with a reference to a verse in Psalm 139 about people who hate God, and an allusion to God’s promise to blot out the memory of Amalek (Exodus 17:14-16, though the criminals wrote 16 by mistake). Two days later, on Shabbat Beshalach, the promise to blot out the memory of Amalek would be recited in every synagogue in the world.
What had this elderly couple done to provoke such visceral hatred? Professor Yaakov Malkin was the founding director of Tmura, the International Institute for Humanistic Secular Judaism. Its activities include training secular rabbis to work in non-religious communities and officiate at life-cycle events, such as funerals, for those Israelis — and there are many — who feel alienated by religion and unable to derive comfort or inspiration from it.
A couple of years ago, I attended a funeral at Kibbutz Tzuba conducted by a secular rabbi. It was dignified and very moving, honoring the wonderful man who’d passed away, and offering meaningful consolation to his grieving family. I shudder to contemplate the mind that can make the leap from this to Amalek, the mind that, despite daily lessons from the world news, shows so slender a grasp of the nature of evil.
I first heard about the hate-filled graffiti from Tamar, one of the organizers of ‘Neighbors Share Their Stories’, a monthly open house for residents of German Colony and Katamon residents. That idea emerged last November when four of us met to discuss how to make our neighborhood more neighborly. Last Thursday, we asked ourselves: What should good neighbors do in this situation? We decided to visit the Malkins the next day, Friday, taking wine, cake and flowers for Shabbat.
The Malkins, we discovered, live in a home that’s also a world of its own: a narrow hallway leading to the kitchen, a simple living room with a spiral staircase, glass mobiles, flowers, bookshelves, toys for the grandchildren, cushioned seats around the room’s perimeter, and paintings — mainly portraits and seemingly the work of a small number of artists — on every free centimeter of wall space. I recognized some of the faces; they were sitting in front of me.
It felt like a shiva. No one, thank God, had died, but we’d come to comfort the bereaved. Professor Malkin sat at one end of the room, by the garden window, and his striking wife Felice (the artist, I wondered?) sat next to him. Other seats were taken by family, friends, neighbors and colleagues, including several secular rabbis. The ‘phone rang; it was Motti from the local supermarket calling to say he was sorry and wish them Shabbat Shalom.
Explaining that her father’s eyesight wasn’t good, the Malkins’ daughter, Sivan Maas, read aloud a powerful letter of solidarity written by one of us, Aramit, and signed by many others. Then Sivan read out a Facebook post by Benny Lau, rabbi of the neighboring Rambam synagogue, expressing his sadness and shame. Perhaps because Sivan read so beautifully, I had the sense of being part of a ritual.
Professor Malkin wanted to emphasize that he and his institute had excellent relations with religious leaders. He told us about a Tmura event at the Van Leer Institute which was introduced by another Orthodox rabbi, Professor Naftali Rothenberg. Smiling, Professor Malkin noted the irony of this. We work together, he said.
At the Malkins’ request, the three of us introduced ourselves. I’m not sure why, but the occasion seemed to demand an account of our own religious positions, and each of us started there. Tamar said that she was religious (‘religious’ usually means Orthodox in Israel, and since Tamar doesn’t cover her hair and was wearing jeans, they couldn’t have guessed), but committed to a society where people are free to choose their own way. Aramit said that she was ‘hofshit’, free — not religious, not secular — but married to a religious man, and likewise committed to freedom of choice and tolerance.
When my turn came, I explained that I was religious, also married to a religious man, but that my late husband Peter z”l had been, by his own account, a ‘religious atheist’. That meant that he went to synagogue every Shabbat, ate vegetarian food for reasons of ethics and kashrut, devoted enormous energy to the Jewish community, but did not recognize a supernatural Creator.
At what turned out to be the end of his life (his death was premature and unanticipated), Peter occasionally set aside the philosophical themes — explanation, evidence, testimony — that usually preoccupied him, and wrote and lectured about why he found atheism to be no obstacle to Jewish observance. I told Professor Malkin that, at the suggestion of my husband, very much a religious believer, I’d brought with me one of my late husband’s papers. So along with our wine, cake and flowers for Shabbat, we left a copy of ‘Science and Religion — the Immersion Solution’. (You can read an extract from a shorter article on the same theme here.)
As we were leaving, Felice Malkin thanked us for coming. We’ve made a connection, she said. Something good came out of something bad. So it seemed to us. But it was, to say the least, inspiring that the Jewish victim of a hate crime committed by Jews in Jerusalem could feel that way.
As for my son Jacob, I’m proud to say that he was not inspired by the Torah to make death threats to elderly professors and worse, but has rather devoted himself to one of its greatest commandments: ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue’. And he’s still beautiful.