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Herzl Hefter
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Hamas is evil, but don’t be too quick to equate it with Amalek

When rabbis call for indiscriminate killing and war crimes, I cannot remain silent, for the Torah demands mercy and kindness, even when we are at war
Illustrative. 'Victory O Lord!' by John Everett Millais, 1871, depicts Moses holding up his arms during the Battle of Rephidim, assisted by Hur (left) and Aaron. (Wikipedia)
Illustrative. 'Victory O Lord!' by John Everett Millais, 1871, depicts Moses holding up his arms during the Battle of Rephidim, assisted by Hur (left) and Aaron. (Wikipedia)

The Shabbat before Purim, known as Parshat Zachor, is dedicated to remembering the evil which the nation of Amalek perpetrated against the Children of Israel long ago and the divine command to wipe out their memory.

This past year, that memory once again intruded upon our present. It is very natural that the revelation of evil and cruelty of Hamas should be associated with Amalek.

Because the evil is so great and the biblical ramifications are so severe, it is especially important – crucial – that pronouncements equating Hamas and, more broadly, the Palestinians, with Amalek should be considered with the utmost caution.

As opposed to the following statement by Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu in Tzfat (Safed):

The Arabs of Gaza have the legal status of Amalek and we are obliged to execute our obligation to wipe out Amalek in relationship to them…Therefore it is a mitzvah [a divine command] to wage war upon them until they are totally decimated. It is forbidden to conduct any negotiations for peace with them. They are the embodiment of evil…

And just last week, Rabbi Eliyahu Mali, the head of a hesder yeshiva in Jaffa, justified the murder of all civilians from infants to the aged.

Unfortunately, we have come to expect political leaders to use such hyperbole, such as when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, in an official statement on October 28, 2023:

They [Israeli soldiers] are longing to recompense the murderers for the horrific acts they perpetrated on our children, our women, our parents and our friends. They are committed to eradicating this evil from the world, for our existence, and I add, for the good of all humanity. The entire people, and the leadership of the people, embrace them and believe in them. ‘Remember what Amalek did to you’ (Deuteronomy 25:17). We remember and we fight.

But rabbis are supposed to be a different story. Their words carry religious weight and should be reflective of the guiding wisdom and values of the Torah. Their pronouncements should have moral authority because they are coming from arbiters of Halacha, our system of legal – not emotional or reactive – ethics.

So, when rabbis call for indiscriminate killing and the committing of what can only be called war crimes, it is forbidden to remain silent.

This is for three reasons:

  1. As with the case of the rebellious sage (see Deuteronomy 17 and BT Sanhedrin 88a), their statements are particularly dangerous because of the influence they command. They may lead to action.
  2. What type of people would we become if we adhered to this pseudo-halachic ruling?
  3. And finally, we have a sacred responsibility to correct the distortion of the Halacha which engenders a hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s Holy Name (Sanhedrin 99b), by conveying the impression that the Torah and the Jewish people are calling for genocide of the Palestinians in Gaza.

Although this piece is not the place for an exhaustive halachic analysis of Rabbi Eliyahu’s statement, the fact that he issued such an opinion without any meaningful halachic documentation is mind-boggling. R. Eliyahu bases his opinion on an aggadic — that is, homiletic — statement of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, which claims that the mitzvah to wage war against Amalek is not limited to the genetic offspring of that nation, but to any nation that has engraved upon its banner the destruction of the Jewish people. Rabbi Soloveitchik, who was very careful with his words, adds, ‎”However, the destruction of individuals, which is derived from the Torah portion of Ki ‎Tetzei, ‎refers only to the biological descendants of Amalek.”

R. Eliyahu was not careful with his words and his statement is riddled with half-truths and misrepresentation.

How are we to understand this?

There are many commandments in the Torah that relate to warfare and the use of violence: to decimate the offspring of Amalek, to wipe out the nations of Canaan, to destroy the “apostate” city. In contrast, we also have commandments that relate to the sanctity of human life, such as, “You shall live by them,” from which we derive that saving a human life takes precedence over the commandments.

Violent and aggressive positions, therefore, have sources they can base themselves upon.  Humane positions also have what to rely upon. The key question is: which mitzvot become those which orient us and which do we relate to as exceptions to the rule?

Maimonides, when quoting the law of destroying Amalek or the seven nations of Canaan, could have derived an orienting principle of ruthless warfare and violence. But Maimonides chose to orient himself around a different commandment – the commandment of Pikuah Nefesh, saving human life. That commandment, says Maimonides, teaches us an overriding principle of the Torah in general: that the Torah is a source of mercy, kindness, and peace for the world.

It is forbidden to hesitate before transgressing the Sabbath [laws] on behalf of a person who is dangerously ill, as [reflected in the interpretation in the phrase of Leviticus 18:5,] ’which a person shall perform to live through them,’ as ‘[to live through them] and not to die through them.’  This teaches that the judgments of the Torah do not [bring] vengeance to the world, but rather bring mercy, kindness, and peace to the world. Concerning those non-believers who say that [administering such treatment] constitutes a violation of the Sabbath and is forbidden, one may apply the verse [Ezekiel 20:25]: ’[As punishment,] I gave them harmful laws and judgments through which they cannot live. (Maimonides, Laws of Shabbat, chapter 2)

What makes someone – not just Maimonides – choose a path of “mercy, kindness and peace,” and not violence and warfare, “harmful laws and judgments through which they cannot live”?

The key to this vexing question lies in the words of the great Hasidic master, Rabbi Nahum of Chernobyl (see Me’or Einayim, on Exodus). The Torah, he says, is akin to a mirror. One filled with goodness will see the good in the Torah. In contradistinction, for one filled with evil, the Torah becomes a lethal poison.

Having to employ lethal force, even when necessary, comes with a dear price. R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Netziv, says in his Torah commentary that God needed to grant Pinhas His covenant of peace because an act of cruelty — even when justified, as was Pinhas’s killing of Zimri — begets cruelty in the heart. The covenant is in order to protect the soul of Pinhas after he killed Zimri.

It goes without saying that Hamas perpetrated evil  crimes of unspeakable cruelty. As such, it is not only our right but our responsibility as a sovereign nation to wage war against them. Precisely because this war is just, we must be extra cautious that our souls do not become contaminated by the violence we must commit.

That is why, as we approach the holiday of Purim and Parshat Zachor, we need authentic and compelling voices — of rabbis and other leaders — to eschew vengefulness and heartlessness and to inspire a path to victory that retains space for mercy, kindness, and peace.

In recognition of the challenges relating to Amalek today, Beit Midraeh Har-el, in partnership with Hadar and JOFA, is hosting a special Zoom panel on Amalek in our time: A special pre-Purim exploration. Sunday, March 17 at 5:30 p.m., Israel time.  Register at http://har-el.org/amalek-panel

About the Author
Rabbi Herzl Hefter is the founder and Rosh Beit Midrash Har’el in memory of Belda Kaufman Lindenbaum, in Jerusalem. It is a beit midrash for advanced rabbinic studies for men and women. He is a graduate of Yeshiva University where he learned under the tutelage of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik זצ”ל, and received smikha from Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein זצ"ל at Yeshivat Har Etzion where he studied for ten years. Rabbi Hefter taught Yoreh De'ah to the Kollel fellows at the Gruss Kollel of Yeshiva University and served as the head of the Bruria Scholars Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He also taught at Yeshivat Mekor Chaim in Moscow and served as Rosh Kollel of the first Torah MiZion Kollel in Cleveland, Ohio. He has written numerous articles related to modernity and Hasidic thought. His divrei Torah and online shiurim can be accessed at www.har-el.org
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