Sympathy for the Devil

While the death of Abraham is recorded in last week’s Torah portion, the timeline of his life tells us that Abraham lived to see his twin grandsons, Esau and Jacob, celebrate their QuinceaƱera in this week’s reading. OK, they weren’t Latina, and the only biblical figure who celebrates a birthday is Pharaoh — but the fact remains that Jacob overlapped with Grandpa Abraham. Indeed, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) describes Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as convening the first Jewish court to deal with a candidate for conversion.

Timna was a royal princess, as it is written (Gen. 36), “Chief Lotan,” “Chief Timna” — and by “chief,” a monarch without a crown is meant. Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying, ‘I had rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation.’ From her came Amalek, who pained Israel. Why so? Because they should not have distanced her.

According to this legend, tracing the origins of Israel’s arch-nemesis Amalek to the court of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’s rejection of Princess Timna, she settles for second best: concubinage to Esau’s firstborn Eliphaz. But once again, we must consider the timeline. Abraham dies when the twins are 15, but Esau first marries at age 40 (Gen. 26:34). In the best-case scenario, Eliphaz would be hitting puberty when Esau is in his mid-50’s — some forty years after Timna’s application was denied!

So was Timna nursing a grudge for all those decades? That does not seem to be the case; she becomes Eliphaz’s concubine in order to join “this people” — the progeny of Abraham and Isaac.

Moreover, Eliphaz himself has a remarkably good reputation in rabbinic literature. The ancient Midrash Tanhuma (Vayera 38) takes the Proverb (11:30) “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life” as a reference to Eliphaz: “Because he was raised in Isaac’s bosom, he was righteous and merited to have the Holy Spirit rest upon him.” A verse from the previous chapter (10:16), “The wages of the righteous are for life [le-hayim in the original Hebrew, so take a shot if you’re playing that drinking game], but the earnings of the wicked are for sin and death” is understood by Rabbi Tanhum (Deuteronomy Rabbah 4:20) as contrasting the salutary effects of Grandpa Isaac upon Eliphaz with the deleterious effects of Grandpa Esau upon Amalek.

Thus, Timna and Eliphaz seem to be genuinely righteous people, a surprising origin for Amalek, antithesis of the Jewish nation.

In fact, the conversion case for Amalek remains a contentious one. Though some sources (Rabbi Eliezer, Mekhilta, Exod. 17:16) seem to apply the Timna precedent to all her progeny, ruling out proselytes “from the House of Amalek,” Maimonides explicitly says that Amalekites may become resident aliens, accepting the Noahide laws and living in peace with Israel (Laws of Kings, Ch. 6), and an Amalekite ger (a term used for both converts and resident aliens) appears in the Book of Samuel (II 1). Indeed, the Talmud just a few pages earlier in Sanhedrin (96b) states that Haman’s grandsons studied Torah in Bnei Brak.

Now, it may be that these sources are not really in dispute, but rather speaking to the nature of conversion. Since Timna sees her union with Eliphaz as joining “this people,” making Amalek a unit separate from Esau’s other progeny (the Edomites), one cannot approach full conversion as a member of the “House of Amalek.” Nevertheless, this does not preclude a biological descendant of Eliphaz and Timna from joining as a regular old Edomite, like any other scion of Esau.

But let’s set aside the technical question. What is remarkable here is how much effort goes into understanding the tortured relationship of Amalek and Israel on the aggadic level and exploring the possibility of rapprochement on the halakhic level. After all, to be blunt, Amalek is the embodiment of evil in the Jewish tradition. We are commanded to remember and never to forget “How he met you by the way, and attacked those at your rear, even all that were feeble behind you, when you were faint and weary; and he feared not God” (Deut. 25:18). Targeting civilians to break the will of the enemy — that is terrorism in anyone’s book. We are commanded to eradicate every mention of Amalek from beneath the heavens. That should be the end of the story, right?

In fact, had the Talmud been blogged, these passages might have elicited some choice comments about these sages’ naivete, delusion and self-hatred. Yet even for Amalek, the epitome of irredeemability, we see compassion and even hope for the future. Even Amalek has elements of legitimacy to its narrative; even Amalek has its valid criticisms of Israel. That does not mean that the terror of Amalek is acceptable or justified; but it does require us to do some hard thinking.

If even Amalek deserves this consideration, can we deny it to others?

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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