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Jeremy England
Former- MIT-physics-prof-turned-rav in Israel

The Unmagical Temple: Erasing Amalek’s Remembrance

Photo Credit: Jeremy England

The Torah clearly commands the Israelites to “wipe out the memory of Amalek” but what does “memory” (zekher) mean here? Surely it cannot be the case that the point is to lose all ability to remember who or what Amalek is. As if to emphasize this point, the torah itself goes on immediately to add the instruction “Do not forget.”  Is it truly some kind of paradox to avoid forgetting while wiping out a memory, or is something else going on here?

Clarity comes from considering other uses of the word “zekher” and “zakhor” in our tradition. Zakhor is a word used for remembering the attack of Amalek itself, but also (perhaps even more famously) for the remembering of shabbat through the performance of the positive command of kiddush (blessing over wine).  Shabbat in turn is described in a common text of prayer as a “zekher lemaaseh breishit“, a remembrance of the work of creation.  What both of these examples point out to us is that zekher and zakhor do not mean simply to evoke the idea of finally remembering where you left your keys.  These remembrances are about active practices that centrally ritualize the preservation of memory in a broader context of meaning.  In other words, zekher is about maintaining an ideological system or worldview.

Zekher Amalek, in turn, is about preserving the Amalekite worldview.  As we argued before, Amalek is not understood to be one national group, but rather is a phenomenon of ideas that infects different groups of people throughout history with the notion that destroying the Jews, and thereby preventing them from fulfilling their covenant with hashem through national sovereignty and temple sacrifice, is some kind of highest good.  Wiping out zekher Amalek in the land of israel therefore amounts to an imperative for am yisrael to utterly destroy the violent idealistic belief held by some inhabitants that the judaic project in the land must be overthrown. It should be emphasized that this means the concept of Amalek in Torah is not some kind of simple enjoinder to exterminate an entire ethnic group; of late, haters of israel who wish to undermine the Jews and promote the agenda of palestinianism hand around the accusation that “Amalek” is a Jewish extremist code word for biblically sanctioned genocide.  This accusation derives from a failure to comprehend the much subtler reality of how Amalek is understood.  The imperative to wipe out “zekher Amalek” clearly can be accomplished in part through violence, and indeed, the war currently being waged by Israel against Hamas fits the bill nicely there, for there is no way of ridding the world of Hamas’ flavor of zekher Amalek without killing off many Hamas fighters who cling to such twisted beliefs.

However, the ultimate definition of success of the “wiping out” has to do with the dwindling power and prevalence of an idea, and this is important for two reasons.  On the one hand, this means that irrespective of genetics, race, ethnicity, or whatever immutable characteristic you want, if a person embraces Torah, hashem, and am yisrael as a convert or a ger toshav (righteous gentile, ben Noah) he has nothing to do with Amalek by definition, no matter his parentage. The extirpation of zekher Amalek therefore can be achieved in part by persuasion. On the other hand, by the same token, succeeding at wiping out zekher Amalek requires winning a war of ideas and symbols, and that is a kind of victory that cannot be achieved through physical conquest alone.  Many rightly say that defeating Hamas with bullets will be difficult, because enough Arabs are attracted to the Hamas ideology for its poisonous roots to send out new sprouts again and again. How then, are we supposed to win out over a contagious idea?
The answer brings us back to the centrality of the land and the temple to defeating Amalek.  The need for Aaron and Hur to stand on the hill helping Moshe hold his staff aloft underlines the degree to which the war with Amalek, the war to eliminate zekher Amalek, gets waged simultaneously in material terms and in ideological terms. To the degree that the latter is the case, this means that beating Amalek means bringing Amalek’s symbols to utter ruin.  Zekher Amalek is about two main things: rejection of the Israelite return to and claiming of the Land of Israel, and opposition to letting a judaic temple stand on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. We get this general theory from the models of Amalekite violence provided by tanakh, yet it maps neatly onto the specific incarnations of Hamas-style islamism and modern palestinianism more generally that we see in the present day. Zekher amalek, meaning the symbols that matter to Amalek, are defined in the negative: no Judaic sovereignty over the land, and no Judaic worship on the mount.
The antidote to this, of course, is to insist on both until the idols of this perverse rejectionism are shattered. The moment we take land from Hamas with the credibility and strength to insist they are never getting it back, they have been beaten according to their own wicked standards.  And perhaps even more potently, the moment they appreciate that the judaic sacrificial cult commanded by the torah is inexorably returning to the temple mount and nothing can be done to stop it, their own reason to exist as a movement unravels.  It is no accident that the current war began with an attack Hamas named after ‘al Aqsa,’ just the same as it was no accident that Arafat’s brigade of PLO mass-murderers carried the title of ‘al Aqsa’ as well.  Al Aqsa is the symbolic heart of rejectionist palestinianism and supercessionist Islamism, and a great deal of the ‘right to rule’ Hamas is granted by its Arab supporters derives from its (presently, largely accurate) claim that it successfully defends al Aqsa from Jewish conquest.
What common sense tells us, and what the torah is telling us, is that this state of affairs must change.  The wiping out of zekher amalek in this generation requires our insisting implacably on implementing the formula of Hur and Aaron, land and temple.  Every inch of the Land of Israel that slips forever away from Hamas’ grasp, and every new step we take to return proper judaic service of hashem to the place we are commanded to perform it, the idols on which our Amalekite enemies base their system of ideas crack and crumble more.  This is a war, and there is plenty of elimination of Amalek that has to happen firing rifles and dropping bombs, but the ultimate victory over this enemy has to come from our taking proper hold of our own symbols and, by doing so, denying them theirs.
About the Author
Jeremy England is physicist, biologist, and machine learning researcher who also has received ordination as an orthodox rabbi. Previously a physics professor at MIT, he now resides in Israel and loves exploring the Torah’s commentaries on scientific reasoning.
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