Rabbi Frydman-Kohl on Parashat Vayikra

Ayatollah Khomeini (Flickr photo - Thomas Hawk - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/ )

There are different ways to remember. Harvard University Prof. Ruth Wisse recalled a conversation with a Jewish communist in Poland: “Do you know how my father would try out a new pen?… He would dip the nib in ink, write ‘Amalek’ in Hebrew on a sheet of paper, then cross it out with a single black stroke.” Without power, Jews remembered and erased the memory of Haman and Amalek by symbolic acts.

Amalek has polysemic plasticity. Thus, Rabbi Gunther Plaut wrote, “The ancient Amalek has appeared and reappeared in Jewish history in many forms and guises: he wore the signet ring of the king as Haman; the royal crown as Antiochus; the general’s uniform as Titus; the emperor’s toga as Hadrian; the priestly robe as Torquemada; the cossack’s boots as Chmielnitzki; or the brown shirt as Hitler. All of them had in common their hatred of Jews and Judaism.”

At the most basic level, responding to Amalek is opposition to anti-Semitism. Since Israel now possesses military power and political authority, who should be identified as Amalek and should the nation that attacked the defenceless and weak be “blotted out”?

There are those who would identify Yasser Arafat and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Hamas and Hezbollah as Amalek. Contemporary political manifestations of the ideology of Rabbi Meir Kahane would identify many Israeli Muslims as Amalek and justify transferring them from Israeli society.

The sages of the Talmud, already concerned about possible excessive violence, declared that the Babylonian ruler Sennacherib mixed the lineage of many nations, so it is impossible to identify any one group as Amalek. Others have suggested that Amalek is not a group to be killed, but an attitude to be combated. This has led to identifying Amalek as those who injure the weak of society or as our personal character trait of cruelty. Perhaps the symbolic response was wise.