From Haman to Hitler: The Idea of Amalek

Dear Josep,

Adar II began this past Friday, so Purim is coming right up next week! This coming Shabbat, then, is known as “Shabbat Zachor”–the Shabbat where we read a passage from the Torah called “Zachor,” “Remember.” Here is the passage:

Remember that which Amalek did to you on the road, on your way out of Egypt. That he encountered you on the way and cut off those lagging to your rear, when you were tired and exhausted; he did not fear God. And it shall come to pass, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all the enemies surrounding you, in the land which the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget.

(Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

All men are required by Jewish law to hear this passage read in the synagogue on Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim.

The commandment mentioned in this passage is one of the most difficult to swallow in the entire Torah. What could possibly be so awful about a particular nation that God would command us to commit genocide against them–men, women, children, and even livestock, completely obliterating any trace of their existence? Is God such a vengeful God that He would have us collectively punish a nation just because of something nasty their ancestors did to us once?! Isn’t this against the very concepts of justice and human rights that the Torah was supposed to be introducing to the world?! And why did God place the responsibility to obliterate Amalek in our hands? Isn’t He perfectly capable of collapsing civilizations through means other than warfare?

And anyway, who is this Amalek? Why is it so important to remember what they did to us in the desert?

And what does any of this have to do with Purim?!?!

To quote you upon exiting your first Jewish prayer service: “So many questions.” 😉

Last things first: the connection between Purim and the commandment of wiping out Amalek is very clear. Haman, the villain of the Purim story, was an Amalekite. Specifically, he is called “Haman the Agagite.” Agag was an Amelekite king who was defeated by King Saul in Samuel I 15. In that chapter, King Saul spared Agag’s life and that of some of his livestock. This was a direct violation of the commandment to wipe out Amalek, and he was severely punished for it; it was the sin that caused God to revoke his crown and pass the kingship to David!

So it seems that Haman’s very existence was the result of Saul’s failure to fulfill this commandment.

But mentioning the commandment before Purim is not just because it is relevant to the story of Purim. We read that passage to help us understand that Haman’s evil plot against the Jews of Persia was not a once-off event. It was not a fluke, and Haman did not stand alone. He was just another manifestation of an epic spiritual battle that has been raging in our world since the dawn of humanity.

There is a movie called “One Night with the King” that tells the story of Purim. As movies go, it’s not the greatest, but it does have its moments. One interesting moment in the movie depicts Esther going to see what Haman is up to. She comes across him rallying his followers against the Jews. You will recognize the significance of the imagery right away. (The movie should start at the beginning of the relevant scene, which begins around 1hr 6min into the movie. You’ll get the idea within a minute or two, but listen to what Haman is saying about the Jews and what they represent, especially around 1hr8min.)

Here’s a screenshot in case you missed this:

A detail from Haman's rally. Subtlety is not one of this film's strong points.
The symbol of Haman’s “movement” from the movie.

What’s interesting is that using the image of the swastika is not just a cheap reference to Nazism. The swastika actually has its origins in that part of the world. It is an ancient Eastern symbol. The Nazis appropriated it because they claimed that the Aryan race had its origins in that part of the world, too.

Not that the film is a paradigm of historical accuracy in its use of symbolism; it also employs the Jewish star, and as we’ve discussed, that wasn’t actually an exclusively Jewish symbol until very recently. But this “interpretation” given by the movie hints at what Jews have been saying for 70 years: that the Nazis, like Haman, were the spiritual heirs of Amalek.

So… what does that mean?

Back in September I came across this fascinating article about Hitler’s antisemitism. I think it’s really required reading for anyone, and especially someone like you who is obsessed with WWII. 😉

In high school we were taught that one of the principles of Nazi ideology was that the Jews invented morality and the idea of human rights, human conscience, mercy, and ethics. As high school students we were like, “Um… this is a bad thing?”

According to Hitler, yes. Because he believed that the “natural order” was racial anarchy. Basically that humans should be like animals, the stronger “clans” taking up as much territory as they could. He believed that this whole business of “kindness” and “compassion” disturb that natural order.

And who introduced these ideas to humanity and infected the world with this terrible idea of having a conscience? The Jews, of course. And the only way to rid the world of these ideas was to rid the world of that race that introduced them, that embodies them, that represents and continues to perpetuate them.

In a sense, he was right. The ideas of human rights, conscience, ethics, morality–those are Jewish ideas and were spread by us and by our “daughter religions,” Christianity and Islam, in a world that was a lot more like what Hitler envisioned. These days people associate religion with violence and intolerance, as though religion brought these concepts to the world, when in fact it is the exact opposite; though Christians, Muslims and sometimes Jews fell short of our ideals, the fact is that the world is far less violent and intolerant than it used to be, and that is largely thanks to the widespread adoption of monotheism and the principles of the Abrahamic faiths.

But this is where Hitler was twisted. He thought that we were much better off before. That violence and intolerance were a natural part of life and the world was better off with humans in constant conflict with one another and the strong ruling over the weak. And it was the Jews, he argued–correctly!–that “perverted” the world from this “ideal” state.

That is why it was more important to him to destroy Jewish lives than to save German ones. He thought the German race was the superior one, but he wasn’t sure, and he was okay with it getting destroyed if the natural order was restored. Because more than he wanted to rule over a master race, he saw it as his life’s mission to restore the world to its “natural order.” And if that meant allowing other, stronger “races” to destroy his, so be it–as long as he rescued the world from the pestilence of Jewish conscience.

This is very different from the general view that he was this evil, megalomaniacal madman consumed with hatred and spite.

Hitler really thought he was saving the world.

Amalek, as a concept, is precisely this ideology. “Social Darwinism.” “Survival of the fittest.” The idea that only the strong should be allowed to prosper, and that it is against the natural order of things to help the weak. There is no place in this world for mercy and compassion. There is only power.

This is the antithesis of everything Judaism stands for.

He encountered you on the way and cut off those lagging to your rear, when you were tired and exhausted; he did not fear God.” The Amalekites had no respect for human dignity. They prayed on the Israelites “at the rear”–the old, the weak, and the weary, for no reason other than the fact that they were weak. As a nation, they may have gone the way of the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Persians, and the Romans… but our battle with Amalek–the idea–is eternal.

It is, on the symbolic level, an externalized version of the battle between good and evil I described in this post about human nature. Amalek, yetzer hara (the “evil inclination”), the snake from the story of Adam and Eve, the Satan… in a way, these concepts are all different facets of the same thing. They are all illusions of darkness that are meant to help us learn to receive the Light.

I think this story is an archetypal allegory of the epic battle between Israel and Amalek that has waged ever since. History has shown us that the “spiritual heirs of Amalek” often target the Jews as their first victims. “It often starts with the Jews; it never ends with the Jews,” the grim saying goes.

While the truth of this idea resonates for me,  it does not allay my discomfort with the practical, non-symbolic aspect of this commandment. Some may argue that when it came to Amalek, there was no such thing as an innocent civilian…. but really? Newborn babies? Sheep? Cattle? I can stomach the idea that as a culture it was dangerous and needed to be wiped out… but isn’t there a gentler, more compassionate alternative than genocide? :-/

Thankfully, the actual Amalek nation having disappeared from the face of the earth long ago, it is not really a practical issue. Still, it’s something to struggle with… as we’ve elaborated in the past.

May we all merit to see the obliteration of the ideology of Amalek in our days.

Love,

Daniella


Before I go, I just want to once again draw your attention to my husband’s podcast, Jewish Geography.  Occasionally I read a letter to Josep as a segment on the show, and every time I do, I add a link to the relevant podcast at the top of that post. Last week he featured me reading “The Great Post of Jewish Conspiracies!” and despite the bleak subject matter, it is a rather entertaining listen. 😉 Don’t forget to subscribe!

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