March 2017, Purim

Dear friends,

This week is dominated of course by the festival of Purim. It’s the easiest one to get into too. I mean who can’t get into, eating and drinking? Sending and receiving creative hampers to and from friends? Reading the Megillah and, to not feel guilty about being indulgent, we give money to charity to help the poor and needy. It ticks all the boxes!

Why do we do this? Because we were saved at the last minute from the fate of total annihilation. Men, women, and children were all designated to be wiped out by Haman and this became the official decree of the Persian King of Kings, also known as the King of the entire world. The arrogance notwithstanding, the Persian Empire did cover virtually the whole known world, minus a few Greek city-states. Which means that had the plan gone ahead we would not be here today. Who can’t drink to that?

But Purim also contains a troubling issue. According to tradition, Haman was descended from Amalek which is, in fact, why the Maftir and Haftarah this week are the portions in Tanach where Amalek is mentioned.

And it’s not pretty. In these readings we are commanded to wipe out the memory of Amalek by killing all their men, women, infants and nursing newborns. That sure is a plan to wipe out a nation by killing every last one of their people. But can that be what the Torah is telling us?! Can the Torah really be telling us that we should annihilate an entire people simply because they are members of a certain group?

One teaching has been that we don’t, and can’t, understand the mind of God. But this seems to me to be a copout. What if we ask ourselves if it is ever, under any imagined circumstance plausible to think it is ok to kill men, women, infants, and newborns?

Let’s work through it. Men of course! They were the enemy army. In many societies throughout history, every single man was a fighter.

Women? Well, the Vikings, ancient Persians, and Chinese, had them in their ranks. Though they never constituted the bulk of the fighting machinery, it is logically possible to have a society in which all their women are fighters. It could be, Amalek women were precisely that.

Infants? Though they are not adults and therefore can’t be held responsible for their actions, there is nevertheless at least an imagined world in which infants can be taught to be very destructive. Of course the exact age group would be uncertain but I’ve got a two year old – I reckon with a Spartan education he could be deadly.

Which leaves us the final category of killing newborn babies. Is there ever a scenario which we could imagine, under any circumstance, in which that would be ok? I challenge anyone to come up with one. Since they are so vulnerable, needing so much care and attention just to keep them alive, by definition they cannot be a threat.

If this is right, then there can be no shield from the conclusion that it is categorically wrong to ever kill a newborn. Or, for that matter, to wilfully or even negligently target men, women and children who don’t pose a threat.

What then can we do with these portions? According to some of the greatest Jewish philosophers in history, there is a solution to this problem. The solution is called ‘allegory’, meaning not-literal.

The Rambam makes use of allegory to explain many things in the Torah that don’t make sense. God was angry. What does that mean? How can God be angry, guilty, regretful, happy, satisfied, or any other of the myriad descriptions of God? How can God be described as sensually stimulated by the aroma of a barbeque? The answer is, it’s allegorical. It’s not literal.

Another esteemed authority is Saadia Gaon, the pioneer in Jewish religious philosophy. According to him, allegory, non-literal interpretation, is to be used in the four following cases: where the text contradicts (a) reality, (b) reason, (c) another text, or finally (d) rabbinical tradition (sec. vii. p. 212 of the Arabic text in Landauer).

Since we have just concluded that there is no world that killing newborns is ok, it would seem that we have fulfilled Saadia’s criteria. Since it contradicts our reason it cannot be literally true.
How then could we explain the killing of Amalek allegorically? What positive message could we learn from this?

I remember a teaching from the former Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks, which he delivered to us on his visit in the late 80s. Though I was relatively young at the time, this teaching left an indelible impression precisely because it moved away from the literal.

He quoted the verse dealing with Amalek where it’s described as ‘asher karcha baderech’ usually translated as ‘because he ambushed you on the way’. Meaning that Amalek was so despicable because of underhanded tactics to a particularly vulnerable people. Rabbi Sacks reinterpreted the word ‘karcha’ to instead mean ‘he froze you’ from the root of ‘kerach’ – ice. He made you cold like ice, he made you apathetic. Amalek, by this interpretation, is not a people to be wiped out but rather a potential human characteristic to be nipped in the bud.

There is no room for apathy in the Torah. Apathy is the one thing worse than immorality. At least with immorality you can regret your bad ways and grow from it. With apathy on the other hand, there is only a harsh coldness which can never be penetrated.

So despite the never-ending civil war in Syria, the ubiquity of far-right politics, and human greed, the Torah commands us to continue caring because that is our only hope. And without hope we would not be a people today.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur