Our Torah is not exactly a fun book. These past few weeks’ parshios provide ample support for such a statement, what with their curses, executions, genocide, and so forth. The fact that our Torah has so much in it that is far from politically correct is something that is pointed out with palpable glee by the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and so forth. Indeed, there are many, many people alive today who claim that the main reason they don’t believe in the Bible is because of what it contains.
This is no simple topic at all. And a full treatment of all the various outgrowths and issues requires more than just this single post. But here we will endeavor to begin to tackle this difficult subject, and to do so, I’d like to deal with just the topic of mechias Amaleik, our obligation to wipe out the nation of Amaleik, for now. From this one example, one should be able to, at the very least, get a pretty good overview of how to deal with the topic of politically incorrect sections of the Torah in general.
We begin a number of years ago — specifically after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. A certain Conservative Rabbi appeared on a talk show and was asked the following question: Really, how is the Jewish commandment to wipe out Amaleik any different from the Jihadists that seek to destroy and obliterate Western culture? Indeed, this is a fun topic of conversation to bring up with more Yeshivishly inclined folk. People who have never thought about this problem often stumble to come up with a proper response.
And think about it — what really is the difference? They believe that they are acting for God, and are carrying out God’s will. These are deeply religious people who are willing to give up their life to fulfill what they believe is the will of God. What makes them “wrong”? What makes Jihad any different than mechias Amaleik?
The Rabbi on the talk show replied, by the way, as follows: “There are parts of my religion that I am proud of, and there are parts of my religion that I am no so proud of”. Now, while I believe this was a rather wasted opportunity to teach and explain much of what we will be trying to do in this post, I cannot say that I really disagree with him. The fact that we have an obligation to bash the skulls in of little Amaleiki babies is not something I can really say that I am proud of. And I would really hope that you would agree to that sentiment.
You see, there are some aspects of Judaism that I am quite comfortable with, and others that I am quite uncomfortable with. The utter destruction of another nation would fall neatly into the category of things that I am not comfortable with. What really is the difference between this commandment, and the Islamic extremists? They see Western Culture as a threat to their religion and God, and so they seek to destroy any trace of it. We see Amaleik as a threat to our religion and God, and so we seek to destroy it. And, as implied above, the commandment goes so far as to require us to knife a one day old baby, should we know that he/she really is Amaleik. (This, by the way, is why it is ridiculous when certain people today declare a particular set of other people they happen to disagree with as “Amaleik”. Would they really advocate the murder of their babies?! Of course not.) What really is the difference between our commandment, and theirs? How could God even command such a thing?
The answer to all of this I’d like to build upon three pillars…
Pillar One: I’ve said this many times, and I’m sure that I will say it again, but there are many aspects of religion that I am not comfortable with. There are many aspects of the way that God seems to run His world that I am not comfortable with. You take a look at history at you get the general feeling that the Master Of The Universe is out to lunch. I need not give specific examples to illustrate my point. I think it’s clear enough. And then you have the troublesome Biblical mandates themselves to make matters worse. Stoning people to death. Slitting throats of goats and sprinkling their blood on an alter. The genocide of other nations (in this case Amaleik) and so forth. The lists goes on and on. But my point is that the destruction of Amaleik is amongst the least of my issues with how God seems to run the world. But the fundamental point that we must recognize is that we are not God. If we knew God, we would be God. The simple fact is that I was not there when the universe was created, and so I do not know its intended purpose. I do not have any clue where we are going, and, thus, I do not have an clue how we are going to get there. It’s just that simple. For all I know, God created the universe because he likes watching grass grow. I don’t know! But considering the very real fact that we do not know the objective of the universe, we cannot really comment on God’s methods of getting there — other than to say that, very often, it appears that God is something of a jerk, to say the least. Accept that we do not understand it. Accept that God is not pandering to us. And accept that God can be a real jerk sometimes, and that, by extension, His Torah can sure be pretty evil at times. Any question that starts with “How could God…?” is doomed to fail from the start. How could God command us to destroy a nation? No idea. Ask Him when you meet Him. To me, right now, it not only makes no sense, but seems counter intuitive, vengeful, and mean. And you know what, God calls Himself these things throughout the Torah. So get used to it. We don’t serve God because he’s good. We serve Him because He is there. And so if the Master Of The Universe tells me to kill a cow for him, or destroy a nation, for that matter, while I can’t say I’m “okay” with the action itself, I’m okay with the philosophical point that we must recognize “God said so”, and all questions, on a fundamental level, must end there.
The point is that I disagree with God on a whole lot; but even reading that sentence with half a brain shows its idiocy. All questions of this nature must start from this crucial point. And only then can one continue to build…
Pillar Two: We see the more destructive parts of our religion as a means to an end. We do not destroy for the sake of destroying. We destroy in order to build. “There is a time for peace, and there is a time for war.” Sometimes we have to fight. We believe this. We are not pacifists, always. Sometimes, someone attacks us, and we have to fight back. Sometimes, another nation is threatening to kill us, or take our land, or destroy our religious ideals, and the proper response, says God, is indeed to kill them in retaliation (I highly recommend reading that whole article on parshablog):
The Torah contains a core monotheistic idea, as well as a series of religious, legal, and ethical practices. If the Giver of the Torah wanted to ensure that this idea / ideas last, and that the Masorah carried on, what could He do preserve the Torah — to avoid its adulteration or replacement with other competing ideas?
Not everything can be achieved through diplomacy, unfortunately. You know, innocent women and children were killed at Hiroshima as well. It’s war. And we were in a state of war. And terrible things happen as a result of that. (Why was the world created in a such a way? See Pillar One above.)
Let us also be perfectly clear here in recognizing that never in our history were Jews running through the streets of towns chopping off the heads of people that they thought looked like Amaleik. There never was a Jewish crusade. Rather, the destruction of Amaleik was a hyper-focused means to an end of having peace in the Land of Israel. And yes, as sad as it is, the killing of even children was a part of that.
For all the Jihadist destruction — that they also claim is merely a means to an end — where is their end? The Jewish people have advanced medicine, and technology. We have created and contributed. The destruction of thousands of years ago we can truly claim was a necessary evil to get to where we are today. This is the same way that America can claim their wars, and their destruction, were/are necessary evils to continue the freedom and liberty that America promises. But where is the Jihadist achievement? They flew two planes into a building killing thousands of Americas — to what end, exactly?! What they claim is merely a means to an end seems very much to be an end in and of itself.
Pillar Three: Too big of a coincidence cannot be a coincidence. At the end of the day I believe that God is controlling history through whatever tools He has. I refuse to accept that it is merely a coincidence that all of the laws that we would today find morally difficult — if not impossible to fulfill — are no longer capable of being fulfilled, for one reason or another. We can no longer identify Amaleik. We can no longer put someone to death without our court system. We no longer have Korbanos. And I do not think that this is just chance. I think God wanted the actions of these commandments fulfilled at a particular time in history, but only the ideas and lessons behind these actions to be for all generations. I think the Torah and its laws brilliantly unfold through history, and things are tweaked and shifted to allow for the fulfillment of different commandments at different times, as society needs it. God has a Master Plan. And this is all, somehow, part of it.
There is, of course, lots more to say on all of these points, and we shall elaborate further in the future.