How can we Understand the Commandment to Wipe Out Amalek?

Posted on May 17, 2015 | 8 comments

Question submitted to Ask the Rabbi” by:

Name: Isaac

City: New York

Age: Teenager

School: Chaim Berlin

Full Question:

“Isaiah Berlin – a philosopher – said that the greatest danger to the world is when people impose their beliefs on others. ISIS is a perfect example of this as they kill many people because they believe that that’s what Allah wants. So, my question is, what about Milchemes Amalek? Wasn’t that genocide? The Jews attempted to do it (in thew days of Shaul) because the Torah says so. But isn’t that imposing beliefs on others? What’s the difference between that and what ISIS is doing??”

Rabbi Tully Bryks responds:

Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. As Jews, we are among a minority of religions who do not proselytize or impose our religion on others. At the same time, we believe that our understanding of truth is correct just as other people from other religions believe that they are right (See my article on the Chosen Nation). But even though we believe that we are right, and by extension, that others are wrong, we do not impose our beliefs on others, unless their beliefs put us or others in danger. If they say that I, my country, or anyone different from them does not have a right to exist, we are going to object (Just as I’m sure Amelek would object to our approach to them). But ISIS goes way beyond that. Their belief that they are morally justified when they torture, rape and brutalize those who oppose them, is not a belief that is based on clear scriptures. On the contrary, the majority of Muslims believe that ISIS has hijacked their religion and is merely justifying, rationalizing and masking their quest for power in religion. But as you have pointed out, the Torah (Bible) is quite clear that there is an obligation to wipe out the nation of Amalek (although certainly not to torture, rape or brutalize anyone – ever!).amalek
The next question is why would G-d put a commandment to kill others in the Torah? It seems so inconsistent with most of the laws of the Torah, including the laws that prohibit murder, theft, hatred, gossip and the many laws that command love of others, tolerance, kindness and the like. According to Jewish law, we are even required to be sensitive to the suffering of animals! So how could it be that this same benevolent G-d, who treats all people as His children, and expects us to nurture each other and the world He gave us, would actually require us to kill someone???
The truth is, most people agree that there are times when killing is allowed, or even required, but they just disagree on where to draw the line. For example, if someone is coming to kill others (referred to as a “Rodef”), and the only way to stop him is with deadly force, then G-d doesn’t just allow us to take action, He commands us to stop this person, even if it entails killing him. This law applies even if the Rodef is acting unintentionally. Examples could include someone losing control of his car or a baby threatening the life of its mother. In the wake of 9-11, The U.S. policy to shoot down hijacked commercial aircraft that are being used as missiles. Perhaps Judaism would support such an approach, even though most of the people on board the planes are innocent.
Now what if you could go back in time and had the opportunity to kill baby Hitler and prevent the Holocaust, or kill baby Osama Bin Laden and prevent 9-11 and perhaps many more terrorist attacks? Would that be justified? While many would argue yes, the Torah generally does not condone judging someone based on what they will do in the future (and G-d knows the future). For example, Yishmael (Ishmael) and his descendants would eventually commit terrible atrocities against the Jews and the world. Yet when Yishmael was sick and on the verge of death, G-d heeded his prayer and saved him, and did not consider the future misdeeds.
The one exception to this rule is Amalek. G-d understands that Amalek represents pure evil in this world. Their mandate is to wipe out the Jewish people and any connection to G-d and morality from this world. They have tried this numerous times, from the original Amalek to the nation that attacked the Jews when we left Egypt, to Haman’s attempt at genocide in the Purim story to Hitler himself, who many consider to have been “Amalek” as well. Knowing who they are, what they represent and the certainty of their wickedness, G-d has commanded us to wipe them out. Like all other Mitzvos from G-d, this commandment is considered so important that Shaul Hamelech (King Saul) was penalized and dethroned by G-d due to his failure to follow through on it.
Admittedly, this type of commandment goes against the very nature of who we are. But perhaps that is precisely what makes our people so great. Unlike ISIS, who seem to genuinely enjoy the pain and suffering they inflict upon others, which seems to further confirm that this more about who they really are, and not about some Divine crusade, we struggle with a commandment like this and reluctantly follow it only because it is a direct commandment from the Torah. We allow G-d to define morality for us and not the other way around. Once a person acts as their own judge a jury of morality, then they sort of become their own G-d, whereby anything can eventually be rationalized. By deferring to an external and objective source, especially from an all-knowing, all-loving and morally perfect G-d, we have the capacity to truly achieve moral and personal greatness. The humbling challenge is that we may not always understand every precept.

May we reach a time soon when there is no more bloodshed, no more torture, no more suicide bombings, and a time of everlasting peace and prosperity for everyone!

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  1. When Israel left Egypt, they took with them great herds of sheep. A sheep, as any
    cattleman will tell you, bites off edibles close to the ground, leaving the soil denuded and vulnerable to droughts. In recent times, you can look to Australia to see the erosion and desertification that over-grazing has brought to the well-watered Eastern coast. The Amelikites, the people of Moloch, behaved with savagery to these migrants from Egypt because they did not want Amelikite children to inheirit an even more barren land, overgrazed to the point where few
    would survive. I know this is not a popular view, but Amelikite behavior has been
    repeated before and since in the arid Middle East

    • Rabbi Tully Bryks

      There is no question that many conflicts throughout history have been the result of territory disputes as well as the protection of natural resources. But regarding Amalek, the Torah view is that even if some of them may have rationalized that they were fighting to protect their resources, on a subconscious level, their motive would have been their hatred of G-d and the Jewish people.
      This is somewhat similar to how Anti-Semites will sometimes convince themselves that there is some external reason why they hate Jews. For information on that, please see my article on Antisemitism –

  2. In the first part of your answer it sounds like you are saying that ISIS is different because they have no scriptures supporting what they do and most Muslims appose it. I’m having a hard time understanding this. You can’t possibly mean to say that had the Quran supported what ISIS is doing it would be perfectly justified. Terrorism doesn’t become justified just because a religion has scriptures supporting it and neither does genocide. So how is the commandment to wipe out Amalek just?

    • Rabbi Tully Bryks

      In my article, I made 3 minor points and one major point.

      1. Killing your enemy is not the same thing as Torturing, raping and brutalizing them. The former may sometimes be a technical necessity [e.g. self defense], whereas the latter turns it into an ideal, and a form of fun, which the Torah abhors.

      2. ISIS has hijacked religion to justify their immortality and quest for power.

      3. One possible logical reason for the commandment to kill Amalek is that G-d knows that they are inherently evil whose mission is to do battle against G-d, against the Jews and all other moral people. So by killing them, we are actually saving many more lives and innocent victims from their inevitable current and future atrocities.

      4. The major point is that G-d defines morality and not the other way around. And despite the teachings of philosopher Isaih Berlin, G-d certainly does have the right to impose His views on others. As such, the Torah does not contain 613 suggestions, but 613 commandments. [And it is in fact that very same value system that serves as the paradigm for human conscience and a sense of right and wrong - the Torah’s interpersonal standards are way above universal standards. As such, anything that conflicts stands clearly as an exception to the rule with a G-d given specific purpose, which we strive to accept even without understanding, to same degree as our own sense of right and wrong, which is dictated by the same source.] So even though it would seem barbaric for Avraham to have attempted to sacrifice his son, we applaud that moment as one his greatest achievements, because he deferred his sense of morality to G-d’s. Without the Torah, any moral position can be rationalized, including murder, theft and even torture. G-d has defined for us what is right and what is wrong. As a result, we know that murder and torture are wrong. And that is how we also know that killing Amalek is right.

      If you don’t like my suggestion that one of the rationale’s for this commandment has to do with Amalek being pure evil, that’s OK. I am not a prophet and certainly don’t claim to fully understand the potentially infinite motives behind G-d’s commandments. The main point is that G-d knows what He is doing and that if we don’t understand the rationale, it is an inadequacy in us, but certainly not that an inadequacy in G-d.

      • Of course we believe that G-d told knows what’s right and that He told us to wipe out Amalek. He Created Amalek and if He says to wipe them out of course it’s right. That wasn’t my question. My question was how can we impose our believes that there is a G-d in the first place, on others. History has shown that Isiah Berlin is right. The greatest danger to the world is when one religion imposes their beliefs on another. Take the Christians for example. For a long time they believed that the Jews killed Jesus and due to this they tortured the Jews. Is that right? If you wan’t to have a world that is safe you must have freedom of religion. You can’t have one people killing out another because they believe that the’re supposed to. This is what Isiah Berlin meant.

        To make the point a little clearer, suppose somebody runs around with a gun shooting people saying that it is part of his religion. Do you think the cops will take that as an excuse? Of course not. They would arrest him and explain to him that just because his religion says to kill others it doesn’t mean that he is allowed to do it. Even if in his believes G-d came to him and said that the future of these people is to be evil, that still is not an excuse at all. Because in the eyes of the people he’s killing his religion is wrong. So they don’t believe they have to be killed.

        Getting back to our case, how can we wipe out Amalek if they don’t believe in Judaism?

        PS. Notice how in the original question, I asked from Shaul HaMelech instead of asking from Moshiach. The reason from this is because in the times of Moshiach everyone will believe in Judaism.

        • Rabbi Tully Bryks

          It sounds like you may have answered your own question. You stated that you believe that G-d wrote that Torah, and that since G-d wrote in the Torah that we should wipe out Aamlek, then “of course it’s right.”
          I fully agree with that! So once we establish that G-d has the right to impose His views on others, His right has nothing to with whether the others believe in Judaism – It is G-d’s right, despite Isiah Berlin’s opinion. After all, It is G-d world. The fact that many other people have committed atrocities and imposed their will, in the name of religion or in the name of G-d, does not take away G-d’s right to impose His will. With regard to Amalek, G-d is not even asking them to change. He is basically telling us that they will try to exterminate us and it is our obligation to launch a preemptive strike in self defense and kill them before they kill us.
          There are times, however, where G-d does impose His will on non-Jews and expect them to change. For example, they are obligated to follow the 7 laws of Noach and are held accountable for them in the afterlife. Yet unlike the Jews, they never had a National revelation to hear G-d impose these 7 laws on them. How is that fair to them?
          There are many answers provided for this question. The one that resonates most with me is that on the subconscious level, G-d created every person with the knowledge of the morality of these universal laws. As such, they do have the capacity and the inherent knowledge that they are supposed to follow them.

        • I’m not answering my question by saying that I believe G-d wrote the Torah, because that’s not my question. Of course G-d can impose His believes on others. The question is how can WE impose OUR beliefs on others. We believe that there is a G-d and that He commanded us to wipe out Amalek. To the Amalekim the hole thing doesn’t start. There is no G-d, and even if there is one He has long given up on the Jews and taken the Christens. To them, there is no such commandment. For us to come say that there is such a commandment and as a result kill them is imposing our believes that there is a G-d on them.

          It’s identical to the guy that’s going around shooting people claiming that this is what his religion tells him to do. He claims to be a prophet and that G-d told him that the future of the people he is killing is to destroy the world and therefore commanded him to kill them. The police would never tolerate this as it’s not freedom of religion. You just can’t have a society where everyone kills each other because they claim that G-d commanded them to do so. So how can we carry out the commandment to wipe out Amalek?

        • Rabbi Tully Bryks

          We agree that human beings do not have the right to impose their subjective beliefs on others. But as you have agreed, G-d certainly does — He created mankind, He created the concept of right and wrong, He created our sense of right and wrong, and He therefore is definitely “entitled” to dictate it. Once you agree that G-d wrote the Torah, and G-d has sometimes commanded us therein to impose HIS beliefs on others, then He is entitled to make that demand and we are entitled (and even obligated) to carry out His demands.
          In my article, I mentioned that everyone agrees that killing is sometimes justified, the question is just where to draw the line. I would add that actually, [almost] everyone agrees that imposing beliefs on others is justified, the question is just where to draw the line. Every legal system, society and religion imposes beliefs on others. Here is just a sampling of some of the laws that impose their views on others:
          • Speed limits impose views on those who feel they can safely navigate the roads at higher speeds
          • Certain hunting laws impose views on those who would like to be able to hunt wildlife, regardless of whether that animal happens to be an “endangered species.”
          • Laws against theft impose views on others, including those who may be stealing in order to survive or feed their families
          • Even laws designed to protect us often use subjective standards such as “malicious intent.”
          • Indiana imposes a monetary fine for playing cards, imposing views on anyone who enjoys a good game of hearts, rummy or bridge.
          • In Tennessee, it is illegal for students to hold hands at school, imposing views on a personal social choice, often associated with close friendships.
          • Laws against murder infringe on the views of the murderer, who often feels justified and that the victim “deserved it.”
          Often, societal laws represent the strong imposing their views on the weak. Is that fair? Who is really right? Other times, the laws represent the views of the majority being imposed upon the minority. Would those laws then be justified? What if you felt some laws were morally wrong? For example, there are several countries today that allow certain types of rape. If you were in such a country, witnessed such a rape and could save the victim with no risk of injury to yourself, what would you do? Would you protect the rape victim or would that be interfering with society? After all, if the police witnessed your actions, you might be arrested? By the same token, righteous gentiles hid and protected Jews and other victims during the Holocaust, even though it went against the laws of the land they lived in? As a resident of Germany at the time, was it acceptable to violate the laws of your society just because you had moral or religious issues with the duly elected government?

          Ultimately, we applaud those who stood up to the barbaric laws of the Nazis and we applaud those today who stand up to the barbaric laws of ISIS. It is commendable for anyone to take a moral stand, even if it goes against the subjective beliefs of their society.

          While you have pointed out historical data about those who have imposed their beliefs on others in negative ways, there are many who imposed their beliefs on others in positive ways. In the past century alone, many countries have changed their standards and instead of having laws that discriminated against blacks, Jews and other minorities, they now have laws that prohibit discrimination against blacks, Jews and other minorities. I am proud to say that these countries now impose their views on racists and anti-Semites.

          I have only provided a small sampling of the universally accepted right of legal systems to impose their views upon others, regardless of whether the others agree with those laws or even accept their jurisdiction. Ignorance of the laws is usually not an excuse either! And this universally accepted right to impose views on others involves subjective laws created by humans, which are often unfair, wrong and sometimes even reversed in the following generation. And yes, many of these societal laws involve severe consequences for certain infractions including the death penalty.

          Most religions (perhaps all) also impose laws on others. Considering that a religion is usually there to portray the word of G-d, it would be more puzzling if they did not have moral lessons to share. The main question is one of strategy. While many religions proselytize and try to spread their moral views to others, sometimes even by force, Judaism is different. We are commanded to be “a light unto the nations.” As such, we generally try to lead moral lives by example, without interfering in the personal lives of others. But as noted in my article, there are a few exceptions. If someone is trying to kill me, I have an obligation stop him, even if it involves killing him. And even if the would-be killer does not believe in G-d and does not accept my right to kill him in self-defense, I would know that I stand on firm moral ground because G-d commanded me to in the Torah. Similarly, if I know that Amalek is going to try to kill me, it makes sense that G-d has commanded me to kill him first, regardless of whether the Amaleki believes in G-d. And truthfully, they may not even be ignorant! We believe that an Angel teaches everyone the entire Torah before they are born, so within their subconscious, everyone knows what is right and what is wrong. Our understanding is that Amalek is quite driven by their mission in this world to wipe out the Jews and to wage war against G-d.
          For example, here are a couple of quotes from Hitler, who articulated the Amalek ideology,

          “The Ten Commandments have lost their validity. Conscience is a Jewish invention; it is a blemish like circumcision.”
          - Herman Rauschning, Hitler Speaks, p. 220

          “The struggle for world domination is between me and the Jews. All else is meaningless. The Jews have inflicted two wounds on the world: Circumcision for the body and conscience for the soul. I come to free mankind from their shackles.”
          - Herman Rauschning, Hitler Speaks, p. 220

          You wrote that you believe that G-d is entitled to impose His will on others. You also wrote that you believe that G-d wrote the Torah, a book which includes His law where he demands that with regard to Amalek (people like Haman and Hitler), that we go against our nature and impose His will. As such, we do not have a choice. If we knew of an Amaleki (which is not possible to know nowadays), we would be obligated to kill him, since G-d has imposed His will on us to do exactly that.

          I realize that I have touched on many complex issues. It appears from some of your follow-up questions that I did not do an adequate job in explaining some of the possible rationales for G-d’s demand that we wipe out Amalek. To properly answer every detail of every follow-up question may require more space than this limited format provides. As such, if you are still struggling with this issue, I would encourage you to share this dialogue with your Rebbeim, who can hopefully fill in the missing details. If you find that is still inadequate, please let me know and I would be happy to email you to set up a time to speak by phone so that we can talk out some of these complex issues in more detail.

          I want to commend you again for asking the questions! As long as it is done with humility, Judaism encourages us to question so that we ultimately obtain even greater understanding of the beauty of the Torah!

Comments and Questions are welcome