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The Conflicts Between Halacha And Ethics

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The conflicts between halacha and ethics have long been debated and many of our Torah leaders have brought explanations for the laws which seem to conflict with contemporary ethical thinking. The most noticeable examples are ritual laws that deserve capital punishment for religious infractions, never freeing one’s gentile slaves, and enslaving those who cannot pay their debts. But the Torah remains the same as Hashem commanded the Jewish people to fulfill His mitzvot. However, what happens if the commandments directly conflict with the morals and ethics of the modern Jewish nation? When we look further into the matter we always find that the mitzvot do not contradict morality on anything other than a surface level.

There is a mitzvah in the Torah to specifically kill anyone from the nation of Amalek. This doesn’t come up in day to day life, but what if it did? If we knew, without a doubt who was part of the Amalek nation, we would have the Torah obligation to wipe them out. The Torah commands us to wipe out the Amalek nation, every man, woman, and child, but who are we to kill a nation for what their ancestors have done? Even if those people have wronged us, one is not allowed to kill someone without due process in this day and age, there is a justice system and one is not allowed to act outside of it. Putting that aside, what did the Amalek nations do that warrants the entire nation to be wiped off the face of the earth? This commandment is one of genocide, which obviously provokes a large amount of discomfort.

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One of the 613 commandments given to us can be found in Devarim 25:19, “obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget!”. Shmuel the prophet specifically commanded Shaul, our first king to fulfill this commandment saying, “you shall smite Amalek, and you shall utterly destroy all that is his, and you shall not have pity on him: and you shall slay both man and woman, infant and suckling” (Shmuel I 15:3). The positive commandment applies to every generation, but it is often understood that the commandment takes a different form today. Presently, we have the obligation to never forget the battle with Amalek, the battle to annihilate evil and heresy, but we cannot ignore the obvious and literal meaning of the commandment, Amalek is a real nation and we are obligated to destroy it. We do not have the ability to pick and choose which commandments we will keep, as it says, “then I shall not be ashamed when I look at all Your commandments” (Tehillim 119:6).

The ethics of killing someone seem to be clear cut: killing another human being is unethical. It’s wrong and a person’s conscious should fight against it. Only in extreme circumstances would one’s moral compass allow one to end someone’s life. In America there is a law, that if one is “facing bodily injury or death, they are then authorized to use whatever force necessary to protect themselves, including deadly force” (“Self Defense Laws in the U.S.”, 2017). Therefore, if one is in a situation where they are in immediate physical danger, the person is allowed to kill the attacker. Of course, when the commandment was given, the Amalek nation committed a terrible sin. On the way out of Egypt B’nai Yisroel were attacked in the rear by Amalek when they were tired and weak (Devarim 25:18). Amalek had no cause for going to war, they were not defending territory and they were not attacking to conquer land, since B’nai Yisroel had no land when they left Egypt. Even more so, Amalek did not fight fairly, attacking Israel without warning, “like thieves in the night” (Abarbanel Commentary on the Torah, Devarim 25:17). So, it is understood that the harsh punishment that the nation of Amalek received was just, in that it matched the severity of the crime committed.

When a nation sins, the responsibility of the transgression is not only borne by the generation that transgressed but also by the generations that follow. The same principle applies to the Jewish nation, as it says, “our fathers have sinned and are no more, and we have borne their iniquities” (Eichah 5:7), as well as other examples (a male Ammonite or Moabite cannot marry into the Jewish people). Amalek committed a heinous crime against the Jewish people, so we are commanded to punish the nation for their sin and to never forget with the passage of time.

Other commentators have different opinions on this commandment. Maimonides wrote that the commandment to destroy Amalek was only applicable when they refused to accept peace with B’nai Yisroel. The Jewish people first have an obligation to offer peace, and if they refuse, we then have an obligation to wipe them out (Melachim UMilchamot 6:4). So, from this we can deduce that the commandment was made on the assumption that Amalek is a violent enemy of B’nai Yisroel, and that the nation will continue to be our enemy from generation to generation, from the time of the exodus from Egypt and onwards, and for this we should eradicate them. But if the Amalek nation decides to accept our offer of peace, and end their violence against the Jewish people then both nations can co-exist peacefully. If the Amalek people decide to abandon the sin of their forefathers then the commandment is cancelled.

Nachmanides suggests that the Amalek attack was meant as an attack against G-d. They came to attack B’nai Yisroel to prove that they could master Him. Therefore, the harsh punishment was justified. If the attack was merely a political effort, then there would be no need to obliterate the entire memory of the nation. Thus, the commandment to destroy Amalek is an opportunity for us to protect G-d’s honor, not to exact revenge (Nachmanides Commentary on the Torah, Devarim 25:17).

The Torah’s opinion seems to be that there are inherent character traits in nations. There are no good or bad character traits, only potential, but some nations abuse their character traits, and must be eliminated. From this we can understand that the war between B’nai Yisroel and Amalek was a struggle in the divine world, between good and bad, and continues on today. While B’nai Yisroel remain constant in the world, the Amalek people come to represent metaphysical evil. All unjustified wars, which are motivated by baseless hatred towards the people of Israel, comes to symbolize this struggle between good and bad. The punishment can now be brought into a new light, it is not immoral, it expresses the hope that good will always prevail. The commandment of destroying Amalek, is really a commandment to destroy evil and baseless hatred. Ramban and Rambam’s opinions differ in their justifications of G-d’s command. The realistic approach of Rambam relies on Amalek’s bad deeds and evil character, while Ramban’s approach rests on symbolic grounds.

Taking all of the opinions in, it seems that the commandment to kill Amalek is not the same thing as killing a person on the street just because they were told to do so, but rather is more analogous to either defending one’s country from an existential threat, or the commandment is not really about killing but about making society a better place for all. In either of these two cases, one can see there is no conflict between the commandment that we were given and modern ethics. Additionally, in both opinions we can see how important it is to be unwavering in our performance of this mitzvah. In the Rambam’s understanding, it is about the defense of the Jewish people, and we see from what happened with Shaul that leaving even one member of the nation alive is enough to cause an existential threat later on (the calamity that almost befell the Jewish people on Purim was caused by the descendants of Amalek).

In the Ramban’s view, leaving even a little room for unscrupulous actors means that they can take over society. An easy example of this is crime statistics in cities. The homicide rate in Baltimore is high, 56 per 100,000 people (CBS News, 2018), but last year, in about 50% of neighborhoods, there was no murder and about 10% of neighborhoods accounted for more than half of murders (Baltimore Sun, 2016). It’s not an accident, it just that once crime gets started, its very hard to stop.

At first glance the commandment to destroy the nation of Amalek seems barbaric, awful, and unethical. How could G-d, the Almighty and powerful want us to destroy an entire nation of His creation. One might think that because there is no nation of Amalek today, then the decree to destroy them does not exist, but we still have to remember and we still have to try to understand. Why do we have to destroy the nation of Amalek, and how can we do this? According to some opinions, what Amalek stood for and did to the Jewish people was so unforgiveable that the entire nation of Amalek had to be punished. We have the obligation to try to make peace with Amalek, but if the later generations continue to follow in their ancestors’ footsteps then we too have to destroy this nation, from generation to generation.

According to other opinions the battle against Amalek is a far more conceptual battle. We abhor behaviors that are unscrupulous, behaviors that Amalek represented. Amalek represented evil and baseless hatred in the world and we, the Jewish people have the obligation to eradicate and destroy it. The battle is one of every generation, we all have the struggles and internal battles with evil and G-d commanded us to fight against it.


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