Weekly Letter: “How Can a Civilized Person Today Accept Such a Command to Wipe Out an Entire Nation?

This Shabbos it is a mitzvah to read the additional portion Parshas Zachor – to remember what Amalek did to us, after we left Mitzrayim, and the command to annihilate the nation of Amalek. Haman was a descendant of Amalek and we therefore read this portion before Purim. The Rebbe’s letter is in answer to one who is questioning this seemingly cruel command “How can a civilized person today accept such a command to wipe out an entire nation?” The letter, written originally in English, is from the archives of the Rebbe’s trusted secretary Rabbi Nissan Mindel.

By the Grace of G-d
25th of Iyar, 5735
Brooklyn, N.Y.
Professor
Philadelphia, Pa. 19122
Greeting and Blessing:
I am in receipt of your letter. I must confess that I hesitated whether or not to reply to the letter, not being certain whether the question was prompted by genuine desire to ascertain the truth, or, as it unfortunately happens too often, it might be a case where the inquirer hopes that his query will remain unanswered and thus lend support to his preconception.
As you see, I decided to place you b’chezkas kashrus, especially in view of your references to primary sources, which attest to a positive link with our Torah. Furthermore, the name…… is in most cases identified with the Chasam Sofer.
I was also influenced by the fact that you are, as you write, a Professor of Law, which is a further indication of being a person who upholds the truth in accordance with the tenets of the Law.
Now for the question itself, quoting your letter, “How can a human civilized person today accept the Biblical commandment to wipe out the entire nation of Amalek,” etc., including infants, etc.?
It is surely unnecessary to point out to you that in any kind of dialogue there must be some common ground, i.e. some mutually accepted premises, upon which the discussion can be based. In the present instance I assume that we both accept the said commandment as being part of Torah min haShomayim. In other words, the Commander of this commandment is not a human being like you and me, but a Divine Being with all that it implies in terms of omniscience, etc. Actually, this precaution is superfluous, for the question itself rests on its Divine origin and validity for all posterity; if it were limited in time and circumstances the question would have no place ex nihilo.
A second point, which is implicit in your question, is that the original war with Amalek which gave rise to the said commandment, in itself presents no problem. It was clearly a defensive war in response to an unprovoked attack, as the Torah states: “And Amalek came and made war on Israel in Refidim,” etc. (Exod. 17:8) and, again, “…who surprised you on the way,” etc.(Deut. 25:18). Here was an obvious case of self-defense, or, to quote the Talmudic rule, “Whoever comes to kill you, kill him first.”
Assuming, as we did, that we are speaking of a Divine commandment, we must also assume that G-d is no less clairvoyant than any human being – if there is such a human being. To put it more boldly: if we should accept, as some scientists have asserted, that were it possible to feed into a computer all the data of the universe, it could accurately predict the state of the world at any given moment in the future – we would surely have to credit the Creator with no less competence.
Now, if such a legendary computer were possible, it could correctly foresee how a newborn child would behave in adulthood, and whether that child would grow up to be harmless, useful or destructive to the society.
In light of the above, the reason behind the said commandment becomes apparent. G-d, Who is all knowing (more than any computer could be), foresaw what the seed of Amalek would develop into. Hence He commanded that on seeing an Amalekite, even an Amalekite infant, we must “remember what Amalek did onto you,” remembering also, as it is immediately emphasized in the Biblical text, why: Amalek had not been threatened in any way, had not been provoked, stood to gain little from a nomad people in the desert in the way of booty. Yet he viciously attacked this peaceful people, pouncing on them suddenly, without warning, giving them no chance to defend themselves, taking advantage of their being “tired and weary.” Such a barbaric people, and this kind of inhuman behavior, has no place in human society, the Torah tells us, and must therefore be exterminated without a trace. Let me emphasize again: We are not dealing here with a suspicion or apprehension, however well founded, but with an absolute certainty, for we have established that G-d’s prescience infinitely surpasses the most perfect computer imaginable.
As a matter of fact, we have in this particular subject under discussion an historic confirmation of precisely the kind of eventuality we have in mind. In the Torah she-be’l-Peh (which I also include in our “common ground”, since you quote from the Talmud), we are told in commentary on the Torah shebiksav, what were the consequences of disregarding the said commandment. King Saul, after defeating Amalek and capturing the Amalekite king Agag alive, had compassion on him and did not execute him at once, in contravention of the Prophet Samuel’s instructions based on the commandment which we are discussing. The result of this misplaced clemency, which extended Agag’s life for one day, was that during the night he was able to impregnate a woman, and of this seed, many generations later, came forth Haman his ten sons, who plotted the complete annihilation of the Jewish people in one day. Fortunately, the situation was miraculously reversed, and Haman and his sons were hanged. Unfortunately, in self defense, the Jews were compelled to take up arms and kill 75,000 enemies, as related in the Book of Esther. Obviously, had Saul carried out the command fully and promptly, the Jewish people would have been spared the terrorism and agony caused by Haman the Agagite, and there would have been no need for all that bloodshed which was forced upon the Jews in self-defense. And all these tragic consequences came to pass because Saul had attempted to inject his personal feelings and reasons into what was a clear, Divine commandment.
One more observation is called for, however. It so happens that the commandment under discussion has a logical explanation, which, moreover, is borne out by historical experience in a most striking manner. But this does not mean that when G-d gave us the Torah He necessarily had to provide a humanly acceptable explanation, within grasp of each and every individual, for each and every commandment which He ordained in His Torah. Obviously, the human intellect is limited, like all human capabilities, and a human being is further limited in time and place, whereas the Divine commandments are, by definition, infinite and timeless. Surely, no individual, however wise, can logically challenge the wisdom of the Torah or any particular of it. Jews have always taken the Divine Torah in this spirit and recognized it for what it is – a Torat Chessed and Torat Emet, in addition to the other epithets by which the Torah is characterized – and time and again, throughout our long history, chose martyrdom rather than betray it.
I trust the above has shed some light on the “problem” and, by extension, on similar problems.
With blessing,
P.S. It surprises me, in view of your background as a Professor of Law that you formulated the problem on moral grounds (the horror of genocide), whereas it would seemingly be more forceful to challenge it on legal grounds, namely, the apparent contradiction in the same codex. From the viewpoint of Law, it would surely be a more effective argument to say: how can you reconcile such an apparently “cruel” decree with the very nature of Torah, as a Torat Chassed, given by a compassionate and merciful G-d? All the more so, when compassion is demanded even toward the lower species, as understood in the episode about Rabbi Judah the Prince who, for not showing adequate compassion for a calf led to the slaughter, suffered years of painful ill health. (B.M. 85a), although from the practical point of view, the case was inconsequential.

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