A Call To Arms

The thesis that is the Jewish Nation has an antithesis: Amalek. And just as the Jewish People is defined by its Torah, so is its polar opposite associated with a particular system of thought and attitude.

Amalek the nation is unknown to us today; the Biblical command to destroy it to avert the mortal threat it poses to all that is good and holy is thus moot.

Amalek the notion, though, is very much present – in the broader world, the Jewish one and perhaps, to a degree, within each of us as well. And its undermining remains an obligation both urgent and clear.

A hint to the attitude defining Amalek lies in the Torah’s words immediately preceding that nation’s first appearance. In Exodus (17:7), just before the words “And Amalek came,” the Jews wonder “Is G-d in our midst or not?” The Hebrew word for “not” – “ayin” – literally means “nothing.” That Amalek’s attack comes on the heels of that word is fitting, because Amalekism stands for precisely that: nothing. Or, better: Nothing – the conviction that all, in the end, is without meaning or consequence.

In Hebrew, letters have numerical values. The number-value of the word “Amalek,” Jewish sources note, equals that of “safek,” or “doubt.” Not “doubt” in the word’s simplest sense, implying some lack of evidence, but rather doubt as a belief: the philosophical shunning of the very idea of surety – the embrace of cynicism, the championing of meaninglessness.

For there are two diametric ways to approach life, history and the universe. One approach perceives direction and purpose; the other regards all as the products of randomness – cold, indifferent chaos.

The latter approach is the essence of Amalekism. It is a worship of chance, reflected in things like the Purim story’s Amalekite villain Haman’s choice to cast lots – putting his trust in chance – in choosing a date to annihilate the Persian Kingdom’s Jews.

The religion that is Amalekism is often regarded as a harmless agnosticism. But it is hardly benign. Because if nature is but a series of dice-rollings, its pinnacle, the human being, is just another pointless payoff. Man’s actions do not make – indeed, cannot make – any difference at all. Yes, he may benefit or harm his fellows or his world, but so what? There is no ultimate import to either accomplishment.

In fact, asserts the chance-worshipper, he is no different from the animals whom he considers, through the lottery of natural selection, his ancestors. He may be more evolved, but in the end is no less an expression than they of purely random events.

Amalek’s credo is proudly and publicly proclaimed today. From “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals” (PETA), which contends that “meat is murder”; to Princeton University’s Professor Peter Singer, who asserts that “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee”; to books like “Eternal Treblinka,” which makes the loathsome comparison of animals slaughtered for food with (one winces to even repeat it) the victims of the Nazis.

And it lurks, more subtly but no less surely, in the contemporary insistence that chance-based evolutionary theory is the only explanation for the diversity of species.

One who sees only random forces as the engine of that diversity may be able to offer an explanation of the human belief in right and wrong – claiming, for instance, that such belief evolved through “natural selection” to confer some biological advantage to humans. But he cannot justify the belief itself as having any more import than any other utilitarian evolutionary adaptation.

And so, faced with the Jewish conviction that ultimate meaning exists, and that the human being is the pinnacle not of blind evolution but of purposeful Creation, Amalek mocks. Men, he sneers, are no different than the monkeys they so closely resemble, and the actions of both of no ultimate import.

Interestingly, our resemblance to apes may figure in the pivotal account of Amalek’s attack on the Jews after the exodus from Egypt. When Moses lifted his hands, the Torah recounts, the tide of the fight turned in favor of the Jewish People; when he lowered them, the opposite occurred.

“And do the [lifted] arms of Moses wage war?” asks the Talmud. “Rather,” it explains, “when the Jews lifted their eyes heavenward, they were victorious…” And so the lifting of Moses’ hands signifies the Jews’ beseeching G-d.

The etymology of the word Amalek is unclear. But one might consider it a contraction of the Hebrew word “amal” – “labor” – and the letter with a “k” sound: “kuf,” whose letters spell the Hebrew word that means, of all things, “monkey.”

It is intriguing and perhaps significant that among all the earth’s creatures, only humans and primates can lift their arms above their heads. And little short of astounding that precisely that movement figures so pivotally in the context of a battle between the nation proclaiming that human life has no special meaning – that men are but smooth-skinned apes – and the nation that proclaims human life has unique meaning.

Because, while primates can also lift their arms, the gesture is an empty one; when humans do the same thing, it can be the most potent expression of relating to the Divine.

When Moses lifts his arms, indicating the Jews’ turning to G-d, it can be seen as a declaration that our “amal,” our labor, is not the action of a monkey but the meaningful expression of human beings.

“And his hands were belief” – says the verse there, strangely. Or not so strangely. Moses’ hands declared belief in humanity’s unique relationship to G-d.

The Jews thus prevailed in the battle by negating Amalekism – by demonstrating their conviction that G-d exists and that we are beholden to Him.

On Purim, Jews the world over commemorate the crucial, if not final, victory over Amalek that took place in Persia in the time of Mordechai and Esther, by publicly reading the Book of Esther. As has often been remarked, it is a unique scroll in the Jewish canon, the only one that makes no overt reference to G-d. Instead, it forces us to seek Him in the account’s “chance” happenings, to perceive Him in seemingly “random” events.

By doing precisely that, our ancestors merited G-d’s protection and emerged victorious. May our own rejection of the Amalek-idea in our time merit us the same.

The above essay appears in a longer form in the current edition of The Jewish Observer and is offered with its permission.

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16 Responses

  1. Gary Shulman says:

    With all respect to Rabbi Shafran I believe his comparison of PETA to amalek is overdone.I value a good chulent with meat. I do not believe shechitta is murder. However my eatting chulent is due to the license that G-d gave Noach and mankind to eat meat after the Mabol, flood. As a Jew I need a further license, which Halacha Moshe Misinai that permits me throgh shechita the oppurtunity to eat meat. There must be something inherently wrong with eating meat without such licenses. Spiritual people, who may be Jews or Non-Jews feel the pain of death to an animal and with rachmunos refrain from eating meat. Amalek were a people of no rachmus. Asher korcham bderech. They ambushed Jews on the way. One can be upset with PETAs attack on shechitta that must be answered by all Jews without calling them amalek, the devil incarnate.

  2. Baruch says:

    Dear Rav Shafran,
    There is an interesting Netziv on Parshas Bshelach. He asks the question that since now we no longer no which nation is amelak because Sanchrev mixed up all the nations so how can we fullfill this mitzvah of Michayis Amalek which is a mitzvah even now? I do not have it in front of me now but he says that is the idealogy of amalek that we must wipe out.



  3. Moshe P. Mann says:

    As an avowed agnostic and former yeshiva bochur, I could not help but comment on this post.

    To begin with, equating agnosticism with Amalekism is at best demagoguery. There are many logical reasons for becoming an agnostic, not to mention Orthodox rabbis themselves turning off young men from Torah Judaism by their frequent extremist behaviour (The latter is what turned me into an agnostic). If you would get to know some more agnostics (as opposed to outright atheists), he would be surprised at how intellectually honest and open-minded they are. Amalek is just about the last thing they would remind you of.

    With regard to your understanding of evolution occuring “by chance”, its been stated countless times that evolution is not at all accidental; there are many natural factors which severely constrained the outcome of evolutionary processes. All that “random” means in this context is that nature would work out OK even if evolution took a different path. Stephen J. Gould states, for example: “If a comet hadn’t wiped out the dinosaurs millions of years ago, we would today be intelligent reptiloids.”

    Finally, your claim that evolution renders absolute right and wrong to be meaningless (already hashed out in your previous article “The Indignity of Atheism”) is technically correct, but is a truism. You are basically saying “Someone who doesn’t believe in absolute values cannot form any beliefs based on absolute values.” – duh! Evolutionary explanations for morality are simply there to give a plausible, naturalistic explanation for moral behaviour, nothing more. Any conclusions drawn from that are irrelevant to the theory of evolution.

    I highly recommend you take a look at the TalkOrigins website for a professional view of evolution, rather than the straw men of its opponents. I assure you, you will rethink your comparison with Nazism.

    “Who is wise? – He who is not afraid to say ‘I don’t know'”

    Thank you in advance for your response.

  4. Ori Pomerantz says:

    I can see three distinct types of agnostics:

    1. Somebody who believes an answer exists and is understandable, but does not have it (yet). The Midrash say that Yitro (= Jethro) tried each and every type of idolatry before the giving of the Torah, and Yithro is a very positive character. A person who admits real ignorance and then honestly searches for the answer is to be commended.

    2. Somebody who believes an answer exists, but it is beyond the realm of human understanding and therefore there is no point searching for it.

    3. Somebody who believes there are no answers, philosophically there cannot be answers, and therefore if you see an answer rubbed in your face you should ignore it. I think that this willful blindness is the essence of Amalekism. It comes together with a true rejection of morality towards what is convenient at the moment, because there cannot be any moral imperative.

    Most Atheists and Agnostics you actually meet are not like that. Usually they belong to group #1 (I spent years there) or group #2. Most of them strive to lead moral lives, even if their reasons have nothing to do with any divine revelation or afterlife.

  5. Rabbi Avi Shafran says:

    Thanks to all for the comments on my recent essay, especially to Baruch for his valuable citation. “Baruch” shekivanti!

    Gary Shulman’s contention that I compared “PETA to Amalek,” however, is a misreading of what I wrote. What I compared was the attitude that some of the group’s leaders have proclaimed to an attitude I sought to demonstrate is essential to Amalek’s philosophy. Anyone can fall into an Amalek mindset, chalila. While we must seek to rid ourselves of such attitudes, holding them does not make one Amalek. And, needless to say, I did not write at all here to the issue of meat-eating, only to the one of equating killing animals to killing people.

    I think that Moshe P. Mann also misread my words, and ask him to please read them again, this time without the lens of anger at “Orthodox rabbis” that may have distorted them earlier. I did not equate agnosticism, either, with Amalek. Amalek, as I theorized it, is not agnostic but militantly atheistic. An Amalek-affected person does not say “I don’t know if there’s meaning to my life” but rather “I know there is no meaning.” I do not consider religious agnostics to be bad people; all of us begin precisely there, hopefully to grow into a realization that there is Something larger than us.

    As to randomness, whatever may or may not have been “stated countless times,” if the “natural factors” that govern evolution (assuming that evolution is even a truth, something about which I am, well, an agnostic) are not set in place by God, then they, too, are random, and we are back to a meaningless universe.

    And, finally, to Mr. Mann’s “duh” complaint I can only say that a number of atheists reacted to my earlier essays on the topic in a diametric way, claiming that, quite the contrary, there is indeed inherent meaning to human life despite what they believe (with surety) to be its chance-origins. They could never really explain how (at least to my comprehension), but that was what they contended.

    Be that as it may, though, Mr. Mann is certainly correct that evolutionary explanations for morality are just that and nothing more. No argument there. But that still leaves each of us with a choice: to consider the ideas of “good” and “bad” behavior meaningless or meaningful. I can only hope that more conscious human beings will find themselves incapable of choosing the former – and follow the latter conviction to its logical outcome.

    A freilechen and meaningful Purim to all!


  6. Gary Shulman says:

    In response to Moshe “As an avowed agnostic and former yeshiva bochur, ”
    I’m so sorry. For one to publicly proclaim the aforementioned description and sign one’s name to it must be a sign of great pain from the chillul Hashem dished out to you by representatives of the faith. However I don’t understand your conclusion, you may not believe in G-d because those who speak in his name in our generation bereft of Nviam, prophets turn you off by their extremism.What’s the svara? You have a relationship with the Ribono Shel Olam like every yitzira, creation on the planet. You speak of no tayna complaint against the Holy One Blessed Be He, but only about complaints from some of his servants. The logical conclusion is to be upset with his servants and not with the Master of the Universe. Moshe, dear fellow Jew in pain, please respond with your Mom’s Hebrew name. We at Cross-Currents should daven for you and all those turned off by kanaim, extremists. At the end of our days every human being, not just Yidden, come to realize that the primary relationship in life is with the Almighty. He is Aveinu Malkainu, our Father our King. Everyone else and everything else is secondary. We need every Jew especially Moshe.

  7. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Gary, Moshe can’t have a complaint against G-d. To have a complaint he would have to believe in G-d’s existence first. Since he learned about G-d from people who shown themselves to be immoral, he doesn’t trust what they taught him.

    I suspect that G-d will show him better evidence at the right time. I was an Atheist until G-d rubbed my face in the philosophical problem of car seats. My son hated his car seat. He couldn’t understand why, if his world had parents who were powerful and wanted what’s good for him, he had to sit in a car sit instead of having me hold him while my wife drove. That’s analogous to the problem of evil.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    I think it’s well understood that “Amalekism” is based on mockery and cruelty for their own sake. Stupid, violent or non-violent, ideologies based on other principles are also bad, but different.

  9. Gary Shulman says:

    Dear Ori Pomerantz, One does not have to acquire a belief in G-d, it is innate. When we say chadaysh yamaynu kkdedem. It means renew our days as of old. Old being in Kedem, Gan Eden me Kedem. One acquires mitzvoth, a ritualistic response to answering G-d’s call to behave in a certain way. In fear of an imminent accident like an airplane crash lo alaynu there are no atheists or agnostics only Yoray Shamayim those who fear Heaven.

  10. Gershon Josephs says:

    Rabbi Shafran’s article touches on some essential points, though I fear he may have lost a good portion of his readers due to some unneccessary baiting of evolution. There is no need to attack the mechanics of evolution, these could certainly have occurred in exactly the way the evolutionary biologists claim that they occurred, all the while being ‘directed’ by God in some hidden fashionb. After all, we believe God ‘directs’ history, yet in a way which is completely undetectable. As for the accusation of ‘meaninglessness’, it is true that a purely secular viewpoint could lead to despair and nihilism (though in practice this is rare). The more important point is that the theist views every one of our actions as profoundly important in some ultimate way, whereas the secularist doesn’t. Both may be moral (or not, as the case may be), both may expend great effort to better themselves and the world around them (or not, as the case may be). There are some recent examples of avowed atheists giving huge sums of money to charity, for example Warren Buffett. So does the Theist’s attitide lead to a better society or not? Well, I guess that depends on your point of view. Surely Rabbi Shafran would agree that Islamic Fundamentalist Theists are not so good for society? So what is Rabbi Shafran ultimately arguing for? That the Torah is True? Perhaps he can share with us his ‘overwhelmingly convincing evidence’ that this is the case, as he has previously written. Once he does that, there will be no need at all for him to try and convince us with dubious arguments that Atheists are Amalek.

  11. zach says:

    It is a worship of chance, reflected in things like the Purim story’s Amalekite villain Haman’s choice to cast lots – putting his trust in chance – in choosing a date to annihilate the Persian Kingdom’s Jews.

    Nonsense. Haman didn’t throw lots because he put his “trust in chance”. The “ancients” practiced divination, astrology, etc because they believed in the auspicious or unfavorable nature of time and place (the Balaam story deals with both.)

    More to the point: do we worship chance when we casted lots of Yom Kippur to determine which seir la’azazel and which seir la’Hashem, the goats that were to determine out very existence for the coming year? Of course not. The lesson of lots of both Purim and Yom HaKiPURIM is to show us the fragile nature of our existence as Jews. That what appears to be random chance is actually the continuing hashgachah of Hashem that allows our survival over the millenia.

  12. Rabbi Avi Shafran says:

    Dear Zach,

    Thanks for your comment. With all due respect, I beg to differ. The ancients’ aiming at auspicious times consisted of identifying particular times when the luminaries were in certain positions or when certain omens appeared or didn’t. The worship of chance is in a category unto itself. We see remnants of it in the I Ching, tarot cards and other chance-based divination methods.

    As I understand it (and you are certainly entitled to disagree – and I won’t call your approach nonsense) Haman clearly wished to access the “god” of chance, the worship of randomness as the ultimate essence of the universe (and hence his “best bet” for accomplishing his goals, chas vishalom).

    As to our own use of lots on Yom Kippur, that’s precisely the point. By using chance in the service of Hashem (and by His command), we are demonstrating that while chance seems to exist, it is not the ultimate essence of the universe, and indeed can be meaningful – as a means of accessing What lies behind it (as you write in your final paragraph: the continuing hashgacha of Hashem).

    Chance, in other words, is a “mask” of the Creator. Perhaps a reason masks are so prominent in Purim celebrations.

    A freilechen and meaningful Purim,


  13. Phil Goode says:

    There are many things about this article that disturb me. Let me comment about one. I think it is very demeaning to the Torah to force on it an interpretation that is very unlikely. Based on your article and your elucidation in the notes it seems that you come to the conclusion the the biblical Amalekites were “militant atheists”. And I guess what you mean by “militant” is their desire to force their convictions on others; or to eliminate others who do not share their convictions.

    You overtly assemble the following two pieces of evidence:
    a) a hint from the word “ayin” which immediately precedes the story in Bshalach
    b) a gematria equating Amalek to safek
    I’m not sure if the following are also being used as evidence or to make other points:
    a) Haman cast lots to determine an auspicious date
    b) a folk etymology of the name Amalek

    And there is an overall implication that your thesis is true – because, otherwise, how could a moral God command their utter destruction.

    It seems to me that a respectful attempt to interpret the Torah would at its outset acknowledge that is an attempt – not an indisputable explanation. Your article makes no such declaration.

    Secondly, you need to bring evidence. How is the word “ayin” used in Tanach? How do we interpret adjacent parshios? By what rule of interpretation do you apply the word “ayin” to the Amalekites and not the Israelites or any other subject in the story?

    Gematria? Really? That is a tremendous stretch. And even so, you re-interpret the word safek to fit your conclusion; rather than the more natural interpretation of doubt – which would seem to fit as a reference to agnosticism much more than to atheism.

    Casting lots is an indication of atheism? Actually, I would argue from the several incidents in Tanach that just the opposite is true – that the caster of lots believes that some higher power controls the outcome. I bring as evidence the lots chosen by the High Priest to determine the sacrificial and azazel goats; the lots chosen to determine how the land of Canaan was to be apportioned (though I’m not sure if tradition holds that this was thru the urim v’tumim) ; and one more incident comes to mind – the lots cast by the sailors on Jonah’s ship – who from the context can be determined to be deists.

    I don’t know what to say about your folk etymology – except that there are several extant interpretations available that that should at least be considered.

    There are many other questions that come to mind – e.g., were there really Canaanites that were atheists and not idol worshippers? Did Amalek feel the same way toward the other deists in their neighborhood? Were they constantly at war?

    Yes, the command to destroy Amalek is a troubling mystery; and begs for interpretation.
    But that means an intellectually honest attempt that explores possibilities. Otherwise I think that one is using the Torah to further other agendas and thereby demeans the Torah.


  14. Phil Goode says:

    As I said before, there are a lot of things that I don’t like about your essay. And I don’t know why you take such a derisive attitude towards atheists in this essay as opposed to previous essays. Maybe it relates to a distinction you’re trying to make between plain old atheists and militant atheists. But let me cut to the chase.

    I don’t have any qualms with your deduction that accepting an atheistic point of view implies that there are no objective categories of good and evil. But I don’t know why you need to belabor the point. What I am looking for from you is a Torah Judaism explanation of morality. Why not emphasize the positive instead of the negative. I searched and I did find this in one of your comments–

    “As to how we know that G-d is good, well, yes, believers define good as what the One Who created us wants. Call it good, bad, or guacamole, it is what I want to try to do, in recognition of the wonderful gift of existence He has granted me.”

    Now, I’m trying to make sense of this explanation. You’ve given an explicit definition of good and by implication, evil. Good=what God wants. Great. But what do I care? So you address that in the second sentence. Let me paraphrase. It’s something I want to do. I do it because I owe Him one and I like to pay my debts. So where is the meaningfulness? The atheist does what he feels is right or good, you do what you feel you need to do to fulfill an obligation, i.e., what feels right to you, so what’s the difference?

    And how do you deal with the following examples –
    Joe is just as much a believer as you are – but he doesn’t have the sense of obligation you have. He doesn’t think that a Being that has no needs must be repaid. So he does his own thing. Is that ok in your book?
    Jane is a believer also. But, for as long as she can remember her life has been filled with physical and emotional pain. She wants to opt out. She does not recognize a “wonderful gift of existence”. What about her?
    Also, how does reward and punishment fit in to your worldview? And perhaps you can be more precise than to say “God wants” – after all you don’t mean that in the same sense you do for a human. Surely, God doesn’t have desires, needs, pain or pleasure. So what do you mean? How does it all fit together?

    In one essay you’ve written “Part of my job as Agudath Israel of America’s media liaison is to help ensure that traditional Orthodox Jewish beliefs and life are accurately represented in the press”. Then al achas kamah v’kamah you should be well qualified to explain those same traditional Jewish beliefs to your Jewish brethren. In the spirit of v’nahapoch hu, maybe you can take some time and respond.



  15. Rabbi Avi Shafran says:

    Dear Phil Goode,

    Thanks for sharing your impressions of the article. I’m sorry you felt I was trying to force an unlikely interpretation on the Torah. But I only meant to suggest a pshat in Amalek (and, tentatively, complete with qualifiers like “perhaps” and “one might consider” a speculation on an account in the torah). Perhaps I was remiss in not stating at the outset that it was an “opinion” piece, not some sort of declaration of absolute fact, but I assumed that readers would understand any such presentation as the former.

    That said, though, I don’t think that understanding the antithesis of Klal Yisrael as embracing the opposite of what K”Y stands for is very stretchy, but if you do, I respect your right (and indeed obligation!) to disagree. But I was not, I assure you, trying to “further” any “agenda,” only trying to share I think is a plausible theory, an approach (I think!) worth pondering.

    As to the word “ayin,” that theme was indeed not properly explored in the shortened form of the article you read here on Cross-Currents. It is better explicated (I think) in the original, much longer, article that appears in the current issue of The Jewish Observer. If you would like to read it and aren’t a subscriber, please feel free (as any reader can) to e-mail me at [email protected] and I’ll happily send you the JO version.

    Casting of lots – no less than any action, from eating food to drawing blood – can be an expression of good or of bad. My theory (and, yes, that it all it is) is that Haman in effect was worshipping the ‘god of chance’, embracing the concept of mikreh as what ultimately underlies the universe. When the Kohen Gadol throws lots (on the Yom KiPurim, yet!), he may be declaring precisely the opposite – i.e. that even chance (what we call the laws of probability) is part of a truly directed Force, that of the Creator. Chance, in the sense of probability, clearly is real, and might even be employable to perceive things, as Jonah’s boat-comrades used it. But it is not, as Haman saw it (in my theory) the endgame. Hashem is. And demonstrating that conviction might lie behind the use of goralos on Yom Kippur and at the chalukas ha’aretz.

    Your question about the philosophy of the Canaanites, and specifically Amalek, is a good one. Unfortunately, I don’t think we have any evidence to weigh there.

    Again, thanks for writing, and a happy and meaningful Purim to you and yours.


  16. Ariel Krakowski says:

    Amalek also heard about the miracle of the sea splitting, but it didn’t react like other nations – it explained the miracle “The wind was blowing, it was pure chance”. Amalek so hated the Jews implication of purpose that it attempted to destroy them, but not by abiding to any norms of war, instead attacking the weak and unprotected Jews at the rear.

    Although the idea of Evolution has existed for thousands of years, and Jewish sources also say only the beginning was creation ex nihilo, until recent times most people still saw the need for a Designer. Only in the mid 1800’s was it proposed that all of the amazing miraculous creation could be explained by pure chance and a purposeless struggle between creatures.

    Herbert Spencer, a Social Darwinist, invented the term “survival of the fittest”, the fundamental belief of Darwinism. Eugenics, the application of Social Darwinism, was popular in America and Europe until the rise of Nazi Germany. The Nazis hated the idea of a G-d, but still believed in purpose to existence – the strong should dominate or annihilate the weak and rule on their own. They were big believers in Darwinism. Their antithesis was the Jews, who, as Hitler said, “The Jews have inflicted two wounds on humanity: Circumcision on the body and conscience on the soul.” The Nazis therefore tried annihilating the Jews.

    Although Eugenics has lost popularity, and most atheists aren’t killing Jews, the idea of Darwinism that everything is just the result of randomness, without a higher purpose, is still quite common. This is similar to the philosophy of Amalek.

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