Friday, May 29, 2009

Amalekite madness

Over some thirty-five years of my college career I reveled in my teaching assignments in the fields of medieval and Renaissance art. These courses encompassed a vast array of beautiful and moving works, reflecting important themes of Western civilization. As with all representational art, the objects present a fusion of form and content. The overwhelming majority were religious; and the greater part of these were based on the Bible. In this classroom endeavor, then, I registered the enriching potential of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Even secular students seemed to appreciate this contribution--a historical reality that brooks no denial.

I was always aware, though, that this seminal contribution constituted only one side of the medal. The other side had to do with the intolerance and violence that suffuse these ostensibly sacred texts. Given that it provides some four-fifths of the whole, the Hebrew Bible is naturally abundant in its embrace of this noxious material.

Of course the interpretation of the New Testament presents many problems, but I decided to set these aside for the most part. One reason is that recent scholarship has registered much significant progress in the study of the Hebrew Bible. By contrast, New Testament studies seem mainly concerned with refining previous findings and positions.

In my essays on the Hebrew Bible I first turned to the school of modern scholars familiarly known as Minimalists. I became convinced that they had conclusively shown that most of the texts amalgamated into the Hebrew scriptures were not historical, but mythical. For this reason we must study them as records of ideology and not history. The legacy of that ideology--with its xenophobia and ethnic cleansing; intolerance; and celebration of violence--has placed a heavy burden on Western civilization.

My second theme was the untenability of most of the characteristic interpretations proffered by the rabbis, as seen in the Mishah and Talmud. Far from being faithful stewards of the biblical texts, as is commonly assumed, the rabbis commandeered them for their own project. This innovative endeavor yielded a vast, fanciful superstructure of collective neurosis that has little to do with the beliefs and observances of the ancient Israelites. It speaks volumes for the resilience of the Jewish people that they persevered, while tolerating this nonsense for so long.

Implicit in my investigations was the connection between the ancient texts and the aggressive policies of the state of Israel today. This connection emerges anew in the obssessive preoccupation with the emblematic figure of Amalek. Here is a portion of a recent report by the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg:

“I recently asked one of his [Netanyahu's] advisers to gauge for me the depth of Mr. Netanyahu’s anxiety about Iran. His answer: “Think Amalek.” “Amalek,” in essence, is Hebrew for “existential threat.” Tradition holds that the Amalekites are the undying enemy of the Jews. They appear in Deuteronomy, attacking the rear columns of the Israelites on their escape from Egypt. The rabbis teach that successive generations of Jews have been forced to confront the Amalekites: Nebuchadnezzar, the Crusaders, Torquemada, Hitler and Stalin are all manifestations of Amalek’s malevolent spirit. If Iran’s nuclear program is, metaphorically, Amalek’s arsenal, then an Israeli prime minister is bound by Jewish history to seek its destruction, regardless of what his allies think.”

Andrew Sullivan, to whom I am indebted for some important insights, comments as follows: “But the story of Amalek is an unfortunate one for Netanyahu. It is unfortunate because the bulk of the literature in the Jewish scriptures points to massive Jewish over-reaction to the Amalekites - to the point of religiously commanded genocide. In fact, the existential threat in legend is from the Israelites against the Amalekites, not the other way round. . . . Legend and scripture have it, so far as I can glean, that the Amalekites - originating near Mecca - harassed and killed Jews cruelly and indiscriminately as they fled Egypt. But the response of the Israelites was "a sacred war of extermination." The Amalekites were deemed so dangerous they had to be annihilated entirely.

Yahweh commanded Saul as follows:

“Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey. (1 Samuel 15:3).

The command to use horrendous, genocidal force against the Amalekites - to kill every single one of them, including children - was categorical. Failing to be ruthless against the enemy, Saul was shamed for it.

Still, according to Goldberg and others, there is no reason to worry. The commandment was never meant to be carried out.

NOT SO, for according to scripture, it was carried out, by David:

" Now David and his men went up and made raids against the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites, for these were the inhabitants of the land from of old, as far as Shur, to the land of Egypt. And David would strike the land and would leave neither man nor woman alive, but would take away the sheep, the oxen, the donkeys, the camels, and the garments, and come back to Achish."

He spared the farm animals because he stole them. Relentlessly,Yahweh deplored any sign of moderation. The historian Josephus writes:

"[David] betook himself to slay the women and the children, and thought he did not act therein either barbarously or inhumanly; first, because they were enemies whom he thus treated, and, in the next place, because it was done by the command of God, whom it was dangerous not to obey." (Jewish Antiquities, VI:7).

At first sight, it might seem, Maimonides took a more nuanced approach, explaining that the commandment of killing the nation of Amalek requires the Jewish people to demand that they adopt the the Noachide laws and pay a tax to the Jewish kingdom. Only if they refuse is the full rigor of the commandment applicable.

Nice, eh? The Amalekites have a simple choice: submission or genocide.

What then does Netanyahu intend? Is it beyond the realm of possibility that he is seeking to follow Maimonides? That is, the Arabs and Iranians--the modern Amalekites--can survive only if they accept a state of vassalage, with the state of Israel as their sovereign.

That of course is not a likely scenario. What I do think is possible is that Israel will massively bomb Iran. In the ensuing confusion, the Palestinians, even those who are Israeli citizens, will be driven into Jordan. This is the classic “exchange of populations” scenario advocated by the Ur-Likudnik Vladimir Jabotinsky in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The horror of Gaza happened only a few months ago. And the ethnic cleanser Lieberman stands at Netanyahu’s side, even as I write. Is all this too apocalyptic? At this point, it is hard to say.

Here is Andrew Sullivan again: “The invocation of scripture to justify war has infected the US military and is obviously the main force behind global Jihad. But it is also a dangerous element in Israeli politics and culture. After all, the West Bank settlements are often a function of religious zeal, and often defended for religious reasons, and Netanyahu is far more indebted to his religious nut-jobs than even Bush was to his. You cannot avoid a religious war by invoking a religious genocide to explain your intentions. Not if you hope to win friends and sustain alliances.”

I wonder though if the current Israeli leadership has any serious desire to win friends. America, they are convinced, is in their pocket.

Invocation of the Bible, both the Jewish and Christian parts, has lain behind many historical catastrophes. Hang on, though, for it may be that the worst Bible-inspired catastrophe is yet to come.

PS. I have been reminded that this territory was presciently visited by Christopher Hitchens in Slate magazine on March 23. Here are some excerpts:

“I remember being in Israel in 1986 when the chief army "chaplain" in the occupied territories, Rabbi Shmuel Derlich, issued his troops a 1,000-word pastoral letter enjoining them to apply the biblical commandment to exterminate the Amalekites as "the enemies of Israel." Nobody has recently encountered any Amalekites, so the chief educational officer of the Israeli Defense Forces asked Rabbi Derlich whether he would care to define his terms and say whom he meant. Rather evasively—if rather alarmingly—the man of God replied, "Germans." [It takes no imaginative effort to see that the rabbi was referring to another people closer at hand.]

“ . . . [T]he rabbi was not making a "political" statement. Rather, he was doing his religious duty in reminding his readers what the Torah actually says. It's not at all uncommon in Israel to read discussions, featuring military rabbis, of quite how to interpret the following holy order from Moses, in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 31, Verses 13-18 . . . The Israelites have just done a fairly pitiless job on the Midianites, slaughtering all of the adult males. But, says their stern commander-in-chief, they have still failed him:

“Moses, Eleazer the priest, and all the chieftains of the community came out to meet them outside the camp. Moses became angry with the commanders of the army, the officers of thousands and the officers of hundreds, who had come back from the military campaign. Moses said to them, "You have spared every female! Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so that the Lord's community was struck by the plague. Now, therefore, slay every male among the children, and slay also every young woman who has known a man carnally; but spare every young woman who has not had carnal relations with a man."

“Moses and Eleazar the priest [Hitchens continues] go on to issue some complex instructions about the ritual cleansings that must be practiced after this exhausting massacre has been completed.

Now, it's common to hear people say, when this infamous passage and others like it come up, that it's not intended to be "taken literally." One also often hears the excuse that some wicked things are done "in the name of" religion, as if the wicked things were somehow the result of a misinterpretation. But the nationalist rabbis who prepare Israeli soldiers for their mission seem to think that this book might be the word of God, in which case the only misinterpretation would be the failure to take it literally.”



Post a Comment

<< Home