The Biblical commandment (Deut. 25:19) to “wipe out the descendants of Amalek” is one akin to genocide, making it extremely difficult reading for today’s Progressive Jew.
Rashi, the French medieval commentator, emphasises this harsh measure concerns “both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, so that the name of Amalek shall never again be mentioned.”
The commandment was carried out in 1 Samuel 15. King Esau struck down Amalek, and was chastised by Samuel for showing mercy to King Agag.
In the Guide of the Perplexed (3:41), Maimonides explained the commandment is not to be taken literally, but figuratively: to wipe out Amalek-like behaviour in the world through moral influence and education.
However, this verse is written loud and clear in the written Torah, the basis for Jewish Law. The rabbis in the Talmud (Berakhot 28a) explained the nations of the world were so intermingled that it is now impossible to tell who is from Amalek and who is not.
Hence the question – should this mitzvah still be counted among the commandments?
In 1999, Rabbi Dr Moshe Zemer published a book called Evolving Halacha. He said if a ruling is halachic, it must be ethical; if it is unethical, it cannot be halachic (p49).
In other words, as this commandment is akin to genocide, which is in absolute contradiction with Jewish ethics, it should be abolished or revised.
One can use exegesis to soften a passage or to find the meaning behind it, or exercise the freedom given by our ethical tradition.
Progressive Jews make informed choices and ethical decisions based on the teachings of the moral tradition of Israel. Amalek provides us with a perfect example of this.
Dr Rene Pfertzel is rabbi at Kingston Liberal Synagogue