By the Grace of G-d
Prof. [name redacted],
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 a genuine desire to ascertain the truth or, as it unfortunately happens all too often, it might be a case where the inquirer hopes that his query will remain unanswered and thus lend support to his preconceptions.
As you see, I decided to place you Bechezkas 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 , z’l.
I was 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 humane, 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 a 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 ha’Shomayim. 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, the 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 initio.
A second point which is also 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 should 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 baby 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 a 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 unto 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, 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 precisely the kind of eventuality we have in mind. In the Torah she’be’al’Peh (which I also include in our “common ground,” since you quote from theTalmud), we are told in commentary on the Torah she’biktav 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 and 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 the 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.
Much more could be said on the subject, but I trust the above will suffice.
One additional observation on the subject, 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 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 capacities, 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 in it. Jews have always taken the Divine Torah in this spirit and recognized it for what it is – a Toras Chessed and Torahs Emes, 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, being victims of just such a policy of “killing every single member, even women and sucklings,” to repeat your quotation.
I trust that the above has shed some light on the “problem” and by extension, on similar problems.
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 Toras Chessed, given by a compassionate and merciful G-d? All the more so, when compassion is demanded even toward the lower species, as underscored 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 cause was inconsequential.