Religion, Uncategorized

Pshat, Drash, and Genocide

guest post by Emily Filler

Before Shabbat came in last week, I saw the tweet above, re-posted by several horrified friends on social media. The photograph captures the current atrocities in the West Bank Palestinian town of Huwara, where Jewish settlers commenced destruction of the town in retaliation for two Israeli brothers murdered there some hours before. The text above the picture says: “Breaking news: on Shabbat we are going to blot out the memory of Amalek. Don’t tell B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence….” On the photograph itself: “Haman they hanged on a tree. Huwara we will blow up. Happy Purim.”

Expressions like this are not uncommon among some settlers and other Jews, and the context is easy to discern. The writer refers to the approaching Shabbat Zachor, the “Shabbat of Remembrance” – one of the four “special” Shabbats named not for its parsha but for the additional Torah reading that accompanies it.  On Shabbat Zachor, which falls just before Purim, this special maftir has Moses instruct the Israelites thus: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deut. 25:17-19; the reference is to Exodus 17:8-16; trans JPS). In the Talmud, of course, Haman is identified as a descendent of Amalek (B. Megillah 13a) – and thus the commandment to “blot out the memory of Amalek” becomes allied with the book of Esther, which after chapters of wacky mix-ups ends with the Jews rising up against the cities around them and slaughtering thousands. Famously, it was the text ringing in Baruch Goldstein’s ears 29 years ago tonight (on the Jewish calendar) as he went to the Cave of the Patriarchs on Purim and massacred a room of Muslims at prayer.

The tweet’s promise to destroy the Palestinian Huwara is of course abominable, a gross violation of the moral law. But it wasn’t until I was sitting in shul myself on Shabbat Zachor, hearing Moses’ instructions to the Israelites, “do not forget!”, that I thought I understood the mockery of this tweet, and so many other statements like it, over decades.

B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence are two Israeli human rights organizations, dedicated to ending the occupation and revealing the violence of Israeli military rule in the territories. When this tweet cheekily instructed readers not to tell these groups what awaited on Shabbat, I realized the writer was perhaps making a hermeneutical claim as well. Don’t tell these liberal political organizations, the tweet jests, about what’s right there in the very biblical stories and commands you will soon hear chanted from the bimah. Don’t tell them about the haftarah that follows, where the prophet Samuel relays God’s command to King to Saul to “go, attack Amalek, and proscribe all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!” (1 Samuel 15:3). Definitely don’t tell them that it is Saul’s failure to kill absolutely everyone – he leaves the king alive – that results in God taking away Saul’s kingship. What are you going to do, B’Tselem, report God to the UN?

And what I think we should say, in response to this charge, is that as regards the Bible the settlers are absolutely correct. The “illiberal” acts they attribute to the text are right there; the violence we see in texts like 1 Samuel 15 and Esther 9 is devastating and unapologetic and, if it took place today, would surely violate every human rights law on earth. (And, of course, these are just a few of the genocidal passages we find in our Hebrew Bible). And – here’s my first argument – any meaningful response to these settlers’ biblically inflected claims to righteous violence must begin with a basic and sustained acknowledgment that this is true.

Maybe this is obvious: it’s difficult to look at a verse like Esther 9:5 – “so the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies” – and not see violence, justified or not. But I have heard enough attempts to “liberalize” such texts to know that such acknowledgements never last long; scarcely have the words been read before we begin bustling around trying to “repair” them or explain them away. To let such words stand appears to be very risky – far too perilous to be allowed to stand on their own, without building an apologetic apparatus to shield us from their direct impact.

I think that this willingness to dwell in the texts in question, without denying their plain sense, is a virtue in itself; the ability to look squarely at the passage before us and see what it seems to be saying, even if we are appalled by it, is an intellectual and ethical good. But even beyond the cultivation of intellectual honesty, it’s still insufficient to dismiss invocations of biblical violence as simply irrelevant, ahistorical, or misinterpreted. In the case of the hideous tweet above, the writer is absolutely correct; God’s command to “blot out Amalek” in Deuteronomy seems to mean precisely what it says. Certainly when Samuel commands Saul to “ ‘kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!’” the plain meaning seems straightforward enough to me. We might – indeed must – debate the extra-textual significance of this episode for ourselves as Jews and readers, but that is distinct from acknowledging the entirely plausible (and genocidal) meaning of the verse itself. And in any case, plenty of other readers do think the text is just as violent as it appears – what is gained by simply informing them that a liberal hermeneutic says otherwise? Just, perhaps, as informing someone that we “don’t see color” in a world wracked by racist violence refuses to acknowledge the racism all about us, so our anxious assurances that a given biblical passage doesn’t really mean what it appears to rather misses the point.

I suggest that the problem with statements like the grotesque tweet above isn’t the Bible itself, for all its undeniable violence, but the assumption that the settlers (or anyone) are authorized by the text to follow in its footsteps today. Importantly, while this assumption of biblical authority has manifested itself in a particularly hideous way here, this move is by no means limited to right-wing militants. The broader idea that if we know what a text means in its basic semantic, we also know what it wants us to do (or that it necessarily wants us, its readers, to do anything at all) is shared by Jews across the political and theological spectrum. 

I do not believe this assumption is warranted, or at least that it is at all self-evident. To read the narratives of biblical figures, or the commands of God, or Moses, or Mordecai, and to determine that although these stories and commands are about Abraham, or the Israelites, or the Jews in Persian exile, they are also, in some broader and more complicated sense, about us is not a conclusion that inheres in the texts themselves. And for better or worse, it is this assumption that renders some texts, like the command to blot out Amalek, “problematic” or “troubling” for liberal Jews – because we assume that if we say what the passages seem to mean in their basic linguistic sense, then we have already begun to say something about what the text wants from us. When the text seems to support one of our contemporary political or ethical commitments, this is of course both inspiring and useful. But when the text is less obviously in accordance with our convictions, the biblical plain sense becomes a serious problem, one that requires immediate reinterpretation, lest it lead us – or lead them, the settlers – into claims of justified violence. There is little room here to simply say what we see, just to begin learning a given text – to revel in its humorous or odd or terrible details, and its linguistic particularities, and its narrative surprises – and to defer any question about its significance for us until we have well and truly done the reading.

In the cases of Amalek, and King Agag, and Haman, plenty of people see in our Bible what liberal readers pretend not to see, or believe we have sufficiently explained away. But if we want to determine what it means to us, to belong to a tradition that has such texts in it, we might start by looking them squarely in the face.

Emily Filler is assistant professor in the Study of Judaism at Washington and Lee University, and co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Jewish Ethics. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

One thought on “Pshat, Drash, and Genocide

  1. Well there is the fact that the Amalek probably didn’t exist in the first place, there’s a huge amount of stuff in the Bible which probably didn’t happen and is most likely parable.

    Second, this is a birthday gift to antisemitic nuts because in their eyes it proves that the Jews want to do to others, what they want to do to Jews. If these idiots keep posting this nonsense about how they are big bad Maccabees, someone’s gonna use it as excuse it as an excuse to kill Jews.

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