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Out of Tune

When Israelis and Palestinians choose politics over music, they’re guilty of the gravest offense in the Torah: acting like Amalek

Liel Leibovitz
September 09, 2011
Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, 2005.(JOSE JORDAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, 2005.(JOSE JORDAN/AFP/Getty Images)

This week’s parasha ends with what may be the most terrifying passage in the Bible. Here it is, in its entirety: “You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you went out of Egypt, how he happened upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear, when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear God. Therefore, it will be, when the Lord your God grants you respite from all your enemies around you in the land which the Lord, your God, gives to you as an inheritance to possess, that you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget!”

Unsurprisingly, this spirited call to genocide has had Talmudic minds working overtime for millennia. Maimonides, for example, argued in his Guide for the Perplexed that wiping out Amalek doesn’t necessarily mean wiping out the Amalekites; what Jews should target is Amalek-like behavior, the sort of godless vulgarity that is better confronted through compassion and education than by means of violence. Taking a more legalistic approach, the 19th-century scholar Rabbi Hayim Palaggi suggested that even if we took the Torah at its word, it would be very difficult to identify just who should be hauled off to the gallows; with the ancient nations of the world mixed up since at least the time of the Assyrian monarch Sennacherib, we haven’t a chance of correctly identifying precisely whom might qualify as modern-day Amalek.

Still, some won’t stop trying. In 2006, Jack Riemer, an influential Conservative rabbi and a sometime adviser to President Bill Clinton, compared Islamic fundamentalists to Amalek, and Israeli rightists are quick to see hints of the biblical nation in today’s Palestinians. For an extinct race of antiquity, Amalek is alive and well in our imagination.

What we need, then, are new guidelines to handling this most haunting of nations. The genocide question should be easy enough to resolve: In the spirit of Maimonides, let us, too, declare that sinfulness is not biological but behavioral, that sin is best eradicated by means of persuasion and reason, and that violence is rarely the answer. This leaves us with the thornier issue of spotting the Amalekites in our midst. Who might they be? Here’s an attempt at a definition.

The pro-Palestinian protesters who last week interrupted a performance by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at London’s Royal Albert Hall are Amalekites. No matter how righteous their rage or how valid their cause, interrupting Webern’s “Passacaglia” with political slogans is a barbaric act. As a long-time, passionate supporter of freedom and justice for Palestine—the only solution, I firmly believe, for a peaceful and sustainable future for both Palestinians and Israelis—I was deeply dismayed to see these hooligans choose to advertise this worthy cause by drowning out music, the one form of human undertaking capable of transcending the innate vileness of the species. The British concertgoers who, judging from video snippets of the incident, yelled at the protesters to leave the hall weren’t siding with the Israelis over the Palestinians; they were choosing culture and civility over brutality and baseness. Amen to that; progress was never achieved, nor would it ever be, by those willing to tear at the delicate fabric of our joint existence for the sake of political causes, no matter how deserving.

Amalekites, too, are the nine religious Israel Defense Forces cadets who this week stepped out of an auditorium in order not to hear women singing. The performance was part of a mandatory lecture in Bahad 1, the IDF’s officer academy; even though more than 50 percent of current cadets are religious Jews, the nine were the only ones to object to the performance. “Listening to women singing,” they explained to their commander, “is against the halacha.” The commander, Lt. Col. Uzi Klieger, was unmoved. “You’re insensitive and disrespectful to these singers,” he said, according to an interview with the Israeli newspaper Maariv, “I can’t allow you to become officers. He who is insensitive won’t know how to tell a child carrying medicine apart from a terrorist in Lebanon, and will end up shooting the child.”

Klieger is absolutely right. The Israeli cadets are guilty of the same myopia as the pro-Palestinian protesters in London, namely the inability to understand that dignity and decency must always trump ideological convictions, and that no matter our persuasions, we must all pledge allegiance first and foremost to those things—like music, like conversation—that make us human, that make life worth living.

Refusing to do so was Amalek’s crime. The olden nation, we know from this week’s parasha, was guilty of not fearing God. This, Maimonides helpfully explained, means not necessarily that the Amalekites failed to accept all of God’s intricate strictures—which would mean, in essence, converting to Judaism—but that they failed to obey the Noahide Code, the seven edicts all nations, regardless of their faith, must follow and that outline the most basic principles of human morality by outlawing theft and murder and commanding the establishment of courts of law. Put simply, Amalek’s singular crime was refusing to behave like decent folks. There’s no greater offense.

Let us, then, obliterate Amalekite behavior, not by issuing half-hearted, tepid calls to civility, but by fiercely clinging, even amidst real and bitter conflict, to our standards, our spirit, our rectitude. Me, I’ll begin by sitting down, dimming the lights, and listening to that marvelous Op. 1 by Webern.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.