There was an interesting piece in today’s New York Times magazine by Professor Noah Feldman from Harvard Law School, in which he writes about orthodox Judaism in contemporary life. The whole piece is well worth reading. However, one particular section caught my eye, and I really need to quote it at length:
In 1994, Dr. Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 worshipers in the mosque atop the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. An American-born physician, Goldstein attended a prominent modern Orthodox Jewish day school in Brooklyn. (In a classic modern Orthodox twist, the same distinguished school has also produced two Nobel Prize winners.)
Because of the proximity of Goldsteinâ€™s background and mine, the details of his reasoning have haunted me. Goldstein committed his terrorist act on Purim, the holiday commemorating the victory of the Jews over Haman, traditionally said to be a descendant of the Amalekites. The previous Sabbath, he sat in synagogue and heard the special additional Torah portion for the day, which includes the famous injunction in the Book of Deuteronomy to remember what the Amalekites did to the Israelites on their way out of Egypt and to erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens.
This commandment was followed by a further reading from the Book of Samuel. It details the first intentional and explicit genocide depicted in the Western canon: Godâ€™s directive to King Saul to kill every living Amalekite â€” man, woman and child, and even the sheep and cattle. Saul fell short. He left the Amalekite king alive and spared the sheep. As a punishment for the incompleteness of the slaughter, God took the kingdom from him and his heirs and gave it to David. I can remember this portion verbatim. That Saturday, like Goldstein, I was in synagogue, too.
Of course as a matter of Jewish law, the literal force of the biblical command of genocide does not apply today. The rabbis of the Talmud, in another of their universalizing legal rulings, held that because of the Assyrian King Sennacheribâ€™s policy of population movement at the time of the First Temple, it was no longer possible to ascertain who was by descent an Amalekite. But as a schoolboy I was taught that the story of Amalek was about not just historical occurrence but cyclical recurrence: â€œIn every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us, but the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands.â€ The Jewsâ€™ enemies today are the Amalekites of old. The inquisitors, the Cossacks â€” Amalekites. Hitler was an Amalekite, too.
To Goldstein, the Palestinians were Amalekites. Like a Puritan seeking the contemporary type of the biblical archetype, he applied Deuteronomy and Samuel to the world before him. Commanded to settle the land, he settled it. Commanded to slaughter the Amalekites without mercy or compassion, he slew them.
[My emphasis.] Note the Talmudic reasoning. The injunction is voided not because it is (and was) immoral, but because, practically speaking, there is no way to implement it. But by avoiding the moral question and introducing a merely practical impediment, the rabbis left the divine command to genocide as a live, unquestioned part of Jewish history. When Goldstein encountered this story in his Torah, he did not find it circumscribed with unequivocal condemnation, but footnoted with a weak excuse that did nothing to inhibit the metaphorical identification of his victims with a rival tribe in some (literally!) Stone Age territorial dispute.
Issues like this cannot be resolved by atheists such as myself. Every fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, Jew, or [insert sect] will assume that we are “the enemy”, and close their ears to us. But if every believer who subscribes to the notion that love, peace and truth are the highest ideals were to place their moral ideals ahead of sentiment about old texts, progress might be possible. Stand up, declaim loudly that genocide, hatred, the subjugation of women, the violent death of non-believers do not represent the word of your god. Tear the pages out of your Bible, your Torah, your Koran. Because if you leave them in, you’re just encouraging the next Baruch Goldstein, or Mohammed Atta, or David Koresh. If you believe that your god is love, surely there is no place in your holy texts for hate.
UPDATE: See also this interesting interview with the author of the NYT piece.
UPDATE: Via Chris, this
piece rant by Marcus Brigstocke is also relevant.