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20.01.2004

The mitzvah of genocide

The meaning of jihad has been much discussed in the west this past couple of years. Is it primarily an internal struggle against that which distances one from God? Or is it more a matter of wiping out the infidel? (This question is a bit of a hobbyhorse for Tacitus (passim), who comes down pretty firmly for the latter alternative.)

Whatever about the answer to that question, in a remarkable post Jonathan Edelstein points out that Islam is not the only faith with an important tenet that, at least on its face, seems bloody-minded in the extreme. For the Lord commanded the Jews to 'blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven' (Deuteronomy 25:19), i.e., to destroy all the nation of the Amalekites; in short, to commit genocide.

A difficult passage, that, for those of us who wish to see in the bible more than merely ammunition for an atheist's argument. Jewish thinkers have long wrestled with the implications of the anti-Amalekite mitzvah; Mr Edelstein reviews some of their (wildly disparate) conclusions. It should come as no surprise that these conclusions run parallel to the various explications of the Islamic commandment to jihad.

As for me, I cannot pretend to the erudition of a rabbi or imam. I can only note, sadly, that a religion may drive men to savagery even in the absence of a positive commandment that may be read as savage. If there is anything in the Christian scriptures comparable to the commandment to destroy Amalek, I have not run across it. Yet the history of Christianity is notably bloodstained.

Posted by Mrs Tilton at 01:40 PM | Permalink

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» Amalek and jihad from The Head Heeb
Amalek, or so the story goes, was the grandson of Esau and the ancestor of the biblical Jews' most implacable enemies. The tribe of Amalekites are mentioned in the Torah on several occasions, the most significant being their surprise attack... [Read More]

Tracked on January 20, 2004 04:59 PM

Comments

If there is anything in the Christian scriptures comparable to the commandment to destroy Amalek, I have not run across it.

How would you classify the concept of crusade? It isn't scriptural, but it has a longstanding doctrinal history and arguably forms the basis for a Christian conception of holy war.

Posted by: Jonathan Edelstein at January 20, 2004 04:02 PM

For some of us, Jonathan, if it ain't scriptural, it ain't Christian.

But I digress. Holy war is a concept alien to Christianity, I'd say (though sadly not nearly alien enough to Christians). That is, there is nothing in Christian scripture that even colourably calls for it (in distinction to the readings of the Amalek mitzvah and of the concept of jihad that you discuss in your post).

And note that 'holy war' is a matter altogether different to Christian debate over 'just war' - can war ever be just, and if so, under what conditions. That debate presupposes that war is evil. Some of the debaters merely conclude that it can at times be the lesser evil, but it is still very far from sanctified.)

I'd also say, though, that lack of scriptural basis or not, the 'holy wars' of the Christians - whether the Crusades (to the extent they were not mere pillaging expeditions), the Albigensian 'crusade', the intra-Christian wars of religion of the post-Reformation era, or what have you - have been informed by precisely the same malevolent spirit that possesses al-Qaeda and possessed Baruch Goldstein. Unlike Christian terrorists, Muslim and Jewish terrorists have at least the (weak) excuse of some bits of scripture that might be read as commanding them thus to act.

Posted by: Mrs Tilton at January 20, 2004 04:32 PM

For some of us, Jonathan, if it ain't scriptural, it ain't Christian.

You've just pointed out one of the major contrasts between Christianity and Judaism. Jewish doctrine has developed analogously to common law, with much of it deriving from interpretive precedent rather than scripture. The last major Jewish denomination to claim that scripture was the only source of doctine were the Karaites, and they lost their bid to become normative Judaism more than a thousand years ago.

And note that 'holy war' is a matter altogether different to Christian debate over 'just war' - can war ever be just, and if so, under what conditions. That debate presupposes that war is evil. Some of the debaters merely conclude that it can at times be the lesser evil, but it is still very far from sanctified.

There's a similar doctrinal thread running through Judaism. Witness this scripturally-founded argument that, where an enemy is not Amalek, peace should be pursued until there is no alternative, and that opportunities for peace should be actively sought. With the exception of Amalek and of the seven nations of Canaan (the latter of which were declared by Maimonides to have no contemporary relevance), Jewish doctrine expresses a strong preference for peace. As with Christianity and Islam, however, this has not prevented Jews from having at times a bloody history. War occurs for reasons having little to do with scripture, even where it is waged under cover of religion.

Posted by: Jonathan Edelstein at January 20, 2004 05:25 PM

You've just pointed out one of the major contrasts between Christianity and Judaism.

You could make this statement more precise by saying, this is one of the major differences between the reformed branches of Christianity and Judaism. Roman Catholicism (as well as, so far as I know, Eastern Orthodoxy) accords authority to tradition as well as scripture, and thus has developed over the centuries in an accretive fashion roughly analogous to that of Judaism.

'Tradition' in this sense has a more technical and, I think, more restricted meaning than minhag (which I understand in Jewish law to mean traditions of the community of long enough use to become enshrined as law). If I recall Newman's explanation of the role of tradition in RC doctrine (and it is probable that I do not remember it very well), an element of doctrine that, not in itself contradictory to scripture, becomes accepted by the RC community over long enough time may, through the teaching authority of the church, be elevated from something that one may believe to something one must believe. That's the way it's supposed to work, at any rate. Obviously I disagree; and I find that some RC doctrines derived from tradition, e.g. the sinlessness of Mary (which has been proclaimed under papal infallibility; can't get more authoritative than that), plainly contradict scripture.

It was bit glib of me to characterise the protestant view by saying 'if not scriptural, then not Christian'. Protestants clearly believe and do a lot of things that can't be found in scripture. The structure of most protestant liturgy, for example, comes not from scripture but tradition (it's derived, to a greater or lesser degree, from RC liturgy, which in turn has its roots in Jewish liturgy). Rather, nothing but scripture may serve as the touchstone for whether any particular belief or practice is worthy. Anything in belief or practice that is not scriptural is, so long as it does not contradict scripture, what Bishop Hooker would have called adiaphora: you're welcome to adopt it, but don't use it as proof. (I think the Karaites were a bit stricter than that, which is why they have to eat their Sabbath meals cold.)

As with Christianity and Islam, however, this has not prevented Jews from having at times a bloody history. War occurs for reasons having little to do with scripture, even where it is waged under cover of religion.

Och aye; truer words you couldn't say.

Posted by: Mrs Tilton at January 20, 2004 06:02 PM

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