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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

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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.

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Liel: Do you truly believe in the “innate vileness of the species?”

Liel, stepping out of a performance is not the same as disrupting a performance.

For someone who lives by Halacha, even hearing a recording or a broadcast of a women’s singing is forbidden. You may not want to live that way, but do not equate avoiding that with active disruptions. Though many may fall under the general rubric of “religious” Jews, they often have different standards of how closely the hew to halacha and Shulchan Aruch.

The Israeli cadets actions are NOT the same as the pro-Palestinian disruptions. Whether they should or should not be officers is a different matter; but to jump from “disrespect” (which is itself a questionable evaluation re leaving the performance) to insensitivity is make all sorts of assumptions. Who is responsible for “feeling” disrespect? Where does respect come from – others, self? Is it respectful to not follow halacha?

For you to say “that dignity and decency must always trump ideological convictions,” and thereby to equate living by halacha with ideological convictions reflects something of your attitude towards halacha.

Thank goodness someone understands the Amaleck parsha from an enlightened view, it has too often prompted xenophobic and even racist attitudes. Much, if not most, of the Torah must be understood as what the Hellenes (Greeks) called “muthos” (poetic or fictional writing), intended to promote a viewpoint in the mind of the listener/reader, as was understood at the time. Following Leibowitz’s formula we build a healthy community,peace.

Eli’s comment is interesting.Did the cadets, reading the program, not realize that women would be singing before the performance began? If so they could of made a protest in a more civil manner. B’shalom

Let me further qualify my previous remarks. A man hearing a woman sing or speak may feel an erotic stimulus, but such hearing can also have even more a humanizing influence upon us. That is in keeping, rather than thwarting,a divine purpose.

Dietz, I do not know if there was a program or what the cadets’ thoughts were.

However, though you and I may speak of “humanizing influence”, “divine purpose” or even discuss rationales about erotic stimulus, for the halacha living Jew, what is forbidden is forbidden – except in certain exceptional, life threatening or life saving, circumstances. Leaving the performance is not a protest but following the halacha, the law which dictates how they live their life.

For a very different take on this Parsha Ki Teitzei כי־תצא see “We are all equal” at

http://www.jpost.com/JewishWorld/Judaism/Article.aspx?id=237164

Enjoy.

E. S. Horowitz says:

Mr. Leibovitz correctly notes that “that for an extinct race of antiquity, Amalek is alive and well in our imagination” but his attempts to link recent musical events at Royal Albert Hall and Bahad 1 with each other and especially with the ancient Amalekites insult the intelligence of Tablet’s readers. “Put simply,” he writes, Amalek’s singular crime was refusing to behave like decent folks.” This is not simplification, it is over-simplification. By this definition those who ransacked Israel’s embassy in Cairo are Amalekites, as are insider-traders as well as shoppers who brazenly enter the express line with 15 items in their baskets.
In his rush to link the two music-related incidents with the Torah reading for September 10 Mr. Leibovitz has clearly not read Maimonides, whom he cites several times, with any degree of care. The great philosopher never argued that the crime of the Amalekites was their failure to obey the Noahide Code by not establishing courts of law, and thus “refusing to behave,” as Leibovits puts it, “like decent folks.” Such an argument was later put forward by the Spanish scholar Nahmanides (Moses b. Nahman), not, however, as justification for the commandment to destroy Amalek, but as explanation for the massacre in Shechem perpetrated by Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi after the rape of their sister.
Mr. Leibovitz may choose to revisit that biblical story this fall when Genesis 34 is read in the synagogues, but I hope that he will find more suitable contemporary events (perhaps the punishment of Israel’s former president) with which to link the weekly parsha. I also hope that he will read his medieval commentators more carefully

E. S. Horowitz says:

CORRECTION: I myself have not read (or recalled) my medieval commentators carefully enough. As Martin Lockshin has reminded me, although Maimonides never argued that the crime of the Amalekites was their failure to obey the Noahide Code by not establishing courts of law, the great philosopher did indeed make that argument with regard to the people of Shechem massacred by Simeon and Levi. Nahmanides later responded (critically) to this argument in his Torah Commentary. Mr. Leibovitz is still wrong about Maimonides, but I was also imprecise in correcting his error.
And perhaps Tablet is wrong in not hiring enough fact checkers.

esthermiriam says:

However the parsha may be interpreted, the IDF report is very good news — perhaps a sign of shift from the repeated episodes of insult to women soldiers and increasing efforts to wipe out the image of women in Israeli public discourse.

Yosef E. says:

An otherwise beautiful piece is tainted by the aspersion on the 9 Israeli cadets who declined to be forced to listen to women singing. Even if one does not hold to the same halakhic standard (and I don’t), labeling them as Amalekites is an insulting and contemptuous exercise in political correctness.

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.”

I beg to differ. The nine cadets had previously informed their commanding officer that they could not attend the performance with women singing. Their departure was a quiet, dignified one. (Feel free to contact any of them.) Instead the commanding officer decided to make this his cause celebre. As for other religious soldiers not leaving, that is a ludicrous argument. There are varying degrees of how people observe religion and Halacha. Thank God these young soldiers not only have been serving in the IDF for the past few years, but they were considered to be so good as to have been recommended to attend an officers’ training course. Their dismissal is a loss to the IDF and the nation,and I, for one, am saddened by it.

Shalom Freedman says:

What ‘Israelis’ are you talking about here?
The barbarians and they are truly barbarians are the Palestinian Arab supporters who show no respect of others, no respect for truth, no respect for even minimal standards of human decency in their efforts at delegitimizing and destroying Israel.
All the phony balance here is phony completely.

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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

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