Managing Ancestral Memory: Is Amalek Attacking?

March 18th: Vayikra and Zachor
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Ancestral memory is a curious quantity. We Jews certainly have it, and we invoke it in a variety of ways—in our prayers, in our cuisine and music, in our use of languages like Yiddish, and even in our mannerisms. Much of what we call Jewish Identity involves our sense of what our people have thought and experienced over the centuries.

We are not the only group to have ancestral memory, but we are certainly adept at it, and our Torah gives us a number of prompts to keep this process going. An example is this week’s special reading for the Shabbat preceding Purim. Called Zachor, Hebrew for remember, it reminds us of an ancient and permanent conflict: “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!” (Deuteronomy 25.17-19)

Started back in the days of the Exodus, this mistrust and hostility between the Israelites and the Amalekites became a tradition—one which we remember religiously. In fact, some Rabbis saw every enemy we Jews have ever faced as being a descendent of Amalek. He is, in a sense, our perennial foe; against him and his children, we should be ever vigilant. QED: Haman, the villainous villain of Megillat Ester, who is understood to be from Amalek’s line. But, whether we take the genealogy provided by the Rabbis literally or not, it has been the Jewish experience that there have been and are a continuing line of people trying to hurt us or oppress us or worse.

One could call this kind of fear paranoia, but, then again, the dangers and challenges we have faced have been real. Sometimes, the conflicts have been just differences of opinion or rival claims to property or hegemony, but far too often, the attacks have been murderous in intent, and our very existence has been threatened.

The distinction between these kinds of opponents is very important. When we face opposition and our ancestral memory kicks in, we should pause to think. Are our opponents anti-Semites (or “self-hating Jews”), or do they just have different opinions? We need to be vigilant for danger, but, when the challenge is not Amalek, over-reacting is neither fair nor helpful.

Bowen Family Systems Theory talks about this multigenerational transmission of anxiety and sees it as an important factor in every family and group. Sometimes, it can manifest as a valuable survival tool, while, other times, it brings about unnecessary and counterproductive behavior. It’s like the old comedy question: Am I paranoid, or are they really out to get me?

When we work at managing our ancestral memory—distinguishing between legitimate wariness and instinctual paranoia, we have some thinking to do and some choices to make. How, for example, should Jews respond to the current BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement against Israel? Some in the BDS movement are concerned about Israel’s policies in re the West Bank and the Arab population and would like Israeli policy to change. Others, however, are opposed to the very existence of a Jewish State and consider it colonialist and racist and undemocratic. They want Israel to be disassembled, dismantled, and destroyed. Given such a wide divergence of motivation, Jewish responses to BDS supporters need to be perceptive and nuanced. Some BDS people may be Amalek, but many others are not, and mistaking this distinction is neither fair nor helpful to Israel’s cause.

Another example comes from Jewish responses to Pope John Paul II’s visit to Miami in 1987.  One item on the Pontiff’s itinerary was a meeting with American Jewish leaders—most of whom jumped at the opportunity to have a public and substantive encounter with the Roman Catholic Church. They saw it as an important opportunity for improving interfaith relations. One small Jewish group, however, officially and loudly boycotted the meeting, citing objections to Catholic anti-Semitism over the years (centuries). They refused to meet with the Pontiff.

I have always wondered at that response. It did get the small group a lot of publicity, but it seemed to me self-indulgent and a needless display of hostility. There is no doubt that the Roman Catholic Church has been an enemy of the Jews over and over again, but, after 1000 years of really horrible behavior, the Church seems to be involved in sincere repentance. Is this the time to refuse to meet with them? Or, is this the time to work with them on improving their attitude? Was the Church Amalek? Is the Church still Amalek? And, even if that is the case, is it possible for Amalek to repent? There is nothing wrong with remembering the evil wrought by Catholic leaders. There is nothing wrong with helping them to remember their own misguided behavior—sort of like reminding an alcoholic that his/her drinking led to ruin. But, our belief in the possibility of repentance—and the efforts of the Church in recasting its views of Judaism—suggest to many of our leaders a relabeling of the Church from Amalek to Potentially Good Neighbor.

I believe in ancestral memory. I honor it and use it and see it as an essential part of our religious modus vivendi. However, it is only one of the lenses through which we need to see the world. Against Amalek we should be forever vigilant. However, not every challenge is an existential threat. Survival—as well as fairness, righteousness, and progress—require clear thinking and an ability to figure out who is Amalek and who is not.