Genocide

Dear Rabbi and Susan,

In the process of working through my five Fs, I’ve been reading the Bible with a group of friends. One of the things I find disturbing is the genocide in the Torah. Can you help me with the concept of conquering a people and killing every man, woman, and child?

Fred H.

Dear Fred,

When we previously answered your question about the spies that Joshua sent to scout out the land of Canaan staying with Rahav, we told you that we would respond to your question about genocide at another time. This is certainly a topic that deserves its own reply.

We are hearing the word genocide a lot today, as an absurd accusation hurled against the State of Israel that reflects a banking on public ignorance both about vocabulary and also about what is taking place in the Middle East. You may be surprised to hear that the word genocide is a modern one, coined in 1944 by journalist Raphael Lemkin. After fleeing the Nazi onslaught in 1941, he heard a radio address by Winston Churchill that warned about what was happening in Europe. He felt that a word for an attempt to wipe out an entire people, such as what had happened in the previously termed Armenian massacre perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire before World War I, was needed.

Your concern is that such an idea, if not the word, seems to be present in the Bible, particularly in relation to the people of Amalek, one of the many nations who are descended from Isaac and Rebecca’s son Esau. To discuss this properly, we need to take a step back and understand a point we emphasize in our Scrolling through Scripture: Genesis course, as well as in many of our other teachings. The Torah is neither a history book nor a book of stories. It is God’s blueprint for directing us to understand and live successfully in reality. As such, since the revelation on Mt. Sinai, there has always been both the written Torah (the Five Books of Moses), and the oral accompaniment that was taught to Moses at that time and passed down through the generations. The books of the prophets, such as Joshua or Nehemiah, and the Writings such as the scroll of Esther or the book of Psalms similarly have, and have always had, a written and an oral component. The written Torah translates into action only through the prism of the oral Torah.

Recognizing this point is essential, because otherwise what we are about to say will sound like a modern justification. However, starting about 2000 years ago, coded books revealing the oral Torah began being written down as Jews were scattered and continuity of transmission was threatened. What we will explain comes from writings that go back thousands of years; we are not attempting to soften God’s word to appease modern sensibilities.

Let us give you an example. Deuteronomy 21:18-21 talks of a wayward son whose punishment is execution. Yet, the sources we cite above, speak, in writing, of a Jewish court that sentences an individual to death once every seventy years as being known as a ‘killing court.’ Furthermore, the rabbis argue that there never was a convicted wayward son. Again, this isn’t a modern interpretation based on mistaken death penalties in the 20th or 21st century. We have it, in writing, from 2,000 years ago.

If the concept never had any actualization because the bar of the specifics that needed to be reached to condemn someone as a wayward son was so unreachable, why did the Torah talk of the wayward son in the first place? The answer, among other things, is that we have to understand the concept of the wayward son. We must know that, despite the overwhelming and subjective love we have for our children, there is such a thing as a child whose actions put them outside of even parental protection. We also learn, from the placement of the section discussing the wayward son, of mistakes that parents make that can seriously damage their children. In other words, the section is not there to direct jurisprudence, it is there to provide lessons for all of us at all times.

It might help to dwell for a moment upon how unusual life is for people living in this brief historic period and living in modern civilized democracies. It has been estimated that of all the people who have lived on earth in the past two thousand years, the recent period of fairly reliable historical record, fewer than 2% lived out their lives in peace without experiencing life-changing violence. A far higher proportion of Americans live their lives without experiencing violence although that number has been dropping precipitously since 1960.


At the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire was engaged in a horrendous civil war that ended with the dissolution of the empire. During this period, the Romans massacred at least 3 million Jews, a majority of all Jews in the world. Remember that the world population was then at most 300 million. A parallel today would be a war that snuffed out the lives of 70 million. For a comparison, World War 2 extinguished the lives of 30 million to 50 million people.

The Christian armies reconquered the Iberian Peninsula from the Moslems in about 1200 to 1500, costing the lives of 7 million souls. In about 1300, the Mongols killed 30 million Europeans.

To provide some visual reality to these unimaginable numbers, burying ten million dead would require a monstrous cemetery of about twenty-five square miles, an area larger than Manhattan which itself, contains 91 cemeteries. The Hundred Years War, around the time that Gutenberg was inventing the printing press, resulted in the deaths of 3 million Western Europeans. The Spanish conquests in South America in the 16th century took the lives of 15 million people. The Protestant-Catholic wars in the same period took the lives of at least 3 million Frenchmen. Dynasty wars in China in the same century cost over 20 million lives and simultaneously the Thirty Years War massacred another 8 million Austrians, Germans, and Spaniards.

Given that obvious failed idea that World War I was meant to be the war to end all wars, there is no reason to suppose that the world has moved into a new period of permanent peace. But living in relatively peaceful and prosperous western countries, it is hard to realize that daily brutality and violence is more the rule than the exception. On October 7th, 2023, peace loving citizens of southern Israel were hurled into shocking realization of this sad fact. The kibbutz members and their wives and children didn’t even have time to understand that their long-nurtured hopes for peace were quite dead. The only way they could have survived that terrible day was by killing every single last one of the three thousand invaders. They did not do so. Twelve hundred Israelis and visitors paid with their own lives.

During most of the past two thousand years almost everyone has recognized that a war usually meant your death or alternatively the death of the opposing side. There was no doctrine of ‘proportional response’. As recently as 1944 and 1945, Allied governments understood that the only alternative to losing up to two million servicemen in an invasion of Japan was to incinerate a quarter of a million Japanese civilians. We all wish the world worked differently, but it doesn’t. However, the relatively tranquil lives lived by most western politicians, prognosticators, and poseurs camouflages this disquieting reality.

The discussion of Amalek is simply reality. The Torah presents examples of different nations with different traits that we must recognize. It is false to believe that all cultures are the same and we all value and treasure the same ideas. There are deeply inculcated character traits, represented by the nations of Amon and Moav, that are so flawed that anyone possessing those traits cannot ever convert and become part of the Jewish people. There are nations whose ideas are so evil that we cannot live with them – either they survive, or we do. Such is Amalek. Interestingly enough, an Amalekite can repudiate to the core his nation’s essence, convert to Judaism, and be a full-fledged member of the Jewish people. It is the ideology that is the problem. Amalek ideology must be destroyed.

Through the generations, Jews have been persecuted by different groups and understanding the source of the persecution is essential. The holidays of Chanukah and Purim reflect two different types of attacks. The Hellenist-Greeks did not want to physically eradicate the Jewish people. They wanted us to assimilate just as the Church for centuries presented a choice of the sword or baptism. Haman, the Persian politician recounted in the Book of Esther, wanted to annihilate the entire Jewish people in Persia, men, women, and children. He was an Amalekite and either he and his followers succeeded in killing all the Jews or they died, and the Jews survived. There was no alternative. Coexistence is not an option.

In our days, when God does not send us prophets on the level of Nathan let alone the level of Moses, we cannot identify individuals as Amalek. We can identify ideologies. In the 1940s, there was no question that Nazi Germany personified Amalek. Had the Allies decided that they couldn’t attack the Axis countries because civilians, including newborns might be killed, the Nazis would have won World War II and proceeded to destroy every decent person in the West. Gratuitous killing wasn’t to be embraced, but the Bible tells us that we cannot be unreasonably restrained by the reality of war which, by definition, includes the killing of those not dressed in uniform, be they man, woman, or child. At the same time, it doesn’t surprise us that -once the threat was controlled – the grandchildren of a number of high-ranking Nazis rejected their history, converted to Judaism and are living in Israel today. In our days, the Amalek spirit is not a gene, it is an ideology that moves from group to group.

Hamas’ charter, seeking the death of every Jew is an Amalekite charter. Radical Islam seeks either the death or subjugation of anyone not following the ‘correct’ way of Islam. We are fools if we think that making a concession here or a concession there, holding out a hand in peace, thinking this is a territorial issue, or singing Kumbaya will erase the spirit of Amalek. The spirit must be crushed entirely, and the Biblical language that describes that is the erasure of every man, woman, and child. We must know that evil does exist and those that embrace it must be destroyed. At the same time, there is the option of rejecting that evil wholeheartedly and joining the civilized world.

In the real world, children do suffer for their parents’ actions. A baby born to a drug-addicted mother is a tragedy; but he or she is also a reality. Saying, “It’s not fair” will not save that infant from horrific withdrawal pains or from a damaged body or mind. A baby used as a human shield by a member of Hamas is a baby whose life that adult Hamas member is putting in danger. A child being taught to hate and being raised to gleefully anticipate murdering others is also a tragedy. But it is a reality. If we don’t recognize that, we will never wipe out the ideology of Amalek and we will be the ones to die.

Clearly, this is a topic and discussion that could be held over hours. We are under no illusion that we have covered it fully. We hope, however, that we have provided some insight and direction.

Living in peace is not for the naive,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

This Ask the Rabbi is dedicated in memory of Yulia Vakser, 37, a Sgt. Major in the police force who was working at the Supernova music festival when Hamas terrorists swarmed in. She is survived by her parents, husband, and two children.

And with prayers for the safe release of all the hostages and among them, Segev Kalfon, 25, who was kidnapped while fleeing the slaughter at the Supernova music festival.


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