Putin Isn’t Amalek
I want to defend Vladimir Putin. We just read Parshat Zachor this past Shabbat. It describes how a wicked villain, Amalek, the ancestor of Haman, attacked innocent and defenseless people in an unprovoked way and how we must always remember to fight against and utterly defeat Amalek because of this.
Sounds just like Putin, I can hear you saying. Nope, sorry, but it’s just not fair to say Putin is Amalek.
The passage we read, from Deuteronomy, says “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, upon your departure from Egypt’… ‘You shall erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens, you shall not forget.”
The mitzvah is to remember, erase, and not forget, and is fulfilled in the following manner:
1. “Remember,” we read this passage on Shabbat Zachor, right before Purim, to fulfill the mitzvah, not just when it shows up in context in Ki Tetsei.
2. “You shall not forget,” in your heart, we must also reflect on it ourselves.
3. “You shall erase” - the mitzvah is in force until the day comes when Amalek is totally destroyed from the world.
4. Additionally, others would say fighting and killing Amalekites, is required as well.
Still sounds like it could apply to Putin, so consider definitions offered in our tradition regarding just who Amalek is:
Okay so why not? We need to look at who Amalek is or is today:
1. Rabbi J. D. Soloveitchik says, “anyone who hates the Jewish people is from the seed of Amalek. “
2. Some rabbis think Amalek doesn’t exist anymore and that we are only required to remember what happened, but not to act against anyone.
3. Amalek is allegorical. The Zohar says he represents the forces of demons in the world and many Hasidic interpretations say he is the Yetzer Ra, the Evil Inclination.
None of them have Putin on that list. His actions against Ukraine aren’t aimed at Jews (remember he’s “denazifying” Ukraine, after all) and so in that regard the appellation, “Amalek” doesn’t fit.
Certainly, if Amalek doesn’t exist, or is Satan, or the Evil Inclination, then the title cannot apply to Putin either.
But – just because Putin isn’t Amalek doesn’t make Putin not evil. He, his world outlook, and his crimes in Ukraine and his disregard for his own people are all evil.
Evil abounds in the world. And we are called upon to fight it. The Psalms tell us, “Lovers of God hate evil.”
The potential for evil is nearer at hand to each of us than we’d like to admit. We learned a few weeks ago in the Daf Yomi, the daily Talmud study, that the Evil Inclination can be an untrustworthy companion who can lead a person astray, “for the heart of the human being is evil.”
No, no, no. If anything, Putin not being Amalek, the points to how seriously we must take evil. It dims and dulls our concern for it if we lump all evil and evildoers together. Who we must rescue, who we must defend, and who we must defeat all change depending on the threat evil offers and we need to name the evil plainly.
Furthermore, associating Putin with the mitzvah about Amalek may lull us into thinking simply reading the passage in the Torah discharges us from the duty to do more against him.
Can one really believe that would do anything to combat Putin? To help Ukrainians, or Russians, for that matter?
Non-Jews, America, our Allies, must help Ukrainians now! We must help regular Russians now! We must do whatever will stop Putin’s aggression even including stopping Putin himself if it comes to that.
That is a very different Mitzvah. Many in fact. To help those in need. To be concerned with the suffering of the world because we Jews have to show we aren’t just about ourselves. To not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. To not allow murder.
God’s world is a complicated place. We must take seriously each and every wicked and evil person or deed, so we know how to overcome them. So we can restore God’s peace and God’s safety to those who need it and make this a world in which God’s justice prevails.