Converting Enemies


The Book of Esther (3:1) identifies Haman as a descendant of Agag, king of the Amalekites (cf. I Samuel 15:9).  The Amalekites were the cruel and murderous tribe that attacked the old and infirm Israelites marching at the rear of the column leaving Egypt at the time of the Exodus (Deuteronomy 25:18).  The linkage of Haman with Amalek helps explain the former’s enthusiasm in planning the elimination of all Jews in the Persian Empire.  It also supports the justification given by the Torah for the total annihilation of Amalek (Deuteronomy 25:19).

A rabbinic midrash (Mekhilta Beshalah, Parasha 2) confirms the law, explaining that David executed the young messenger telling him of the death of the mortally wounded King Saul at his hand not because he lifted a hand against the King of Israel but because he was an Amalekite who David, like all Israelites, is commanded by the Torah to kill.  And any attempt by Amalekites to convert to Judaism must be denied.

Nevertheless, the Talmud twice reports on a certain Na’aman who was a resident alien (ger toshav) and a descendant of Haman’s sons who studied Torah in B’nai Brak (Gitin 57b; Sanhedrin 96b).  In fact, in both places the Talmud concludes that this “convert” was none other than Rabbi Samuel bar Shilat (or Rabbi Samuel bar Yehudah the convert, cf. Margaliot HaYam, Sanhedrin, ad loc.).  In other words, the Talmud affirms what the midrash denies, namely, Amalekite converts are acceptable.

Rabbi Joseph Engel, author of Gilyonei HaShas, attempts to resolve the contradiction.  He argues that the practice among non-Jews was that a child takes on the identity of the father.  Hence, if an Amalekite woman married a gentile man, the child would no longer be an Amalekite.  If so, then all subsequent offspring of that child would not be Amalekite and would this be accepted as converts to Judaism.

Yet even a cursory analysis of Rabbi Engel’s explanation shows it wanting.  First, he does not explain why Jewish law would – or should – defer to the practice among non-Jews.  Second, and even more seriously, Rabbi Engel assumes that Amalekite women were circulating and tolerated and thus available to marry and bear children.  But the Scriptural command to eradicate the Amalekites includes women as well (cf. I Samuel 15:3).  More than likely, the Talmud is reporting that in due course the enmity directed against the Amalekites lessened and the imperative to annihilate them weakened.  And, perhaps, the most gratifying way of eradicating old enemies is to make them into new Jews.  Tanya Gold’s interviews with the children (and relatives) of Nazis who have converted to Judaism seem to support this view.

So while we make ready to celebrate Purim, the anniversary of the victory over those who would obliterate us, we would do well to ponder over the fact that the true measure of the impact of that victory is the greater joy we take in seeing our enemies become one with the very people they sought to destroy.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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