There is a paradox at the heart of the Hebrew Bible’s greatest struggle.
The Israelites have just left Egypt and crossed the Sea of Reeds when, suddenly, the Amalekites attack, striking at the stragglers. Led by Joshua and inspired by Moses, the Israelites beat back the assault. But the conflict is not over. God himself vows to annihilate Amalek’s memory. Yet at the same time, he commands Moses to preserve that memory: “Write this for a memorial in the book and recount it in the hearing of Joshua, that I will utterly erase the remembrance of Amalek from under the heavens.”
Forty years later, the paradoxical call to remember and to erase is repeated, and made permanent. As Moses delivers his farewell address to the Israelites poised to cross the Jordan, he returns to the subject. “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt,” he instructs. “Therefore . . . you shall erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget.”
Inevitably, it seems, our contemporary debates demand a reckoning with memory and erasure. We invoke analogies to the past—Jim Crow, appeasement, internment, reconstruction—as we argue politics. And increasingly, we clash over whom and how to remember—debating what monuments must come down and whose stories must be taught. Collective memory is now both the arsenal and the battlefield of communal conflict.
No universal principle can resolve such conflicts. But there are lessons that might guide us in negotiating our way through them. And so perhaps the Jewish experience of remembering and forgetting, of wrestling with this most paradoxical commandment, may shed new light.
There is a temptation to ignore or minimize the difficult elements of our religious traditions. But Amalek cannot be dismissed as a peripheral piece of religious minutia. To the contrary, the directives regarding the memory of Amalek hold a central place in both law and lore.
Maimonides, the great codifier of Jewish law, counted the obligation to remember, and to destroy, Amalek among the Torah’s formal commandments. A verbal remembrance of Amalek is built into the daily liturgy. And while observant Jews gather every Sabbath for the communal readings from the Torah, only one reading—the recounting of the Amalekite attack—is widely recognized as biblically mandated.
At the same time, the call to erase Amalek has been uniquely embraced in popular Jewish practice. For a thousand years, it has been common (sometimes unfortunately so) for those seen as existentially dangerous to Jewish survival to be denounced as descendants of Amalek. For at least three hundred years, ritual scribes have tested their quills by inking—and then swiftly crossing out—the word “Amalek.” And on Purim, the holiday on which the book of Esther is read, congregants, especially children, raise a din each time the name of the story’s Amalekite villain, Haman, is heard. With each explosion of noise, a custom dating back to the thirteenth century, it is as if the congregation is seeking to answer the biblical call for erasure.
But Jewish experience does not simply demonstrate the centrality of the Amalek commandment; it also heightens the contradiction at its heart. After all, the cacophony that accompanies Haman’s name accentuates as much as it obliterates. Encouraging children to listen attentively, eagerly waiting for the appropriate signal to leap and shriek, hardly seems a recipe for forgetting.
Perhaps, then, forgetting is not the point. In A Primer for Forgetting, a recent collection of meditations on memory and its loss, the essayist Lewis Hyde briefly considers the case of Amalek. He concludes that the customs surrounding Amalek exist to promote the very opposite of forgetfulness. They are, Hyde suggests, examples of “forgetting as an aid to memory.”
Hyde compares that injunction “to erase Amalek” to the “counter-memorials”—sunken structures and negative spaces—that have been erected in postwar Germany. These memorials call observers to recall what has been lost. Hyde suggests they are effective because it is “harder to ignore” an intentionally invisible monument. In other words, for Hyde, the command to erase Amalek is not really about erasure at all. To the contrary, it is a memory trick, a sophisticated version of a string tied around one’s finger.
But Hyde is only half right about Amalek: He is right that the call to erase is clearly not a call to forget. But he is wrong that the call to erase is simply a tool to remember. There are, after all, far better aids to memory; indeed, Jewish ritual, from the Passover seder’s dramatic reenactments of the exodus to the poetic recollections of creation contained in the daily liturgy, offers a masterclass in aiding memory. The call to erase is distinctive, not least in its fury. This is no mere string on a finger, no memorial of negative space. The call to erase is something more active and, perhaps, more violent.
The first step, then, in unraveling the Amalekite paradox is to understand the difference between erasure and forgetting.
In 1982, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, a Columbia University historian, published Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. This collection of lectures remains the greatest exposition on Jewish collective memory ever written.
In a postscript, Yerushalmi wrestles with the concept of communal forgetting. He writes,
Collective forgetting is at least as problematic a notion as collective memory. . . . When we say that a people “remembers” we are really saying that a past has been actively transmitted to the present generation and that this past has been accepted as meaningful. Conversely, a people forgets when the generation that now possesses the past does not convey it to the next, or when the latter reject what it receives and does not pass it onward, which is to say the same thing.
Here, Yerushalmi identifies a crucial distinction between individual and collective memory. For the individual, both remembering and forgetting are largely passive experiences. We have only limited control over what we remember and what we forget. Moreover, the default, at least for important events, is memory; forgetting is the exception. We experience forgetting as a loss and a gap, a hole in the natural order.
But communal memory is different. For the collective, remembering requires an active, and consistent, choice. We choose what to pass to the next generation. In turn, that generation must choose again. And if even one generation chooses not to transmit, or simply fails to choose to transmit, a memory will be lost. Thus for the community, memory requires action, and forgetting is the default.
The biblical exhortation to “erase the memory of Amalek” must, therefore, call for something beyond mere forgetting. It is, after all, a call to action, not an encouragement to passivity.
So let us return to the text:
“Remember [zakhor] that which Amalek did to you.” Here, the biblical command zakhor is universally translated as “remember.” This is probably the best that can be done. But the English word “remember” cannot do full justice to its biblical counterpart.
Consider, for instance, the following survey of this biblical root: z-kh-r first appears in Genesis when the great flood has reached its apex: “And God remembered [va’yizkor] Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark, and God caused a wind to blow across the earth, and the waters subsided.” As the story continues, God uses the root twice more when he fixes a rainbow in the clouds as sign of his covenant: “It shall be that when I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember [v’zakharti] my covenant . . . and there will never be another flood to destroy all flesh. . . . I will see it and remember [lizkor].”
It appears again when Rachel suffers from barrenness: “Now God remembered [va’yizkor] Rachel; God heeded her and opened her womb.” When Joseph pleads with Pharaoh’s steward to request his release, he asks, “But remember [z’khartani] me when all is well with you again, and do me the kindness of mentioning me to Pharaoh, so as to free me from this place.” And when the Israelites cry out from their bondage in Egypt, “God heard their moaning, and God remembered [va’yizkor] his covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” At Sinai, God enjoins Israel, “Remember [zakhor] the Sabbath day to sanctify it”; and after the sin of the golden calf, Moses beseeches God, “Remember [zekhor] your servants Abraham Isaac and Jacob.”
This brief review is not exhaustive; but it is representative. And it reveals something distinctive. The biblical root z-kh-r does not simply suggest memory; it suggests memory that spurs, perhaps demands, action. It is a sort of “taking notice,” an active attention that compels us to act.
God’s memory of his covenant restrains him from destruction of the world; his memory of Rachel spurs him to allow her to conceive; Joseph urges the steward not just to recall but to act on his behalf; God’s memory of Israel’s forefathers moves him to act to save them, first from Egypt and then from his own wrath; and when God exhorts Israel to “remember the Sabbath day,” the injunction demands that Israel not only remember the Sabbath but also “remember the Sabbath day that you might sanctify it.”
The biblical concept of zekhira provides, I think, a much-needed corrective to the modern concept of memory. Today, many of us think of memories as interior experiences or passive mental states. They are internal thoughts to be enjoyed and savoured; or feared and repressed. But they make no demands, and we cannot owe them our loyalty. Insofar as our memories nag at us, they are usually a hindrance; we seek to be unencumbered by nostalgia, to freely make choices in the here and now. The past, it is said, is past.
Biblical memory rejects such thinking. It reminds us that the past exerts powerful moral forces—whether because of promises we have made, persons we have loved, or debt we owe. Those forces are to be respected and acted on. Memory, or more accurately zekhira, is the vessel for channelling that force.
The biblical root zakhor appears twice in the passage containing Moses’s injunction regarding the Amalekites: “Remember [zakhor] that which Amalek did to you. . . . Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, . . . erase the memory of [zekher] Amalek from beneath the heavens. Do not forget.”
The first use fits neatly into the pattern. The call to “remember” Amalek is followed immediately by a call to action: “Therefore . . . erase.” It is clear, therefore, that Hyde’s “forgetting as an aid to memory” has things backward. Memory is the means; erasure is the goal.
But it is with the second appearance of this root that the particular meaning of biblical memory begins to alter our understanding: “Erase the memory [zekher] of Amalek from beneath the Heavens.” Here, the root appears as a noun rather than a verb, and thus the translation “memory” becomes wholly inadequate. Zekher is, after all, something quite different from mere memory. It is memory made actionable; the past influencing the present.
Accordingly, the call to erase zekher Amalek is not a call to create gaps in our, or others’, collective memory. After all, as Yerushalmi has argued, collective forgetting is easy; it requires no affirmative injunction; mere passivity is enough. Rather, the call to erase zekher Amalek summons us to something more meaningful: to annihilate those means by which the Amalekite past continues to affect the present.
What the biblical text suggests, the tradition, in its diversity, confirms.
Authoritative legal sources, such as Maimonides, understand zekher Amalek concretely, as referring to Amalek’s descendants. The Talmud even engages in a related wordplay, imagining that King David’s famed general, Joab, misread the word zekher as zekhar, “males,” and so erroneously allowed Amalek’s female descendants to live. But this is not just wordplay. Certainly, a person’s greatest legacy, the greatest way the past influences the present, is through living, breathing descendants.
Progressives, by contrast, usually recoil at the genocidal implications of such a reading. Instead, they opt for allegorical or symbolic understandings—for example, that zekher Amalek refers to the evil within the human heart. Such interpretations have ventured rather far afield from the biblical text. But in one way, at least, they are quite faithful to the literal meaning. The “memory” of Amalek on which they focus is not inert, but active and effective, still affecting the present.
The paradox, then, begins to resolve. There is no conflict here between remembrance and the annihilation of memory, because properly understood, it is Amalek’s active legacy—not its memory—that is our target.
Here too, I think, the biblical lesson is of considerable contemporary use. Rocked by waves of scandal and cultural upheaval, institutions are looking anew at their symbols and monuments, and sometimes, even their very names. We are, after all, in the midst of a wave of reckonings: a nationwide opioid crisis, a wave of prominent sexual-assault allegations, a renewed confrontation with America’s racial past, and more. Figures implicated in each of these—and other—reckonings have left their mark, and often their names, on countless areas and edifices of American life.
There are no one-size-fits-all answers to these dilemmas. But those wrestling with calls to erase might do well to consider the scope, and limits, of the biblical call to erase.
Amalek teaches that some memories are more than memories. If the evils of the past remain active, if their nostalgia and symbols continue to inspire action, then the appropriate response is eternal war.
But where memory is inert and impotent, we can afford forbearance, and perhaps even humour. After all, the Purim cacophony reflects dramatic bluster only; Haman’s name is always still heard. The Jewish tradition is not truly interested in the obliteration of memory—even for our greatest enemies.
There is also, I think, an additional reason to think that the obliteration of memory per se is alien to the Jewish tradition. Here as well, Yerushalmi’s Zakhor is instructive.
Throughout his lectures, Yerushalmi wrestles with his own paradox: “that although Judaism throughout the ages was absorbed with the meaning of history, historiography itself played at best an ancillary role among the Jews.” For nearly fifteen hundred years after the death of Josephus the People of the Book, who gave the world Genesis and Exodus, Kings and Chronicles, simply stopped producing historians. “It is as though, abruptly, the impulse to historiography had ceased.”
To resolve the paradox, Yerushalmi posits that Jewish interest in current events faded in the shadow of the Temple’s destruction. In the rupture that followed, the only times that mattered were the biblical past (which, if studied properly, would prefigure and explain the present) and the messianic future (which would resolve the contemporary world’s imperfections).
But Yerushalmi also digs deeper, tracing the origins of the Jewish retreat from history back to the Bible itself. While Kings and Chronicles surely contain recognizable history, Yerushalmi notes that biblical history differs sharply from its classical counterparts in key respects. Herodotus, for instance, explained the purpose of his history as “preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the barbarians from losing their due meed [a fitting reward or wage] of glory.” For Herodotus, writing history was a “bulwark against the inexorable erosion of memory engendered by the passage of time.”
For Jews, however, the telling of history always served an entirely different purpose. The recording of historical events mattered not because this preserved human glory, but because human history reveals the will and purpose of God. Indeed when God first appears to the Jews in Egypt he reveals himself “historically,” as the God of their fathers. As Yerushalmi writes, “If Herodotus was the father of history, then the fathers of meaning in history were the Jews.”
Underlying many of today’s calls for retributory erasure is, I think, a somewhat Herodotean attitude toward history. After all, if history is recorded to provide heroes with their “due meed of glory,” then it only stands to reason that that villains should be stripped of the same.
But if history is, instead, an account (albeit an obscure one) of God’s own involvement in the world, we may be less quick to tinker with the past, to effect our own forgetting. Indeed, for thousands of years, we have even found value in recalling our ultimate enemy.
For millennia, Jews have seen in Amalek a symbol for the enemies and challenges of their own day. This, more than anything, explains the popular embrace of so many dramatic, almost comical, pantomimes of Amalekite annihilation. In shouting down Haman’s name, Jewish communities throughout time have safely imagined, and even longed for, the destruction of their present-day tormentors.
There are, of course, dangers in the use of archetypes. All analogies have their limits, and mechanical conflation obscures as much as it reveals. Pharaoh is not Amalek; Amalek is not the Crusaders; the Crusaders are not Hitler; Hitler is not Stalin; and Stalin is not Hamas. Jews sometimes forget that our enemies are diverse. Their ideologies have differed, their means have differed, the circumstances that empowered them have differed, and the methods that must be used to fight them have differed—and will continue to differ. If we are not careful in how we invoke history, we will find ourselves fighting the wrong battles, applying the wrong remedy to the wrong disease.
But there is also the opposite danger: that we become so bogged down in the particularities of a specific moment, so daunted by the shortcomings of analogy, or so limited by our individual experience, that we cease to search for the wisdom, or feel the obligation, that emerges from a collective past.
That, ultimately, is the careful balance at the heart of the biblical call to remember and to erase. Zakhor summons not just a memory, but a memory that obligates; it exhorts us to annihilate the living legacy of evil, but not to forget it. Because without that memory, we could not act at all.