February 28, 2015[1]

President Obama:

Today in synagogues all across the world we read a portion of the Torah known as “Parshat Zachor”. In this brief reading we evoke the mandate to recall what the nation of Amalek had done to us when we left Egypt over three thousand years ago. At the time we were on our way to the land of Israel, not threatening Amalek or their land in any way, and yet they chose to confront and to attack us. This was the first of a number of such confrontations with Amalek throughout our history. We are mandated to recall this event and the attendant obligation to destroy any trace of this nation that has repeatedly sought to destroy us.

On more than one occasion in the early 1950’s, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of the great scholars and thinkers of recent Jewish history, publicly recalled a teaching he had heard from his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik. He derived from a close reading of Maimonides’ code that the on-going, trans-generational obligation to destroy Amalek is not limited to a single, specific nation. Rather it includes our obligation to stand up to “any nation or group that has (figuratively) emblazoned on its flag the war chant cited in Psalm 83, ‘Let us go and eradicate them (the Jews) as a nation, such that the name of Israel shall no longer be recalled’; that nation becomes the contemporary Amalek.” Thus in the 1930’s and 40’s the Nazis under Hitler filled that role. They were the Amalekites of their time, carrying forth that irrational hostility. Today, said Rabbi Soloveitchik in the early 1950’s, that position is occupied by the masses loyal to Nasser and the Mufti.

It goes without saying Mr. President that today – in 2015 – we in the Jewish community feel the venom of Amalek once again embodied in Iran and its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, and in ISIL. They are our contemporary Amalek, and we are duty bound – for our own safety – to protect ourselves from them. And so we are more than a bit concerned about your efforts in dealing with these existential threats to our existence. We feel that the approach you are taking is based upon certain premises with which we strongly take issue.

Before approaching the substance of our concerns, I would like to make two things clear. First, it upsets me deeply when I hear people referring to you as someone who lacks concern for the Jewish people, or even has anti-Semitic feelings. I do not believe this to be the case, first because nothing you have done demonstrates it, and second because I have had a number of opportunities to hear from long-time friends and acquaintances of yours that you had always been a friend and supporter of the Jewish community. I feel that such statements about our president are irresponsible, inappropriate and very unproductive.

Second, I respect and understand your fear of a broad clash of civilizations. History has known many such clashes and they have been devastating to the world, leaving much death and destruction in their wake. Contemplating the destruction such a clash could bring in our time, with our advanced weaponry, is horrifying. As such I understand your desire to see contemporary society as past such broad clashes, and to avoid using language that could fuel such a conflict.

That said, let us consider the issue itself. I would like to draw on your own words, your own perception of the religious landscape of our world.

Earlier this month at the National Prayer Breakfast, you articulated three principles of faith. In your words:

I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe. First, we should start with some basic humility.  I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth….

And the second thing we need is to uphold the distinction between our faith and our governments.  Between church and between state.  The United States is one of the most religious countries in the world — far more religious than most Western developed countries.  And one of the reasons is that our founders wisely embraced the separation of church and state.  Our government does not sponsor a religion, nor does it pressure anyone to practice a particular faith, or any faith at all.  And the result is a culture where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can freely and proudly worship, without fear, or coercion….

And, finally, let’s remember that if there is one law that we can all be most certain of that seems to bind people of all faiths, and people who are still finding their way towards faith but have a sense of ethics and morality in them — that one law, that Golden Rule that we should treat one another as we wish to be treated.  The Torah says “Love thy neighbor as yourself.”  In Islam, there is a Hadith that states: “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”  The Holy Bible tells us to “put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”  Put on love.

While this may be a good description of your faith, Mr. President, I believe this falls short of describing the principles that guide many of us people of faith who are very far from violent extremism. For while we are indeed bound together by our commitment to the Golden Rule and to a broad mandate of charity and compassion, that is a very partial picture of our faith.

To illustrate this allow me to once again call upon today’s Torah reading. After describing how Amalek attacked those straggling at the rear of our camp while we were tired and weary, the verse says cryptically, “and not G-d fearing.” Some see this as a descriptive of Amalek; they did not fear G-d and so they attacked His Chosen People. Others read it as a weakness in us, the Jewish People, that we were vulnerable to being victimized because we were not G-d fearing. Indeed fear of G-d is a fundamental religious value. This fear is not simply a practical recognition of G-d’s power over our fate. Rather it is a recognition that G-d’s word dictates right and wrong; that what we do and say matters; and that we can find ourselves on the wrong side of truth. And as the prophet Samuel said to King Saul after he failed to properly prosecute the war against Amalek in his day, “obedience of G-d is better than a good offering to Him.” Positive acts of divine service – expressions of love of G-d – are great, but obedience – fear of G-d – is that much greater. Saul failed, as the verse described it, because he feared people more than he feared G-d.

And this is where our faith differs from yours. For us and for people of faith throughout the generations, religion does not simply tell us to be good and kind. It also defines our truth, and places all kinds of guidelines and limits on our lives. It makes us capable of seeing and defining something as wrong or evil.

We understand that this is not the prevailing religious attitude in the West. While America may be considered a very religious country in terms of belief in G-d, participation in prayer and celebration of religious holidays, it is not a country where the limitations imposed by religious life play a strong role. One might say that the West has embraced the love of G-d, but not His fear.

And for the many people of faith for whom fear of G-d is part and parcel of their religious life, doubt is not a principle of our faith. The opposite is the case. Our expressions of faith traditionally begin with the formulation, “Ani Maamin b’Emunah Sheleimah”, “I believe with a complete – absolute – faith….” We believe with confidence that G-d revealed Himself to our forebears and shared with them His truth with sufficient clarity that we readily redraw our entire lives around those revealed truths. Our religion does not simply lead us to be nice and to attend services on specific occasions. It defines our lives, families, and our every interaction. Yes we extoll humility as a great virtue, and there are areas of our faith left with room for doubt, but fundamentally our religion is built upon a sense of the certainty born of revelation.

For the very same reason, while we have embraced the separation of church and state as the best practical arrangement for our communities dispersed as they are throughout the countries and faiths of the world, the image of our own state in ideal times –as described in the Torah – is of a country ruled by a king who cradled the Torah in his arm wherever he went. “It shall be with him and he shall read from it all of the days of his life.” To us – and to many people of faith – it would be the ultimate anachronism to be given the privilege of self-governance and to not grant that governance to G-d’s law.

Judaism – even ancient Judaism – differs fundamentally and favorably from the classic religious doctrines of Islam and Christianity in that it never, at any time, prescribed or encouraged the spread of our religion by the sword. We would fight against Amalek and others who would come to destroy us, but other than that our active mandate was limited to promoting our faith amongst our own. And Judaism firmly believes that G-d cares not only about us, but about all of His creations.

Yet our religious attitude towards religion and truth makes it easy for us to understand how the faiths of others may teach them that truth requires them to impose their faith on others. Thus we are hardly surprised by and take the Iranian Shia and the Sunni of ISIL at their word. We are deeply afraid that you are misjudging them by applying to them your own principles of faith. In the words of Graeme Wood in his important article on ISIS in the current issue of the Atlantic, your approach reflects a “kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul.”

As you yourself pointed out, this kind of violence is not a new or exclusively Islamic phenomenon. Centuries ago, the Christian Crusaders and the courts of the Inquisition did the same in the name of their faith, by the instruction of their Pope. And so – given the strong historic lineage of such acts done under unquestioned religious leaders – it is rather difficult to accept what you often repeat, that “No G-d condones this terror.”

And today this kind of behavior is being propagated exclusively by two streams of Islam, one headed by Iran and the other by ISIL. Their religious fervor cannot be tamed by welcoming its adherents and promoters into the family of nations. Again, in your words as said at the UN: “The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.” You said it then regarding ISIL, but it is no less true of the “network of death” represented by Iran and its proxies.

It is in this that we see things differently than you – and with deep concern. We understand that in your desire to avoid a clash of civilizations you prefer to see Iran as a frustrated rogue state that can be brought into the community of nations by being given a seat at the table, and ISIL as a gang of criminals driven by their economic and social failures. But we see it as they say it and as we can readily accept: both Iran and ISIL are acting upon religious convictions that are fierce and dangerous, and that will only understand the language of force.

Though not in religious terms, Prime Minister Netanyahu sees the gap between us, in our willingness to name the enemy, in a similar way. In an essay he published in the early 80’s on terrorism, he wrote:

The attempts at explain away terrorist outrages as the result of the “desperation” of individuals or groups are not based on a simplistic fallacy; they neatly echo the terrorists’ own assertions, which are meant to legitimize their criminal actions and divert public attention from the real forces behind terrorism…. Slowly, imperceptibly, the initial horror recedes, and in its place comes a readiness to accept the terrorists’ point of view. We in the West, after all, are accustomed to believe there is always another “point of view” worth looking at.

So we are worried. Deeply worried. We see ourselves facing growing and powerful groups committed to our destruction and saying so, but in one way or the other either being given a place at the table – in the case of Iran – or being treated as a marginal phenomenon addressable by the right social programs – in the case of ISIL. We profoundly fear that these attitudes will leave us very vulnerable as the groups involved are given the time and the space to grow.

Yet with all this the story of Purim gives me hope.

First, because Purim teaches us – in a very different way – to blur the distinction between good and evil. No, not the kind of murky moral obfuscation that spells catastrophe both internally and strategically. But rather to look at events in our national life and to refuse to categorize them as irredeemably bad. After all, in the story of Purim the villainous Haman is seen as one who through his decrees drove the Jewish People to change and improve more effectively than the prophets had in their heyday. The story of Purim saw tragedies such as the kidnapping of Esther to the harem of the king turn into a life-saving opportunity for our nation. And we can verify this because in our own time we have seen the six million victims of the Holocaust become the six million – and counting – residents of our ancestral homeland.

And so with this as our past, as fearful as we are of these looming threats – and we are very fearful – we take hope in knowing that the Jewish People will live on; that tragedy will be averted or converted to triumph.

Second, because Purim tell us what to do. When our ancestors faced a similar crisis and Esther had to breach protocol and enter the palace to speak to the king without a proper invitation, she asked us – her people – to spend three days in fasting and prayer for her success. We too know that this is our charge. We know that we must pray to G-d that as Prime Minister Netanyahu – who at this point speaks for the Jewish People in Israel and beyond (yes, he does speak for us!) – he will enter carried by the prayers of thousands of his brethren who are using these days to pray that “G-d be with the mouths of those representing His people, the House of Israel.”

And finally because I still harbor a real, though possibly naïve, hope. Because as you know Haman was also invited to take a place around Esther’s table. At first she invited this sworn enemy of her people to her palace receptions, and he thought that he was her best friend. Until at last, when it really mattered, Esther pulled off both her mask and his, and pointed an accusatory finger directly at him: “A man of animosity and enmity, this evil Haman”. She named the monster, and thus ended the drama and the threat.

I too hope against hope that in the coming days you too – after all these palace parties and negotiations with Iranians around your table – will pull off your mask and theirs and name the monster, ending this drama and leading us – and the world – to a happier ending.

I hope and pray that G-d be with you and guide you on a path of wisdom, clarity and courage at this critical juncture in world history.


Rabbi Moshe Hauer

  1. Although this was written in 2015, it remains relevant today.