As the solar system works its magic on the planet, the dark days of winter begin to lengthen, and the wisdom of the Jewish calendar turns our attention to thoughts of… revenge.
Shabbat Zachor approaches, with its commandment to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens — do not forget!” And, a month later, Purim — a fun holiday for kids that, at its foundation, commemorates and celebrates the collective vengeance of Persian Jewry against a fanatical, highly placed, enemy. What were our sages thinking when they prepared us to greet the season of rebirth with grim imperatives of violence and death?
Beats me. On February 8 I shared my confusion publicly in a talk at the UW on the theme of Amalek in Jewish spirituality. Those who stayed awake till the end may recall that my point was that the thrust of Jewish thought — halachic, mystical, and Hassidic — has been to direct the fulfillment of the commandment to obliterate our enemies inward, toward our own selves. The real Amalek is obliterated through t’shuvah (repentance), not murder.
I was thinking about all this when I recently read the horrifying little story in the Seattle P-I about the Somali imam, leader of a Rainier Valley mosque, who had — until his detention for deportation hearings — been reported to have urged his flock to attack the synagogue “of a nearby Jewish community” as an urgent Islamic imperative. Those of us reading that story in Seward Park felt the hair on our necks prickle. “Hey, that’s us!!”
All of the sudden it made a certain kind of intuitive sense to read, in other news stories, about certain Torah scholars who suggest that, in our day, Amalek is none other than the entire Islamic world, or at least that part of it that lives in the Land of Israel.
Well, thank God the world is more complicated than that! Permit me to share with you key portions of an article written for a South Asian Webzine (Chowk.com) by Ms. Kyla Pasha, a former student in the M.A. program of Comparative Religion at the UW.
Kyla is a young Pakistani Muslim — ”a believing Muslim” — was how she introduced herself to me in our graduate seminar on “Theories of Religion.” She had come to the UW to study Islam academically, but took full advantage of our Jewish Studies offerings. It was my honor to introduce her to the beauty of Jewish mysticism and the intricacies of rabbinic oral traditions.
This past fall, Kyla returned to Pakistan, hoping to pursue a teaching career in Comparative Religion. Just yesterday I received from her the following thoughts. With her permission, I share them here as my contribution to upholding the traditional Jewish view that Amalek must be erased from inside of us before we can point our fingers at him in the form of our human Others.
Her essay is titled “Muslim Profanities.”
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I don’t know why the sight of a broken dome makes me cry…. But I look at pictures of the ravaged Al-Askariyya dome, and I want to know: what is the religion of a mosque-destroyer?
The tenth Imam is buried there, with his sister. And the eleventh. The twelfth Imam, Imam Mahdi, hid there for a time, before disappearing, going into occultation, to await the end of days. His mother is buried there.
Did it matter that these were the Imams? Did it matter that they were the descendents of the Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him? Did it matter that they had been leaders of a whole community of Muslims? That swarms of Muslims pick up their lives and their dreams, their prayers and their anguish, and come to these graves to bless the memory of these dead, and their own dead, to pray for themselves and their loved ones, to commune?...
The penitential month of Muharram is about mourning. We’ve given ourselves much to mourn. Some bigot drew hateful cartoons of the Prophet and we rampaged across our own cities, set fire to McDonald’s restaurants (local franchises), broke windows on cars (local owners), and still made it home in time for supper. In Pakistan, whole livelihoods have been destroyed, Muslim livelihoods, in defense of the Prophet, may he still intercede for us on the Day of Judgment. Further west, Iran is offering financial aid to the Hamas government and drawing cartoons of the Holocaust. And then, Wednesday morning, someone set off a bomb in one of the most venerated Shi’a holy sites.
I don’t know what to tell you about us. Sometimes I think, Qayamat aa rahi hai. Namazein parrho. (Doomsday’s coming. Say your prayers.) And then sometimes I wonder if the world ends every generation. I’m 26 and Sunni, living in Lahore. Today my heart is breaking because the Golden Dome of Samarra is gone, kicked in the teeth by people who can’t see past the end of their politics, who have no sense of the cosmic and no faith in the world to come….
[W]e’re 23 days into the new year and already it feels like Aam al-Huzn. When the Prophet’s wife Khadijah and his uncle Abu Talib died in the same year, the year became known as Aam al-Huzn, the Year of Sadness. Cartoons, riots, protests, bombings. Hamas. Iraq. So many things in Pakistan. What will the next eleven months bring?
Does an impotent ummah (Muslim community), dying from the bombs of others and the bombs of its own, have the presence of mind to say inna lillah, all things unto God, and inna ileyhi raji’un, to Him is the return?”
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With this thought, Kyla concludes her musings.
Let me add: in this season of Amalek and Haman, may the House of Israel merit the courage of public self-critique and private t’shuvah modeled by my young Pakistani colleague.
Martin Jaffee teaches in both the Comparative Religion and Jewish Studies programs at the University of Washington. When not masquerading as a journalist, he writes on the history of Talmudic literature as well as theoretical problems in the study of religion.