ornate antique black and white illustration of two armies meeting in battle
Illustration from Phillip Medhurst Collection shows Joshua fighting Amalek

Our capacity to forgive must be stronger than cancel culture

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Ki Teitzei

Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19

The Torah portion Ki Teitzei occurs toward the end of the book of Deuteronomy, and of the Pentateuch as a whole. And at the very end of the parashah, we find three verses that are set apart from the other content — mostly ritual and ethical laws — that mark the rest of the portion.

“Remember what Amalek did to you,” Moses declares to the assembled tribes of Israel, “on your journey, after you left Egypt.” (Deut. 25:17)

There is not much detail that is recorded in the text when the battle between the Amalekites and the Israelites actually takes place (Exodus 17:8-16). But in the recounting of the event all these years later, Moses explains why the episode was so savage and traumatic.

Amalek is a particularly despised enemy because “he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.” (Deut. 25:18)

It seems that the Amalekites launched a sneak attack on the weak and vulnerable Israelites who were at the back of the migrating tribes. Such behavior would indicate a ruthlessness, even a genocidal impulse, that was, apparently even in Biblical times, singular to the Amalekites.

Moses tells his people to always remember what the Amalekites did to them. But he also tells them to blot out (or, using a contemporary term, cancel) Amalek forever. As descendants of the Israelites who are bound by the same directive, how can we both remember and forget at the same time?

Some commenters understand the idea of blotting out Amalek as wiping them out, i.e. destroying them before they can destroy us. Others argue that Jews should never seek to exterminate another people, but only to make their name, their legacy, disappear.

In the same way that Jews drown out Haman’s name when it is read during Purim, our tradition seems to be telling us that some atrocities, some legacies, are so vile and heinous that they must be eradicated except in the context of understanding our past.

Handing down stories about historical events is one thing. Keeping a name alive is another.

Memory is very important in the Jewish community. Some Jews, when faced with antisemitism, shout “never again!” at protests and demonstrations. Beyond their threat of resistance, what they also mean is that they will never forget what antisemites have done to their people.

And, if we’re being truly honest, that they will never forgive them.

Modern Judaism doesn’t believe in collective guilt. And the rabbis looked at forgiveness as a spiritual and moral virtue. All you need to do is look at the liturgy of the Days of Awe. God forgives us for our wrongdoings, and by doing so models for us how we ought to forgive others for theirs.

And yet, truth be told, the Jewish community has not always been a forgiving one, and we have held children guilty for the sins of their parents and grandparents. We have practiced our own form of cancel culture.

I remember growing up when Jews in my Midwestern community wouldn’t buy German cars, even though those cars were manufactured by Germans who were born long after the Holocaust.

I’m sure that many of you have experienced similar examples.

Holding people today responsible for what their ancestors might have done is wrong. Likewise, impugning guilt on our neighbors because of the problematic behavior of others in their national, ethnic or religious group is irrational and unjust. And it feels distinctly un-Jewish.

We should never forget the hateful, heinous acts that have been committed against the Jewish people throughout our long history. And we should always remain vigilant, and strong, so that they do not happen to us again.

But if we lose the capacity to forgive, if our hearts have become so hardened that we are no longer capable of empathy and compassion, then what are we?

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."