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In Gruss Lecture, Stern Connects Exodus Story To Modern Terrorism
ACCORDING TO THE TORAH, the ancient Israelites
were ambushed on their exodus from Egypt by the ancient Canaanite nation of Amaleq. In reaction,
God vows eternal war against this people and Israel is commanded to utterly destroy them, to remember, and never to forget their act of aggression. Since then, the mythic figure of Amaleq has been appropriated as an image for all the worst enemies
of Israel, actual and imagined, from Crusader Christianity to current Arab terrorists and from Satanic evil to the human evil impulse.
In the Gruss lectures last fall, Visiting Gruss Professor Josef Stern, of the Department of Philosophy and Committee on Jewish
Studies at the University of Chicago, showed how Moses Maimonides, arguably the greatest Jewish thinker in the rabbinic
tradition, interpreted the biblical story of Amaleq and the rabbinic commandments to destroy the nation and never forget its evil in light of his medieval historical situation and his philosophical
On the one hand, Maimonides attempts to discourage, if not prevent, zealous anti-terrorists (in today’s terminology) from individually
acting on the biblical commandments, spontaneously identifying enemies of Israel with Amaleq and then proceeding to annihilate them with scriptural warrant. On the other, he philosophically identifies Amaleq with Christianity, which he takes to be a form of idolatry, and interprets the commandments
never to forget and constantly to remember Amaleq as injunctions to hate - to normatively oppose and never forgive, excuse, or disregard idolatry and its culture. Through this philosophical interpretation of the biblical story and commandments,
Stern showed how Maimonides tried to correct potential abuses of Law while retain and even deepen its meaningfulness through changing circumstances.