Sunday, February 22, 2015

Calling Evil By Its Name (Shabbat Zachor)

Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the Eternal your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land God is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!  (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

When we are confronted by genuine evil, it behooves us to muster the courage to speak its name and confront it honestly.

In the Harry Potter books, it is no accident that the villainous Voldemort is ultimately defeated by the only wizard who dares to refer to him directly rather than addressing him through euphemisms such as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”  JK Rowling reminds us that we cannot hope to triumph over that which we are afraid to name.  Only when we openly acknowledge the nature of what threatens us can we begin to make headway against it.

Thus the paradox at the heart of the special portion for this week, known as Shabbat Zachor, in which God commands us to blot out the name of our arch-enemy Amalek—for in order to blot out the name of those who prey on the vulnerable, we must, of course, first speak it aloud.  And so on Purim, we repeatedly speak the name of Amalek’s descendant, Haman—and raise a ruckus each time we do so.  It’s all in good fun, but it’s deadly serious, too.  We speak of the evil—and in doing so, destroy its power over us.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, columnist Roger Cohen critized President Obama for his failure to label the horrific acts of groups like ISIS and the murderers who struck in Paris and, most recently, Copenhagen, as Islamic extremism.  Cohen—who is a left-leaning journalist and frequent critic of Israel—speaks out here and argues:
To call this movement, whose most potent recent manifestation is the Islamic State, a ‘dark ideology’ is like calling Nazism a reaction to German humiliation in World War I: true but wholly inadequate. There is little point in Western politicians rehearsing lines about there being no battle between Islam and the West, when in all the above-mentioned countries tens of millions of Muslims, with much carnage as evidence, believe the contrary.” (to see Cohen’s entire column, go to:

I understand why many on the political left are wary of speaking of Islamic radicalism.  They are reacting to many on the political right who can be far too quick to label all of our adversaries as evil, and to castigate all Muslims for the sins of their most fanatical brethren.  Anti-Islamic bigotry is a real and present danger in our culture.

But so, too, is na├»ve vagary around an ideology that is currently behind so much brutality spreading around the globe.  If we are to defeat Islamic radicalism, we must first call it what it is—and enlist the support of anti-Islamist Muslims who are, in the end, the only ones who can save their tradition from the extremists who would use their tradition to terrorize and destroy.

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