Is it Right to Rejoice over bin Laden’s death?

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The recent killing of Osama bin Laden has occasioned a wide variety of emotional reactions in this country and abroad. For many Americans, the response was one of relief, admixed with joy, and perhaps some anticipatory anxiety regarding possible reprisals. But whereas bin Laden’s death may have brought some degree of “closure”
to many of us who remember that terrible day almost a decade ago, those who lost loved ones on 9/11 will probably never feel such closure–for many, there will always be that aching sense of loss, anger and sorrow.

But what about those who have loudly celebrated bin Laden’s death, almost with the glee one sees at sporting events? To some degree, this sort of display is understandable and forgivable, after all this country has been through in the past ten years. There is a feeling of deep catharsis and unburdening that few can deny, much less condemn. Even if “justice” in the sense of “due process” was clearly not done in the killing of bin Laden, there is a sense in which a rough, “karmic” kind of justice did prevail. This is expressed in the tale told of Rabbi Hillel, in which he sees the skull of an evil-doer floating upon the water. We read (Pirke Avot, chapter 2, mishnah 7)

“He [Hillel] further saw a skull floating on the water. He said to it: ‘Because you drowned [others], you were drowned; and in the end those who drowned you will be drowned.'”

One important element of the Judaic tradition is that we are not commanded to “love” our enemies–only to treat them fairly. On the other hand, the Judaic tradition teaches us that we should not “rejoice” when our enemy falls. This, arguably, would apply to the death even of one such as Osama bin Laden. However, one can argue that it is morally permissible to take satisfaction and even joy in the fact that the world has one less malefactor in it, and that the net amount of evil in the world has thereby been decreased. Indeed, the Judaic tradition does allow us to rejoice when evil and injustice are defeated. In principle, this is different than rejoicing in the death of a fellow human-being, who, after all, was made in the image of God.

Loudly celebrating the death of a fellow human being–even one who has committed unspeakable crimes–is unseemly, and inconsistent with humane values. But taking visible satisfaction in the undoing of a terrible malefactor is understandable and even morally appropriate, if carried out with restraint and decorum.

The distinction is subtle, though, and I suspect many Americans have not taken it to heart. Perhaps more important than what we do with the evil of those like bin Laden is what we do with our own capacity for creating good in the world. As Rav Abraham Isaac Kook taught, “The purely righteous do not complain about evil; rather, they add justice…they do not complain about ignorance; rather, they add wisdom.”

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1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks, Pat–I agree that there is room for interpretation of these Biblical passages, as always. The Exodus story is of considerable importance, and Rabbi Lerner comments on this from the Judaic standpoint:

    “A classic…rabbinic interpretation tells us that God rebukes the angels who are singing and rejoicing after Pharoah’s army drowns, saying:  “The work of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you sing songs?”  Whenever a human life is taken, even one that is bent on evil, it is a loss from God’s perspective. [my emphasis–RP]

    Rabbi Lerner continues: “It is interesting to note that the [rabbinical interpretation] has God commenting to the angels but not rebuking the Israelites for whom there would naturally be a degree of joy. A colleague shared with me a powerful teaching from Rabbi Kalman Shapira who continued to teach his students throughout the Shoah [Holocaust] in the Warsaw Ghetto until they were all murdered.  He buried his…sermons and teachings from the war in milk cans in the Ghetto and luckily, they were discovered after the war and published as “Esh Kodesh, The Holy Fire.”

    Offering his own commentary on…God rebuking the angels, Rabbi Shapira taught:  “Was an angel ever hit?  Was an angel ever murdered?  Was an angel ever humiliated?  We were!  The angels did not suffer as we did in Egypt, so they could not sing.  But we did suffer – we suffered immensely – and therefore during the Exodus from Egypt…[Moses could] sing.’”

    My take on all this, Pat? If we were angels, we would probably be reprimanded for “celebrating” OBL’s death. But we are not angels, and never will be. Still: we should find a way, as soon as possible, of getting beyond celebrating another human being’s death, and move to finding ways of bringing more good into the world.

    –Best, Ron