SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — When the news of Osama bin Laden’s death at U.S. hands hit the airwaves Sunday, America breathed a collective sigh of relief. Spontaneous celebrations broke out from Ground Zero to in front of the White House, as crowds gathered to wave the Stars and Stripes and chant their delight.
But how should Jews respond when an evil-doer meets his end?
There is no easy answer, leading rabbis say.
Even asking the question is very Jewish, writes Rabbi Tzvi Freeman on Chabad.org.
“It’s so typically Jewish to feel guilty about rejoicing,” he opined.
A number of prominent rabbis spoke to JTA on the subject, sharing their conflicted reactions borne of a tension within Jewish teaching itself.
“As the president said, justice was done,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “Bin Laden was an evil man. He preyed on the weak. He killed in the name of God.”
“But,” the rabbi continued, “I was not comfortable with the celebrations. Thoughtful discussion and thoughtful remembrance of recent events are to be preferred to dancing in the streets.”
There are examples within Jewish tradition of celebrating an enemy’s death, of asking God for their destruction.
Consider the Purim story, where the Jews feasted after slaying those who were, admittedly, arming to slay them. Or God’s command to King Saul to obliterate the entire house of Amalek for its wicked ways: “Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (I Sam. 15: 2-3).
Conversely, one of the best-known rituals of the Passover seder is spilling 10 drops of wine when mentioning the Ten Plagues to symbolize a lessening of our own joy in the face of Egyptian suffering. In Sanhedrin 39b, God admonishes the angels for rejoicing when the Egyptian soldiers drown in the Red Sea, saying “The work of My hands is drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?”
“I don’t think we ‘celebrate’ a death,” explained Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional association of Conservative clergy.
In the case of bin Laden there is, she said, “a sense of relief, an affirmation of God’s justice has been carried out.” Such an event, however, “is a time for sobriety, not celebration.”
Nevertheless, Schonfeld added, one needs to distinguish between an ideal, religiously inspired response and the reality of human nature.
“Sept. 11 was a day of tremendous trauma,” she said, and the raucous street celebrations can be viewed as a kind of catharsis. “What we’re seeing is a reminder of how personally people were affected. It’s an understandable human response that we as Jews are blessed to elevate to a Jewish response.”
Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the professional association for Orthodox clergy, also distinguished between the ideal and the real.
“In an ideal world, we serve God because we want to do His will, not because he rewards us or we fear punishment,” he said. “But we’re human, we’re not angels. We live in a world where people need reinforcement, need a sense that it’s all worth it in the end.”
The Jewish way is not to gloat, Herring said. It is appropriate to rejoice when evil doers get their just reward, but the rejoicing should be because we are witnessing God’s power and justice. It shouldn’t come, he said, from “a self-satisfied smug sense of ‘Yes, I’ve been proven right.’
“It’s an affirmation that God is not just an abstract idea, a Creator, but part of our lives," Herring continued. "God cares. God loves us. That’s an essential article of our faith, that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. We rejoice because our faith is borne out.”
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a Jewish Renewal rabbi and director of Philadelphia’s Shalom Center, said he would have preferred that the Navy SEALS had brought bin Laden back to the United States to stand trial.
Just as Israeli agents didn’t kill Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann when they found him in Argentina a half-century ago, but tried him in Jerusalem to expose the true horror of the Holocaust and give its victims a chance to speak their truth, so would putting bin Laden on trial have been an opportunity to uncover the real face of al-Qaida, he said.
“That would have been an extraordinary act in support of upholding the values we claim make us different,” Waskow said.
Pointing to the story of Moses, Waskow quotes the Midrash as saying that one reason Moses was not permitted to cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land was because in his youth he killed an Egyptian overseer, taking justice into his own hands without bringing him to trial.
Trying bin Laden “would have been messy,” Waskow acknowledged, "but in the long run I’m sure it would have been better.”