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Is Osama Bin Laden’s Death a Cause for Celebration?

05/03/2011 11:23:20 AM


Rabbi George Gittleman

“How was your day?” I asked my 15-year-old son. “Fine,” he said. “How about yours?” “No complaints. Did you talk about Bin Laden in school?” “Yeah. Feels kinda weird to me, I mean to celebrate. I don’t want to celebrate someone’s death, even a bad person’s death.  Do we do that Dad? Is that what Jews do?”

What a great question and yes, I could not have been more proud to hear it from my own son.  As it was, I had already received a few inquiries from the congregation similar to Levi’s and like Levi I was deeply ambivalent; grateful that one very bad man had been brought to justice, sad at the great cost in every sense of the word of his life and death. 

I think Levi’s question can be split into two parts:

Is it ok, according to Jewish Tradition, to celebrate the downfall of our enemies?
What good can really come from Osama Bin Laden’s death?

I don’t feel qualified to answer the second question but I will attempt a response to the first.

With matzah still between our teeth, the question of the appropriateness of celebrating the defeat of our enemies should be fresh in our minds. After all, the Haggadah spends considerable time on this issue.  For example, the medieval custom of dipping our fingers in wine while we recite each plague, thus reducing our own joy, drop by drop, as we recall our enemy’s pain. There is also the oft quoted midrash that when the angels began to sing in praise of God at the drowning of the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds, God silenced them saying, “My handiwork, my human creatures are drowning and you want to sing a song of praise?”

But, as you might imagine (or remember) the story doesn’t end here. As one approaches the end of the seder and the 4th cup of wine, there is a section many skip over which does not call for joy, but certainly demands revenge:

“Pour out your fury on the nations that do not know you, the kingdoms that do not invoke your name, for they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home. Pour out your wrath on them, may your blazing anger over take them…”
Surprised? Our ancient ancestors did not struggle with political correctness as we do, though it wasn’t until after the bloody Crusades that these verses of Divine anger were added to the Haggaddah.  If you find this section a bit troublesome, you will be happy to know that this expression of at least the desire (or perhaps fantasy) of revenge is followed by the blessing over the 4th cup of wine (remember, wine is a symbol of joy and celebration in Judaism) and then Hallel, which is a doxology of sorts, an extended praise of God with references to the Exodus as well.

So, do Jews celebrate the defeat of our enemies? I guess it depends on who you ask, for as usual, Judaism is multi-vocalic (speaks with many and at times contradictory voices). How frustrating when you just want a “yes” or “no” answer! Frustrating but true to life, much of which is lived in shades of gray rather than the more definitive black or white. Nevertheless, I side with my son; I feel no joy in O.B.L’s death. Satisfaction? Perhaps. Hope? Maybe. But no joy, for the cost of his life was tens if not hundreds of thousands of other lives, and the wars that he started aren’t over.
Av harachaman, hamrachem alienu/Source of Compassion, have compassion on us…

Wed, August 4 2021 26 Av 5781