How to Respond to Osama Bin Laden’s Death
A few moments after hearing that the United States military had killed Osama bin Laden, I quickly tweeted congratulations to President Obama, the American military, and the American people for having neutralized this monster. I added a second tweet that quoted the Bible, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.” (Proverbs 24:17) I mentioned that Bin Laden’s death was not a cause for celebration or parades but rather a time for thanks and gratitude to G-d that evil had been rooted out and that innocents had been protected via the elimination of a cold-blooded killer intent on murdering the defenseless.
Within minutes my close friend Rosie O’Donnell tweeted to her followers, “Do rabbis condone violence – war – murder?”
The exchange between me and Rosie sparked a huge debate over Twitter. It’s an important debate and I want to clarify my position as well as offer the Jewish values take on bin Laden’s death.
Judaism stands alone as a world religion in its commandment to hate evil. Exhortations to hate all manner of evil abound in the Bible and God declares His detestation of those who visit cruelty on His children. Psalm 97 is emphatic: “You who love G-d must hate evil.” Proverbs 8 declares, “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil.” Amos 5 demands, “Hate the evil and love the good.” And Isaiah 5 warns, “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil.” And concerning the wicked King David declares unequivocally, “I have hated them with a perfect hatred. They are become enemies to me.” (Psalm 139) Hatred is a valid emotion, the appropriate moral response, to the human encounter with inhuman cruelty. Mass murderers most elicit our deepest hatred and contempt.
On the other hand, the Bible also says that we are not to celebrate our enemy’s demise. We do not dance over the body of a murderer like Osama bin Laden. Indeed, at the Passover Seder we Jews, upon mentioning the Ten Plagues, poor wine out of our glasses ten separate times to demonstrate that we will not raise a glass to the suffering of the Egyptians, even though they were engaged in genocide. Likewise, after the Red Sea split and drowned the Egyptians, Moses and the Jewish people sang ‘The Song of the Sea.’ Yet, the Talmud says that G-d himself rebuked the Israelites: ‘My creatures are drowning in the sea, yet you have now decided to sing about it?’
We wish there never was evil in the world. It would have been far better for there never to have to been a Pharaoh, a Hitler, or an Osama bin Laden. When Hitler blows his brains out in a Berlin bunker we give thanks to G-d that his unspeakable evil has finally come to an end. But who could possibly rejoice after so many innocents have died?
The same is true of 9/11. Three thousand people died. Are we now going to jump for joy that their killer has been brought to justice? No. This is a time to give thanks to G-d and show gratitude. But who can celebrate? Their families are still bereft. They are still missing. American soldiers continue to die in Iraq and Afghanistan. We do not gloat over the triumph over evil because its very existence must forever be mourned.
Many readers wrote to me that on Purim Jews celebrate the death of Haman. Incorrect. We celebrate the deliverance of an innocent people from genocide.
But for those who go further and quote to me Jesus’ injunction that we are to love our enemies, I respond that to love murderers is to practice contempt against their victims. Those who do not hate bin Laden have been morally compromised. A member of the Taliban who cuts off a woman’s nose and ears or an Al Qaida terrorist who flies a plane into a building has cast off the image of G-d from their countenance and is no longer our human brother. They deserve not amnesty but abhorrence, not clemency but contempt. And since humans cannot bestow life, neither can they act in the place of G-d and forgive those who take life.
To my Christian brothers and sisters I say, as a Jew who has just completed a book about Jesus that is thoroughly sourced in the New Testament, that Jesus never meant to forgive G-d’s enemies. He words are specific. He says to love your enemy. Your enemy is the guy who steals your parking space. G-d’s enemies are those blow up airplanes. Likewise, in advocating turning the other cheek Jesus never meant that if someone kills 3000 American citizens you are to allow him to kill 3000 British as well. Rather, Jesus meant to forgive petty slights rather than monstrous evil.
I do not believe in revenge, something the Bible explicitly prohibits. The ancient Jewish understanding of the Biblical injunction of ‘an eye for an eye’ was always financial restitution for the lost productivity of an eye rather than the barbaric taking of an organ itself. But I do believe in justice, and forgiving murder or loving a terrorist makes a mockery of human love and a shambles of human justice. The human capacity for love is limited enough without us making the reprehensible mistake of directing even a sliver of our heart away from the victims and toward their culprits.
Ecclesiastes expressed it best. There is not just a time to love but also a time to hate. I hate Osama bin Laden but I will not rejoice in his death. It would have been better for the world had he never been born. But once he was, and once he directed his life to unspeakable cruelty, it was necessary for him to be stopped and killed. And for that I give thanks to G-d and the brave soldiers of the American military for making the world a safer, more just, and innocent place.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the author of ‘Judaism for Everyone’ and is founder of ‘This World: The Values Network’, which is now launching ‘The American Institute of Jewish Values’ to promote universal Jewish teachings in American media and culture. For more information write to [email protected]