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May 9, 2011 4:17 pm

The Morality of Killing Bin Laden

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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Osama Bin laden in video footage captured by US forces. Photo: The White House.

In imagining how we Americans would react to the news that Osama bin Laden had finally been killed, I expected mass expressions of relief. But what I never anticipated was the celebrations.

To be sure, Osama bin Laden was evil personified. We had a moral obligation to abhor him, as the Bible makes clear in Amos, “Hate the evil and love the good.” But while feelings of revulsion were justified, feelings of elation at his demise were not.

All of life’s events fall into three categories: the good, the bad, and the necessary. Divorce, for example, is never good. It is often bad. But it is frequently necessary. War and killing is the same. It is never good. It is usually bad. But it unfortunately sometimes becomes necessary.

It would have been better had Osama bin Laden never been born, and once born, it would certainly have been better had he never embarked on a career of mass murder. But once he made his choices, it became necessary to kill him.

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I say kill as opposed to murder because, for those who say the United States had no right to ‘murder’ bin Laden, indeed, we never did. The Ten Commandments makes a direct distinction between killing (taharog), which involves the taking of a culpable life, and murder (tirtzach), which involves the taking of an innocent one.

Humans are given license to kill for the sole purpose of self-defense. Exodus 22 states, “If a thief is caught breaking in at night and is struck a fatal blow, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed.” Since without sunlight the intruder’s intentions cannot be discerned, one must act preemptively and defend one’s life even at the cost of the assailant’s. Failure to do so constitutes contempt for one’s own life and is a sin against the Creator. Commenting on this verse the Talmud is emphatic: If someone comes to murder you, arise and kill him first.

The obligation to protect the innocent and punish their butchers is famously conveyed in Leviticus 19, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” and again in Psalm 82, “Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.”

But nowhere in the Bible, or anywhere in Jewish literature, is there any justification for celebrating the taking of a life, however necessary, and Proverbs 24 expressly forbids it. “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.”

Although the Jews have suffered more than most, the stubborn refusal to celebrate the demise of our enemies, or any military triumph, has been the hallmark of Jewish history. King David is Judaism’s most famous warrior. Yet, rather than praising his slaying of Jewish foes, David’s request to build the Holy Temple was expressly denied because he had taken life, even in the defense of life. “But God said to me, ‘You shall not build a house for My name, because you have been a man of war and have shed blood.” (1 Chronicles 28) Indeed, the great king was celebrated by generations of Jews not for dispatching enemy combatants but for beautiful Psalms accompanied by harp and lyre. The contrast with, say, the Royal Wedding in Britain where even the groom was expected to be in military attire could not be more stark.

Hanukah celebrates the miraculous military victory of the Maccabees over the Assyrian Greeks, inheritors of Alexander the Great, in the second century BCE. But it was the miracle of the lights of the Menorah that the Jews chose to emphasize rather than the slaughter of enemy soldiers.

Even on Passover, as we recite the Ten Plagues that culminated in the killing of the Egyptian first born, we pour wine out of our glasses so as not to revel in the demise of our enemies.

And while the modern State of Israel has enjoyed electrifying military victories like the 1967 Six Day War, travel the length and breadth of that tiny country and you will not find a single victory arch or a monument to vanquished adversaries. Judaism is a religion of life. We do not celebrate death even of those who made it their trademark.

Killing Osama bin Laden was absolutely necessary in order to establish justice and protect life. But the very necessity of the action betrays the highly imperfect world in which live, one where the innocent are forced to shed blood in order to preserve the blood of the innocent. Tied as we are in Martin Luther King’s ‘single garment of destiny’  where ‘whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,’ courageous soldiers of the US military are forced to engage in war so that the rest of us might live in peace, to stain their hands so that our future might be clear. We do not gloat over the death of evil since its very existence must be mourned.

The prophet Ezekiel expressed it best. “As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” (33) If only…

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the author of ‘Judaism for Everyone’ and ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life,’ and heads ‘This World: The Values Network’, which promotes universal Jewish teachings in American media and culture. He will shortly publish a new book on the Jewish Jesus. For more information write to info@ThisWorld.US.

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  • Jose A. Linares

    sorry, but of all appointments that you have made from “‹”‹the Bible, the only one I could not find was (Leviticus 19). I have not found any connection between what you say, that it says and what is actually written there.

  • Gabriel Martindale

    “But nowhere in the Bible, or anywhere in Jewish literature, is there any justification for celebrating the taking of a life”

    Ummm, your thesis would appear to refuted, off the top of my head, by:

    Shumuel 18:7
    Shemot 14:30
    The last chapters of Esther
    Deborah’s song of victory
    Numerous references in psalms.

    Mishlei 24: 17-8 is most obviously understood of personal enemies (all the mefarshim I have to hand appear to assume this) and Megillah 16a explicitly says it does not apply to an enemy of the Jews, and possibly all non-Jews (rather we are to trample their high places). Yechezkel is certainly talking about Jews.

    Still, at least you didn’t cite the first half of the midrash about the angels rejoicing over the Egyptians! So this is a step up from the usual Judaism = modern liberal ethics essay.

  • Maureen Gavin

    great srticle
    exemplifying the wisdom and balance of judaism

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