Perspective Experimental

This is a statement from Rabbi Alan Lucas of Temple Beth Shalom

Question:  Is it ok for Jews (Americans) to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden?  Answer:  Yes, as long as you feel guilty about it!
May 3, 2011Many of us have had mixed emotions while watching the celebrating that followed the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden.  I was watching the Mets/Phillies game on TV and as the news spread through the stadium - fans started chanting: "USA, USA!"  Similarly - the cable news channels began to show gatherings outside the White House and at Ground Zero - and these gatherings had a jubilant even celebratory nature to them. Made up mostly of young people (who else would have the energy to go out so late at night) - there was a mix of drinking, singing and good-natured fun - as they celebrated the death of America's enemy #1.So the question needs to be asked - was this reaction appropriate? Is it ok to feel good about the death of our enemies? Is it ok to celebrate the death of those who would seek our demise?Many of us were immediately conflicted about this issue. Instinctively we felt joy. We felt happy that Osama bin Laden was dead. He lived to destroy us and our way of life - is not his death a good thing? Is not the death of someone who wishes to destroy us a very good thing? Are not those young people celebrating merely being honest about what we were all feeling?But no sooner do we begin to express our joy than we also begin to feel guilty for feeling so happy. Jews don't rejoice over death - that's what our enemies do!  How do we reconcile these feelings of joy over the death of Osama with the sense of disgust we felt when we saw Palestinians celebrating after 9/11? We condemned in no uncertain terms the jubilant reaction of our enemies when they rejoiced over our death - yet now when the shoe is on the other foot are we no better than they?  Either they were wrong and we too should be ashamed of ourselves for rejoicing, or such behavior is ok and we were wrong to have condemned them.And so we are conflicted. We feel happy - but we feel guilty for feeling happy. We want to rejoice over the death of our enemy - but we feel uncomfortable when we express that sense of celebration.I would like to suggest to you that our ambivalence is what separates us from our enemies and it is precisely this sense of guilt that makes our joy legitimate.Some prominent rabbis have weighed in on this subject in the past 24 hours and their conflicting advice has made this all very confusing so I thought I would try and help out by adding my opinion on this matter.Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, of Washington DC's humbly named "National Synagogue" argued forcefully on NPR yesterday that it was not ok for Jews (or Americans) to rejoice over Osama bin Laden's downfall.  He even had a scriptural reference to back him up: "When your enemy falls, do not rejoice, and when he stumbles, let your heart not exult, lest the Lord see and be displeased, and turn His wrath away from him. Proverbs 24:17Rabbi Ben Tzion Motzpi an Israeli rabbi and advisor to many of the Settlers, argues just the opposite. In an article published in the Settler newsletter, S'rugim, he suggests that it is permissible for Jews to celebrate the death of terrorists. And he too cites Scripture to support his position: "When the wicked perish, there is joyful song." Proverbs 11:10Well this is a bit embarrassing. Two rabbis each argue the opposite position, each quote a different contradictory verse from the same book of the bible to support their position? Didn't Rabbi Herzfeld who cites Proverbs 24:17 know that the same book had said just the opposite a few chapters earlier? And didn't' Rabbi Motzpi who cited Proverbs 11:10 know that the same book would contradict him, just a few chapters later?I suspect they did - but they were both participating in a time honored rabbinic tradition of selectively quoting from the bible - cherry picking verses to support their preconceived notions of right and wrong.When read honestly - the Bible speaks in a multiplicity of voices - and some of them in fact do contradict each other. It is somewhat unusual to find that contradiction within the same book - but not unprecedented. The reason for this is that unlike the world of math where 1+1=2 is either true or false and cannot be both - in the world of values a thing and its opposite can both be true and context is everything.This should not be news to us.  We have a saying: "Look before you leap." Sound advice. But there is another saying - equally sound that suggests: "He who hesitates is lost."  So which is it? Should I look before I leap - or if I hesitate will all be lost?  They are both true. Sometimes a situation demands thought and hesitation and sometimes it demands action - and true wisdom comes in knowing which insight to apply when.I am not at all troubled that the book of proverbs contains both insights - I am critical of rabbis who choose one for their purpose and pretend that the other does not exist.Most of us are familiar with the Talmudic midrash from Sanhedrin 39b which has God criticizing the children of Israel at the shore of the Red Sea. If you remember the moment, the Israelites had just miraculously escaped the final desperate onslaught of Pharaoh's chariots. The sea had split to allow the Children of Israel to pass through safely then closed over the pursuing Egyptians drowning them in the sea and ending their threat once and for all. B'nai Yisrael in a reaction relevant to our subject under discussion, immediately broke into song - "Az yashir moshe u'veney risrael et hashira hazot..."  "Then Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song... And those joyous words are included in our daily prayers.This would seem to be a clear vote in favor of the permissibility of rejoicing over the death of our enemies, no?  But the gemorah in Sanhedrin complicates this by suggesting that God chastised the people when they broke out in song and said, "The work of My hands is drowning in the sea and you want to sing?"  Well, this seems to be a very strong vote for the anti-rejoicing crowd. No less than God Himself seems to be weighing in on this debate - criticizing our insensitivity in rejoicing over the death of our enemies and reminding us that they too are God's creatures and deserving of some sympathy.And yet, what I see in this magnificent midrash and the custom it gave birth to - is precisely the insight I am trying to make clear. This wonderful midrash contains both the very natural human desire to rejoice over the downfall of our enemies and the divine perspective that such a human feeling is fundamentally to be checked. The people sing and God rebukes - rejoicing and guilt exist side by side - and that is exactly how it should be.It is also exactly how this midrash was concretized in Jewish tradition.  The children sang and God criticized their singing - would it not have been logical to conclude that God does not want us to rejoice over the downfall of our enemies - so any subsequent commemoration of this event should and must be sans song?But that is not the way we celebrate Passover.  Our observance of Passover includesHallel on the first two days but not on the final 6.  Unlike Sukkot or Shavuot where Hallel- the joyous songs of celebration, are sung every day of those holidays, on Passover we sing the first two days only.  Why do we sing at all on Passover if God does not want us to rejoice and even rebukes us for doing so?We sing - because of the truth of Proverbs 11:10 "When the wicked perish... it is hardnot to sing. And we stop singing after day two because of the truth of Proverbs 24:17 - because we know that is not how God wants us to behave and we strive to be the kind of people God wants us to be.I understand why people celebrate when their enemies are killed. I know the feeling of jubilation that one has when good finally triumphs over evil, we live in a world where it does not happen enough.  But what makes us different from our enemies - is we feel guilty, and we stop our rejoicing soon after it starts.If for one night - people want to chant: "USA, USA!" - and celebrate the downfall of our foes - that is fine with me. If those demonstrations went on night after night - I would begin to worry about the kind of people we were becoming.They did stop. And we are not that kind of people.We are the kind who celebrates Hallel for two nights - and two nights only.We are human - so we rejoice in the downfall of our enemies. We are Jews (and Americans) - so we strive to be the kind of people who God would want us to be - who are sensitive to all God's creatures - and do not overly rejoice in the downfall of our foes.