ADDeRabbi, an orthodox rabbi who is an occasional commenter on this blog, gave links to several posts in which Proverbs 24:17-20 was cited in reference to the death of Bin Laden.(See his comments on the post below.) I took the trouble to look at the links; I was curious to see with whom I agreed. Of course, all the posters agreed that dancing in the streets, or shouting "USA, USA" was not appropriate behavior, except, perhaps, for amkha, who may be allowed their jubilation. At the very least, they agreed that dancing in the street was not the Jewish ideal.
The response that surprised me most was that of William Galston, a former advisor to President Clinton and a noted philosopher, He writes in TNR
How should we respond to the killing of Osama bin Laden? My first reaction was unbridled joy. As I was crawling into bed (too late) last night, I giddily allowed myself to sing, "Ding, dong, the wicked witch" from The Wizard of Oz.
This morning I had second thoughts, not because I harbored any doubts about the justice of the deed or had changed my mind about its positive consequences for the United States and the world, but rather because educated congregants at my synagogue reminded me of the restraints my religion places on the satisfactions of vengeance. One quoted Proverbs 24:17—"Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles, lest the Lord see it and be displeased ."
So, after going to bed, with visions of Margaret Hamilton and Osama bin Laden dancing in his head, Bill Galston, philosopher and ethicist, went to shul in the morning, and had to be reminded by "educated congregants" that one should not rejoice at the fall of one's enemy .
I think that Galston's story may be what Plato called, a "Noble Lie", a pedagogic whopper told for maximum rhetoric effect. It is hard for me to imagine him singing "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead" at any time, much less having to be reminded in shul on a Monday morning that one's passions need to be restrained. And if he hadn't gone to shul? No, he was doubtlessly using considerably literary license to get a point across to the folks chanting, "USA, USA". He had to say, "Look, I am like you. I am not some wimpy bleeding heart. I also wanted to whoop it up. But after the initial rush – which in my case actually lasted only a few seconds - I knew that this was not the goal we should aspire for."
We are mortals, not machines. There is a sense in which it is "natural" to rejoice over the death of an enemy; it is probably programmed into our DNA through eons of evolution. But part of moral education is not only to tame what is natural, "to conquer our drives" but to try to extinguish some of them altogether . Often we fail; we are mortals. But the better our moral training , the less likely we are to fail.
Had Galston written everything that he writes, but added, "I was a bit embarrassed at the unbridled joy that I felt since I should have known better", then that would have been more appropriate. But that would have lessened the pedagogic value of the story for amkha (Hebrew for: "liberal hawk readers of TNR")
The Chabad rabbis, including Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, were a bit more morally blunt than Galston. They say that Torah commands us to hate wicked people. Really? I once bought a frum children's book in which the author said that "Hashem hates Amalek". I never will forget the look of shock on the faces of my kids when they heard the line. How can Hashem hate anything? they asked. (I threw away the book; maybe I should have burned it first.)
Their Torah preaches hatred; mine doesn't. But, you will say, that's what the Torah says. To that I answer, the Torah speaks in the language of men. It is never right to hate people. Hatred is a destructive emotion. Anger is a destructive emotion, even when it is righteous. (See the Rambam on this, who by the way, also speaks in the language of men occasionally.) We are commanded to pray that sins be removed from the world, not the sinners. Hatred is a natural emotion? So is lust. Ask Rabbi Boteach, who has written on the subject. And that makes it…what?
When I heard that Osama Bin Laden was dead, my immediate feeling was not of joy but of relief. But then I started to think about it. How was he killed? Was this simply an assassination? Were innocents killed? Was there a possibility of bringing him to trial? Will there be repercussions? Can we expect retaliations against US targets? Will this make life easier or harder for American interests in the Middle East? How will this play in the region? Was he taken out because he was a threat or because of the wounding of our national pride? Was this a revenge killing? How many tyrants will use the killing of Bin Laden to justify their own "war on terror"?
After thinking a few minutes, I was still gratified, especially because, according to initial reports, which I would like to believe, Bin Laden was not killed until he showed resistance, albeit without a weapon. I was gratified that, unlike the Israelis, the US soldiers were willing to take grave risks to ensure that collateral damage was held to a minimum. No 12 –ton bombs were dropped on the compound (had we done so, we would have been war criminals, even if the target was Bin Laden.) Sure, the official explanation for no bomb was that it was important to verify that we had killed Bin Laden. But the fact remains that enormous political and physical risks were taken; and the lives of some innocents, anyway, were spared. That sends a powerful message to many quarters (I hope Israel is one of them.) Still, this was not an act of justice; it was an act, I hope, to prevent further evil.
I shed no tears over the death of Bin Laden. He was a horrible man and a horrible Muslim. He was a mass murderer. His desecration of religion nauseated me as a religious man. But I would have preferred a trial. And if he was to die without trial, I would have preferred that it be at the hand of one of his own treacherous allies. Life is not a video game, or a revenge match. A criminal plotting a major crime has to be stopped. But what we should do, we should do – not out of hatred, not out of vengeance, not out of wounded pride – but in order to stop evil.
And we should do it with humility, regret, and with a heavy heart – and, preferably, through an international system, if possible.
Not like cowboys.