As details of the special operation that took out Osama bin Laden continue to unfold, rabbis in Los Angeles are pulling from biblical verses, Jewish traditions and their own gut reactions to help formulate an appropriate Jewish response to the news.
Early Monday morning, Rabbi David Wolpe posted this on Facebook:
“Yesterday, Yom HaShoah, bin Laden was killed. The proper reaction is sobriety, not revelry. This is a time to remember those who died, pray for those who fight, meditate anew on wickedness and redouble our dedication to justice.”
Within hours, more than 350 people “liked” his post, and more than 60 commented, most of them in support of Wolpe’s call for a more measured reaction.
He said he was motivated to write the post when he saw the circus atmosphere in front of the White House and in Times Square after the news broke late Sunday night.
“It felt like people were celebrating a football victory, and it seemed to be, while understandable, not something you cheer about, any more than people would cheer when a killer is executed. A grim satisfaction is understandable, but cheering not so much,” Wolpe said.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, disagrees.
“This is a time to say ‘mazal tov.’ It’s a time of great jubilation,” Hier said, noting God’s sense of humor in bin Laden’s death occurring on the same date that Hitler’s death was announced in 1945.
Hier sees precedent in the Jewish holiday of Purim for celebrating — drinking, eating, merrymaking — the death of a sworn enemy.
“Haman and his ilk wanted to destroy the Jewish people and are, themselves, destroyed, and that is the only time during the year where Jews must become merry. There’s no way of interpreting your way out of that,” he said.
Rabbi Sharon Brous at IKAR praised U.S. intelligence and affirmed the necessity to eliminate bin Laden but encouraged her congregants to use this as a moment for reflection, not gloating.
“We have to move beyond an impulsive reaction to his death. It might feel really good in the moment to have caught the bad guy, but that is not the best of us. There is a side of our tradition that calls for us to react with deep humility to the news of any death,” she said. “Bin Laden’s work was to destroy and undermine the sanctity of human life — he was a horrible human being. But rather than take to the streets and cheer, our work now is to start to put the pieces back together — to work toward more healing and understanding in the world, to honor the victims of his violence and to reaffirm the sanctity of human life.”
Brous quoted a rabbinic midrash in which God rebuked the angels for rejoicing when the Egyptian army was caught in the receding waters after the splitting of the Red Sea. “ ‘How dare you dance and sing as my children drown in the Sea?’ God rebukes them (Megillah 10b),” Brous wrote in a letter to congregants. The drop of wine spilled at the seder reflects this idea as well.
Brous turns to another midrash for deeper meaning. As the Egyptians drowned, an archangel challenges God, “How dare you drown my children in the Sea?” God convenes a heavenly court and finds the acts of the Egyptians so heinous that justice outweighs mercy, and Pharaoh and his army are killed.
“But in those moments, even when dealing with the worst of the worst, we recognize that there is justice but no joy,” Brous wrote.
Rabbi Jonathan Klein, executive director of CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice), quoted the same midrash about the angels at the Red Sea to make a different point. God rebuked the angels but didn’t rebuke the Jewish people for rejoicing, because they were celebrating their newfound freedom and the complete removal of any threat.
Klein believes that the continuing threat of al-Qaeda should temper celebrations of bin Laden’s death, as multiple war fronts remain active and the specter of terror continues to drag America through a torrent of violence.
“We have a responsibility to move on and say, ‘OK, now what? Now what are we going to do?’ Are we going to be aggressive about peace in America now that we can say, ‘Ding-dong the witch is dead,’ or are we going to go back to a place of maintaining a violence paradigm that leads to more Iraqis, Afghanis and Americans dead?”
Look to the Israelis for a balanced response to such acts, suggests Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Educational Center in Los Angeles. “In all of the years that Israel has had to engage in hunting down and killing terrorists, have we ever once seen Israelis take to the streets with flags shouting ‘Go Israel’ as a reaction to any one terrorist being killed?” he asked. “As we painfully observe another Yom Hazikaron this coming week, when families who lost loved ones in wars and acts of terror gather to mourn by singing songs and reading poems that speak of peace — not of glorifying war or taking revenge — Israeli society models how to respectfully deal with downing terrorists while confronting the pain they created.”
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Congregation B’nai David-Judea believes that while gloating is inappropriate, there is room for appreciating the moment.
“The fall of the wicked is regarded in our tradition as reason to praise God in the sense that God is a God of justice,” he said.
He believes the public celebrations were visceral, temporary reactions that will give way to a more sober acknowledgment that, while momentous, bin Laden’s death was mostly symbolic.
“I think ultimately the real perspective we should have on this is that we are engaged in a battle against an ideology that is morally inverted and hateful and heinous and believes that the killing of innocent people is a legitimate political tactic. What we need to do as the ideological opponent of that view is to make the statement that human life really does matter and is sacred … and that this world isn’t a place where we can tolerate moral chaos.”
Kanefsky said he spent less time Monday morning thinking about bin Laden than trying to work out logistics to send congregants to Alabama to help with the cleanup following last week’s storms.
“In the end, that’s what this struggle is about,” he said. “This is about our values and our ideology that understands that human life matters, that love for one another matters, that mutual concern matters.”