Celebrating Osama’s Death

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“My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?”
- Babylonian Talmud Megillah 10b

It took less than 24 hours for American t-shirt vendors to come up with shirts celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden: “It Took Obama to Get Osama,” “Voted Off the Planet” and “Public Enemy #1 is Dead.” According to The Washington Post, you can even buy a coffee mug that says “Happy Nosama Day.” Film clippings outside the White House and at Ground Zero in New York showed a cascade of revelers on Sunday night, jumping up and down with excitement.

We all feel immense relief and gratitude that someone who was responsible for so much anti-American sentiment, so many deaths and so many terrorist threats has now lost a global voice, but an ethical question lingers. Is celebrating the death of anyone, even someone as hated and destructive as Osama Bin Laden, an appropriate Jewish response?

This is a complex and important question. To answer it, let’s turn to three Jewish sources.

The book of Ezekiel 18:23 records a prophetic response to this question. ” ‘Do you think that I like to see wicked people die?’ says the Lord. ‘Of course not. I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live.’ ” We don’t desire the death of those who do wrong, even great crimes against humanity. We want them to change. This may be naïve, but the text surfaces not only a spiritual approach to transformation but a profound sense of the value of all human life.

In the Talmud, we find a curious story of a master sage, Rabbi Meir, who was praying for the death of two robbers. His famous wife, Bruria, overheard his prayer and corrected him. “Let sins be uprooted from the earth, and the wicked will be no more” (Psalm 104:35). “It doesn’t say ‘Let the sinners be uprooted’,” Bruria corrected him. “It says, ‘Let the sins be uprooted’.” You shouldn’t pray that these criminals will die; you should pray that they should repent. And then “the wicked will be no more.” Bruria, no doubt, understood that the likelihood of these individuals changing was slim, but our response — especially in the format of prayer — should be to rehabilitate rather than to destroy.

The last source is found in another Talmudic passage. It records a fictional conversation between God and the angels. The Israelites just crossed the Reed Sea after escaping the Egyptians. The water closed in on these enemies while the Israelites broke out in ecstatic singing following Moses’ recitation of the “Song of the Sea” found in Exodus 15. The angels, the text states, wanted to sing but God turned to them and said “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?”

Of course there‘s a desire to sing. There is a need to cry out in joy. But these knee-jerk reactions should be tempered by the larger question of what a human life is worth. Relief  is appropriate. Celebration may just cross over a spiritual line. When it says in Genesis that we are created in God’s image it does not single out anyone as an exception to that rule. And if Osama Bin Laden did not treat others as if they were created in God’s image, let us not imitate that primal, vindictive impulse but transform it by affirming the goodness of humanity and the precious gift of life.

Posted on May 4, 2011

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6 thoughts on “Celebrating Osama’s Death

  1. Aviva Werner

    There is definitely a values conflict here. In addition to the source you cite about the inappropriateness of the angels’ rejoicing, there are also Jewish sources, including Proverbs 11:10 (“When the wicked perish there is glad song”) which suggest that celebration is permitted. BabagaNewz.com prepared a source sheet to help teachers guide classroom discussion about the values conflict. The source sheet is available to print at http://bit.ly/l2uwlG.

  2. Liz Rosell

    I loved your article. One man’s enemy is another man’s son or brother, plus publicly rejoicing at an enemy’s death is often counterproductive, inciting more anger and hate.

  3. Jack P. Watson

    I am Not jewish but I am a big fan of the Jewish people and especially The State of Israel.

    I would like to point out that the attitude espoused by Ms. Erica Brown, while probably religiously correct, has contributed to the suffering of the Jewish people since the time of Moses.

    Unfortunately, Jews have historically been passive and accepted unspeakable horrors at the hand of their haters.

    The postue of the Israli Defence Force seems to me to be the proper one since it defends the Jewish people. The IDF protects the State of Israel with tough, skilled fighters who will defy any who would harm the Jews. They will not turn the other cheek while being abused.

    As to the celebrators, they were mostly shouting USA, USA, which tells me that they were celebrating the accomplishment of their country in killing a mortal enemy. I do not find this improper.

    Any other attitude is unrealist at best. I hardly think Osama bin Laden would ever repent.

    Jack P. watson

  4. Tova Wald

    I think the issue stands on one’s affiliation: Being a strict adherent to religion, as against those who are less restricted or non-religious. If individuals in the second group were moved to celebrate and rejoice I personally would not judge this as inappropriate. Osama Ben Laden was evil, a fanatic immoralist without human traits or conscience.
    Only G-d could admonish us not to openly rejoice at an enemy’s death. But as mortals it is not that natural to carry out. These events quickly fall behind us and does not affect our daily lives.

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