Thursday, May 5, 2011

Is it Right to Celebrate Bin-Laden's Death? (Hammerman on Ethics)

Is it Right to Celebrate Bin-Laden's Death?

Q - The killing of Osama bin-Laden sent Americans out into the streets in spontaneous celebration. I saw the raucous scene outside the White House and it made me uncomfortable. Isn't it against Jewish practice to rejoice at the downfall of your enemies?

A - You're right. This topic has been the subject of much chatter in rabbinic circles this week and the Washington Post "On Faith" blog featured a wide array of responses from several faith traditions .

We were all happy, but in some places it looked like joyous celebrants were morphing into soccer hooligans. When I first heard the great news, my initial impulse was to pop the cork, but then I remembered all those drops of wine at the Seder, spilled ostensibly to temper our joy at the deaths of our Egyptian tormentors. The cork stayed on.

We read in Proverbs, "Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles." (24:17). But elsewhere in the same book (11:10) we read, "When the wicked perish, there is joy." So is it OK to be happy, and if so, how?

Go to the next verse and you'll see the answer: "By the blessing of the upright a city is exalted." In other words, the true source of our joy is not simply the fall of a terrorist, but that, in our dogged pursuit of OBL, we never lowered ourselves to his level. We stayed morally upright. We pursued justice, justly.

That is precisely why President Obama made the correct ethical choice in not releasing the photos of the mutilated bin-Laden. All human beings are created in God's image and to parade a corpse, any corpse, before gawkers is undignified (which is why Jews never have open caskets). And triumphantly displaying this week's grizzly photos to the world would have lowered us to the level of those who murdered Daniel Pearl.

Yesterday I was speaking with David Meltzer, Senior Vice President of the American Red Cross, and he said that when imprisoned Middle Eastern terrorists are asked what caused their radicalization, the answer often given is "Abu Ghraib." That rare incidence when America stooped to the level of its enemies has cost us dearly. People expect more of us, and all that separates America - and Israel - from its enemies is that both nations cling tenaciously to that shaky ledge attached to the moral high ground. If we let go, we fall very far, very fast. Instead, it is best to follow the advice of the Quran (yes the Quran), "Repel the bad with something better."

The Hebrew word "simcha" means happiness, but there are ways to express "simcha" other than chugging a six pack and then standing outside the White House chanting "USA! USA!" A while back there was an interesting archaeological find in Elephantine, Egypt, a simple real estate contract from an ancient Jewish community, written in Hebrew. It read: "Upon prompt payment I deed you this land." And then a phrase that intrigued the scholars: "This simcha with joy, love, and happiness." They did a close comparative study of other documents and concluded that the meaning of simcha here is not joy, per se, but acceptance.

So yes, be happy, but it's possible to express it in ways unimaginable following a Red Sox - Yankees game. This victory is too incomplete, and the repercussions too unpredictable, to warrant a jig in Times Square. It's possible to be happy and reflective at the same time.

Right now, the best way to celebrate this victory is the way we've have done it for millennia. Go to your local synagogue and say a prayer of thanks. That's what I'll be doing.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read more Hammerman on Ethics here. Read his blog here

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