Are we Jews allowed to celebrate Bin Laden’s death?

From Time Magazine

Following the killing of Bin Laden and the ensuing celebrations at the White House and Ground Zero, I heard a number of Jewish friends and commentators argue that we should not celebrate OSL’s death.  Conspicuous among those making this argument was Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue[1] who wrote the following at Frum Forum[2]:

How does our religion teach us to respond to the death of a hated and evil man like Osama Bin Laden?

When hearing about the downfall of an enemy, the rabbis remind us of the verse from Proverbs:  “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.”

This is in line with the tradition that no matter how wicked our enemies are their destruction is not a cause for celebration.  The Talmud tells us that “God does not rejoice with the fall of the wicked.”  As the rabbinic teaching goes, as the Children of Israel were crossing the sea and the army of Pharaoh was drowning, God rebuked the angels for showing excessive joy.  And to this day, our liturgy reflects that by limiting the psalms of joy that we recite to commemorate that event.

The reason for this muted celebration is twofold.

First there is recognition that even when our enemy falls, this does not signal an end to all our troubles.  Just because one enemy or one army or one threat has been removed does not mean we are entirely safe.

Second, we must acknowledge that the destruction of the enemy did not necessarily arise from our own merits.  We are perhaps not worthy of the good fortune that we have received and so we do not want to tempt God, as it were, or remind the Angel of Death of our own defects.

So our tradition is clear: Public rejoicing about the death of an enemy is entirely inappropriate. (full post here)

Two comments in response if I may be so bold:

1) The Torah doesn’t seem to be clear cut on celebrating the death of our enemies.  Yes, there are the seeming condemnations of celebration as noted above by Herzfeld.  But since we just finished Passover, it is also worth mentioning that the Israelites and the angels celebrated after they walked through the Red Sea and the Egyptian armies drowned.  God let the Israelites keep on singing.  He only rebuked the angels.

Also check out Proverbs 11:10 “at the the destructions of evildoers, there is joy.”   Seems like this would include Osama Bin Laden…  (h/t Rabbi Lefkowitz).

2) But even if the literal text of the Torah were crystal clear on celebrations of death, the above phrase from Proverbs can’t be read as certain condemnation of celebrations of the death of enemies.  After all, we don’t always follow the literal text of the Torah (whether because the true meaning is only illuminated by the oral law or because the Torah is fallible is a discussion beyond this post).

For instance, the literal text of the Torah also says that we should stone wayward children:

“This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a profligate and a drunkard. Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death.” (Deuteronomy 21:20-21)

We don’t stone disobedient children, and we never have.  And if we can offer one instance in which we don’t follow the text of the Torah exactly, why can’t this case of celebrating be a second instance?  In simpler terms, if we thought all apples were red, but then we find a green apple, we can no longer say with logical proof that all apples are red or that all Torah text should be practiced as read literally.

Does this mean that it’s OK to celebrate OSL’s death?  Not necessarily.  I just don’t find this appeal to authority to one line in Proverbs to be a convincing argument that we shouldn’t celebrate.

Stephen Richer is a co-founder and director of Gather the Jews.  However, this post represents Stephen’s individual opinion, not an institutional stance.

[1] Gather the Jews has posted previously about Rabbi Herzfeld and Ohev Sholo – The National Synagogue including this recent story about a DC vote during Passover and this post about the newest innovation for selling chametz.

[2] FrumForum is the political website of David Frum, another DC Jew.  It’s a great read.  Strongly recommended.


9 replies
  1. Malka
    Malka says:

    I was at the White House gathering, and I think The Economist sums it up best – .

    It wasn’t a celebration of Osama’s death. It was a celebration of our lives and our country, with the boogeyman finally banished from the shadows of our childhood closets.

    King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes – “To everything there is a time under the sun.” I think the celebrations were an appropriate reaction to the news – but reflection and remembrance is the crucial next step.

    G-d rebuked the angels for rejoicing while the Egyptians were drowning, but the songs of praise afterwards were appropriate. If there was a crowd of cheering Americans watching Osama get shot in the head, I’d be sickened – but for the celebrations we had, I’m proud.

  2. D
    D says:

    Not celebrating the demise of a vile terrorist such as him, who not only set in motion murder and suffering on a massive scale, but inspired and likely still inspires others to do so as well, would be a craven exercise second to none.

    We need to come to grips with the reality that those who hate and seek to kill us would neither be impressed nor swayed with our excessive virtuousness on this subject or any other. To believe otherwise is dangerously naive.

  3. C
    C says:

    The author brings up an excellent point, which is that there is some ambiguity in how our tradition deals with the issue of having joy over the death of our enemies. In general, the Torah seems to be clear that we shouldn’t rejoice in such instances. However we did so at the parting of the Sea of Reeds, and we also do so with Haman at Purim. The conflicting proverb passages nicely highlights this ambivalence. The Passover story is a good example because we rejoice at the Sea of Reeds but at the seder we also spill out some of our wine to show our sadness of the death of God’s children. I agree with the author that the Torah doesn’t seem to make a clear condemnation of rejoicing. But the Torah does call the rejoicing into question, and encourages us to be empathetic about all of God’s children, on a humanist level. I think the author too quickly dismissed this proverb: proverbs aren’t meant to be statements of law, they are meant to help shape and guide our moral compass as people and as a community. Does the Torah explicitly forbid rejoicing in such instances via this passage? No. It’s meant to make us think about the ethical nuances of situations. The Torah was never meant to be dogmatic instructions for how to act in every situation. Rather, it serves a guide for us, and we are the final arbiters of our behavior. We have to decide if rejoicing is acceptable or appropriate.

    Personally, I think this proverb is incredibly compelling and I feel strongly that there are much better uses of our time as Jews than celebrating the death of bin Laden.

    • Stephen Richer
      Stephen Richer says:

      Good good comment. I especially like this part — “The Torah was never meant to be dogmatic instructions for how to act in every situation. Rather, it serves a guide for us, and we are the final arbiters of our behavior. We have to decide if rejoicing is acceptable or appropriate.” And I like the idea it’s a good check on the emotion of joy at the demise of the enemy; not necessarily a prohibition.

  4. Malka
    Malka says:

    Rabbi Steinsaltz’s View

    In the Bible, we have two almost opposite reactions to the fall of an enemy. On the on hand, we have the famous verse that says, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.” (Proverbs 24, 17) On the other hand, we have, among many others, the verse, “When the wicked perish, there is joy.” (Ibid., 11, 10)

    In fact, there is no contradiction between those two verses. The first one refers to a situation in which there is animosity or a quarrel between two people. In such a case, a person may have an enemy, but his downfall shouldn’t be any reason for rejoicing. Whatever the quarrel – commercial, political or any other kind – the enemy is just a person in opposition. Such people may cause discomfort to the other side, but essentially, both parties are equal to each other. Therefore, one should not rejoice when one’s enemy has fallen.

    The other verse does not deal with personal or national disagreement, but with an objective fact: there indeed are in the world wicked people. And when the wicked are destroyed, others should express their approval and their joy that some vicious object or person has disappeared from the world. Osama bin Laden created for himself a very clear position as one of the wicked, and therefore the world should be happy when at least one element of evil is no longer functioning.

  5. terri
    terri says:

    I am glad that Justice has been served, but I am not happy or feel joy at bin ladens death. I think that bin ladens death brought too many trigger moments of deep grief for too many Americans. When I received the news about bin laden, I thought about all of the 9/11 deaths and all of our soldiers that died too. We also lost many CIA Agents. I also thought about all of the families that lost their loved ones. How do I feel about bin ladens death? I have mixed feelings, because of what he and his followers did to us. The mixed feelings are not joyful, so I think many Americans also feel this too. I feel sorrow for the American deaths, I also feel sorrow for the families that lost their loved ones. Their sorrow is much deeper.
    After finding out about bin laden, I said, “I hope he rots in hell with Hitler and the SS,”so was I wrong for this statement?
    I am thankful that our speical forces did not die, they are remarkable brave heart soldiers. All of our soldiers are brave heart American soldiers.
    Here is an anaology of bin laden and his evil followers; we killed the big worms head, but another head will grow back. The bin laden radicals will hate us for hundreds of years, we can never win the war, it is too spread out. There are 59 Muslim countries, so how many are in these countries? Do we really know. There are billions of Muslims, we only have 300 million Americans, so we need more allies, but how many do we have? Not too many right now, so can we win the war? How long will it take? Will it last for hundreds of years, if so what will happen to America? Will she go into a deep depression? I hope not. I can only pray and trust our leaders.
    I think many Americans are satisfied with bin ladens permanent departure.

  6. Uri Manor
    Uri Manor says:

    I think I remember Rabbi T explaining that angels are 1-dimensional, and can only feel one emotion at a time, while humans are multi-dimensional, which means that we can rejoice and feel sad at the same time, and that this is one of the main reasons why we were/are allowed to rejoice at the death of the Egyptians.

    All that said, I personally would have preferred to have captured Bin Laden alive so that we could get more information from him, and have been able to take him to court. This would have been the best possible scenario for moral and political reasons, in my not so humble opinion.


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