Is It Wrong to Feel Joy at Bin Laden’s Death?

May 2nd, 2011 at 10:36 am | 22 Comments |

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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, prostate the rabbis remind us of the verse from Proverbs:  “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, find 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.

However, our tradition is also clear that it is appropriate to express deep gratitude when hearing about the death of Osama Bin Laden.

We should express gratitude to the Navy Seals who bravely killed him.  We should express gratitude to all those who were involved in removing this horrible being from our world.  And we should express gratitude to our Maker for removing a danger from our lives.

Recent Posts by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

22 Comments so far ↓

  • Nanotek

    “Second, we must acknowledge that the destruction of the enemy did not necessarily arise from our own merits.”

    I think it did.

  • sparse

    i think an important distinction is that bin laden’s destruction arose from our actions, but not our merits. he did not die because we are morally awesome any more than he lived for ten years after 9/11 because we are morally decrepit.

    humility in victory is an important aspect of ending cycles of violence. triumphalist celebrations attenuate a desire for revenge: anyone remember how it felt to watch crowds celebrating the 9/11 attacks? did any of us get motivated by them?

    • Nanotek

      sparse: “nanotek- i think an important distinction is that bin laden’s destruction arose from our actions, but not our merits. … humility in victory is an important aspect of ending cycles of violence.”

      sparse — thank you … I think I understand but disagree .. I think it did arise from our merits and our actions. Special forces train hard and put their lives on the line … merit.

      That said, I agree humility is very important — as is offering a helping hand to the defeated — and can help heal wounds that need healed.

  • YuriPup

    Thank you.

  • Gus

    Excellent column.


    “So our tradition is clear: Public rejoicing about the death of an enemy is entirely inappropriate.”

    The bible sure as hell isn’t.

  • Frumplestiltskin

    The public rejoicing is for Justice prevailing, for all the lives that will be spared because of the death of this odious man, and for the fact that no Americans were hurt while sparing innocent lives (we could have dropped 30 cruise missiles on the house, our own greatness stopped us from doing so). His death is a direct result of his own actions, we had no choice but to do so.

    I am also not going to partake in false piety, though it might very well be a sin I am joyous.


    Portions of this are said routinely during prayers by observant Jews. It is supposed to be a poem that was sung by Moses’ sister Miriam and other women after the crossing of the Red Sea.

    Exodus 15

    1 Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD: I will sing to the LORD, for he is gloriously triumphant; horse and chariot he has cast into the sea.

    2 My strength and my courage is the LORD, and he has been my savior. He is my God, I praise him; the God of my father, I extol him.

    3 The LORD is a warrior, LORD is his name!

    4 Pharaoh’s chariots and army he hurled into the sea; the elite of his officers were submerged in the Red Sea.

    5 The flood waters covered them, they sank into the depths like a stone.

    6 Your right hand, O LORD, magnificent in power, your right hand, O LORD, has shattered the enemy.

    7 In your great majesty you overthrew your adversaries; you loosed your wrath to consume them like stubble.

    8 At a breath of your anger the waters piled up, the flowing waters stood like a mound, the flood waters congealed in the midst of the sea.

    9 The enemy boasted, “I will pursue and overtake them; I will divide the spoils and have my fill of them; I will draw my sword; my hand shall despoil them!”

    10 When your wind blew, the sea covered them; like lead they sank in the mighty waters.

    11 Who is like to you among the gods, O LORD? Who is like to you, magnificent in holiness? O terrible in renown, worker of wonders,

    12 when you stretched out your right hand, the earth swallowed them!

    13 In your mercy you led the people you redeemed; in your strength you guided them to your holy dwelling.

    14 The nations heard and quaked; anguish gripped the dwellers in Philistia.

    15 Then were the princes of Edom dismayed; trembling seized the chieftains of Moab; All the dwellers in Canaan melted away;

    16 terror and dread fell upon them. By the might of your arm they were frozen like stone, while your people, O LORD, passed over, while the people you had made your own passed over.

    17 And you brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your inheritance– the place where you made your seat, O LORD, the sanctuary, O LORD, which your hands established.

    18 The LORD shall reign forever and ever.

    19 They sang thus because Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and charioteers had gone into the sea, and the LORD made the waters of the sea flow back upon them, though the Israelites had marched on dry land through the midst of the sea.

  • Primrose

    TRS, it is a Jewish thing the writer is talking about. And Jewish religious thought start’s with the Torah (the “old” testament), it doesn’t end there.

    As an orthodox friend once said, the harvest festival (which I am temporarily unable to spell) is the only Jewish holiday in which we are not required to feel guilty. It is fairly clear in Judaism that one is supposed to feel bad over those who were killed.

    Even the Torah, makes frequently makes it clear that God doesn’t want the Jews to get a big head. The passage discussing that the Jews are the “chosen” people, specifically tells them that not only are they are not the most moral people around, but they are maddeningly stubborn.

    Christians tend to think that Judaism is the same as Christianity without the update, but it has a radically different worldview, and their relationship with god is very parental. Not parental like mother’s day cards but more like the Cosby routine, “I brought you into this world and I can take you out”.

    When you take out the beatific protestant voice, even the bible reads very differently.


    Primrose: I was raised conservative Jewish. While I agree that there is some attempt to moderate the braggadocio that pervades the Jewish bible, it’s still very well represented in Jewish liturgy. I have a pretty good idea of what I’d find if I looked through Rabbi Shmuel’s siddurim, and believe he’s engaging in a rather healthy bit of whitewashing here.

    It is actually the more liberal branches of Judaism that have taken strides to remove the archaic elements from daily prayers. For example, the Aleinu, which is a prayer said three times a day by Orthodox Jews that prominently and proudly declares how great it is to be superior to other peoples. These liberal branches — Reform and Reconstructionist — are generally looked down on by the conservative and Orthodox branches, though I cannot speak to this particular (Orthodox) rabbi’s views on them.

  • jakester

    Obama should make this event a feast day national holiday, the fact that he didn’t proves he is a closet Muslim and member of the Muslim Brotherhood

  • bluestatepastor

    I appreciate the rabbi’s column. I think we can be thankful today without being exactly vengeful. Bin Laden, like every other person, is ultimately in the hands of God and is God’s to judge. But I am grateful that OBL is gone, and no longer directing his thugs, and that Al Qaeda has been dealt this blow to their deadly work.

  • PatrickQuint

    May God have mercy on bin Laden’s soul, because he and his kind are too dangerous to be allowed the mercy of living. Not so long as they are willing and able to kill the innocent as they have.

  • Ana Gama

    “I’ve never wished a man dead, but I’ve read some obituaries with great pleasure.”

    — Mark Twain

  • Houndentenor

    I feel more relieved than festive. This needed to be done and I congratulate the people who worked tirelessly to finally bring justice for the victims of 9/11 and their families. An evil person is now dead and that does make the world a better place.

    Considering how dependent we are on foreign oil, only a moron would openly insult the religion of the countries that are essential our crack dealers (and we are their crack whores). Bush was also careful not to insult people who we will need as allies in the war on terror much less to continue to pay under $4 a gallon for gas (at least where I live it’s below $4). It speaks poorly that some among us want to insult and belittle others with nothing to gain from it whatsoever (and a good deal to lose).

  • Nona

    Thank you for this. One of my first reactions to all this was that I can’t feel joy for the death of another person but it’s not exactly something I feel comfortable talking about. At the same time I can’t find fault with those who are comforted by the fact of his death, even if it expresses itself as joy.

  • Primrose

    Well, obviously I can’t refute your personal experience growing up. So you have me there. And living fairly close to a large Hasidic community, I understand those that look down on everyone else. But there are also a few lubovitchers around here and they are quite open, though friends who were reform were quite annoyed by their evangelicalism.

    Still, I was in a Kosher food co-operative for two years, which consisted of Jews of a wide variety of traditions (and non-Jews like myself but that is another story). We had people raised orthodox staying orthodox. We had those recently more religious. We had feminist Jews, reform Jews, conservatives (like your family) and re-constructionists. (Later I worked for a secular humanist Jew, just to round matters off) Many, not surprisingly, intended to become rabbis. And the rabbi co-ordinater/faculty was orthodox, not Hasidic but black coat wearing so not that liberal I presume.

    The strain of feeling guilty even for celebrations ran strong in all of them. That they all had a complex relationship to their religion was also clear. (One individual’s complexity meant that the periodically would cook something inappropriate and make all our meat pans treif, a problem if you are also trying to cater to vegetarians!)

    And those friends of mine who were orthodox, including the rabbi, all stressed the celebration of differences. So challenged by what you say I looked up the prayer in question. I am not sure it is so clear about celebrating their “superiority”, except to polytheism. The story about Abraham and his father the idol maker springs to mind. I am also thinking of what the old testament says God gave that was so great: The torah with its endless rules, and at one point poverty.

    So I think there really is strain in Judaism that speaks to what this Rabbi is saying. I’ve certainly heard this speech before during Shabbot’s and Passover celebrations. (That certain strains of orthodox communities have chosen to go the other way is also true, I do not deny it.)

    But overall, it is a markedly different attitude to Protestantism, that I can say from experience. I was struck long ago how tone of voice in reading these words changes everything. Words said in the high, ringing voice of a Catholic priest have one meaning, said in the gruff, prickly voice of New York’s lost working class Jewish community, quite another, and changes once again when read by those only a few generations away from race-based slavery.

    All too often the high, ringing voice (or beatific protestant one) wins out and whether you think the bible is the literal truth, or simply literature, too much nuance is lost.

  • andydp

    I’m happy this blot on humanity is gone. The Bible says “those that live by the sword shall die by the sword”. OBL got what he deserved. Thank you US Navy SEAL Team 6 and the rest of the JSOC for their awesome planning and execution (of the operation)

    I’m also thankful for the Rabbi’s views on this matter. We all need to hear different views on the subject. As was brought out in many interviews with relatives of the 9/11 victims, there was some consolation but it was not everything.

  • Bebe99

    A great post. While I sympathize with those who feel joy at OBL’s death, celebration of death seems a little too much. Reminds me of the time a snake slipped into my home, and after efforts to shoo it out failed and it actually disappeared for a few scary days, I did finally kill it with great gusto-it in defense of home and family. A joyful relief and no cause for guilt at doing what needed to be done.

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