By Max Moline
As millions of Americans crowded around their televisions on a Sunday night in May 2011, President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden, the man who was “responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children,” who planned and orchestrated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had been, as the president put it, “brought to justice.”
Within minutes, people gathered outside the White House, at Ground Zero – where the World Trade Center had stood – at Times Square and at other places around the world. Dressed in patriotic red, white and blue, they sang and danced in celebration that America had finally caught up with its arch-enemy.
David Cohen, a Washington, D.C., native who was attending Northwestern University, says he felt that same rush of excitement when he heard the news: “I went back to my apartment and flipped on [the theme song from the movie Team America: World Police] ‘America, F*** Yeah,’ then I joined a group of people who were rallying in the streets.”
The rally included singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American,” and chanting “USA! USA!” into the early hours of the next morning.
Cohen didn’t want his real name used because he is no longer comfortable about how jubilant he was after hearing about bin Laden’s death. After a short time with the street revelers, he began to feel conflicted.
“I tried to justify my excitedness to myself,” he says. “ ‘An eye for an eye,’ I told myself, and, ‘This guy’s taken more than his share of eyes.’ ”
But he could not shake the idea that there was something wrong with his reaction.
“As horrible as [bin Laden] was,” says Cohen, “he was still a person, a human being.”
Is it ever appropriate to celebrate someone’s death?
Jewish history is littered with more than its fair share of villains. Jewish tradition incorporates many of them. On Pesach, which begins at sundown, April 14, those gathered around the seder table will retell the story of how Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea while the children of Israel escaped onto dry land.
The people were jubilant and, led by Moses and Miriam, sang songs of praise to God — songs that are included in the Haggadah. There is no record if the people felt ambivalent about their deliverance from their own bin Laden.
The Purim story gleefully tells of the demise of Haman and today’s celebrants compete to drown out the Persian vizier’s name with noisemakers. Today, recalling the death of other large-scale villains such as Adolf Hitler brings pleasure and relief.
But what about someone with whom you have a personal relationship? An abusive parent, for example. Or a loved one whose pain and suffering is so great that they have lost all quality of life. Is it okay to feel any sense of, at the very least, relief, when they die?
“I think, at best, you can have mixed feelings,” says Rabbi Jack Bieler of Kemp Mill Synagogue. No matter what a person does during his or her lifetime, he or she is still a person, he says. “In Jewish tradition, there is a reminder of not forgetting the fact that these are human beings. These are people.
“A death,” he adds, “is inherently a tragedy.”
Even a Hitler? Even a bin Laden?
Bieler recalled the day President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt died. It was 1970 and Bieler was in Israel. For 15 years, Nasser had been Israel’s nemesis. He was belligerent, leading an Arab coalition that threatened Israel’s existence. Israel fought wars against him in 1956 and 1967.
Israeli newscasts often sign off with a quotation from a famous Jew, recalls Bieler. On the day Nasser died, the newscast ended with a quote from Talmudic scholar Shmuel HaKatan: “Do not rejoice in the fall of your enemy.”
Michael Oren, a historian and former Israeli ambassador to the United States, describes Israelis’ mood that day as “muted.”
“Jews traditionally do not celebrate the death of their enemies,” he explains, “but Nasser was no mere enemy. He was the pre-eminent Arab leader of his generation, a man who, yes, made war but who was also capable of making peace. I think Israelis understood that loss and did not rejoice at Nasser’s passing.”
Rabbi Ari Sunshine of B’nai Shalom of Olney says that Jewish tradition is not clear about what is a proper reaction.
“It seems that our tradition is somewhat ambivalent about that,” he says. “In the Talmud, there are conflicting statements” about whether it’s proper to express joy when someone dies.
There are two ways people react to a death, says Bieler: the human dimension and the personal dimension. You have to be conscious of both the fact that someone’s death is a tragedy and the effect that person’s absence has on everybody else. Being happy that a person – Haman or bin Laden – has died should give way instead to being “happy that the threat has passed,” says the rabbi.
Rabbi Amy Schwartzman says that rather than joy or pleasure, the death of a villain could elicit a feeling of justice “that finally this person has received what they deserved.”
But if “there’s no joy in any part of it [the person’s actions], then maybe there should be no joy at the end either,” adds Schwartzman, of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church.
The answer to whether one can rejoice at the death of an evil person may be a simple “be glad that justice was served – but not that somebody died,” she says.
Imam Talib Shareef, of the Masjid Muhammad mosque in Washington, says that the Muslim tradition encourages people to be happy when someone dies.
“In every situation [when someone dies], you’re more happy than sad,” he points out. “[God] determines the length of our lives. God lets us know this is how He does it. We have to die so that we can live. … He takes [our loved ones] so we can appreciate [life] more.”
But the joy felt upon a death should always be for the person’s soul returning to God and not for revenge, he says, adding, while justice is an important thing to feel, justice and revenge are not the same.
“[Osama bin Laden’s] behavior was not good, but he was still a human,” says Shareef. “We’re all human. All the other stuff comes later.”
Back at the Red Sea, with the Israelites celebrating, a rabbinic homily known as a midrash describes the scene up in heaven. The angels, too, were rejoicing at the death of the Egyptians.
Elsewhere in the Talmud, Rabbi Aha ben Hanina teaches: “When the wicked perish, there is song. But does the Holy One, blessed be He, rejoice over the downfall of the wicked?”
Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman returned to the jubilant angels. God rebuked them, Nahman said, and told the angels: “My children [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea, why would you sing before me!”
Sunshine says there’s no easy way to tell where to place the line dividing celebration for the end of evil and the end of an evil-doer’s life.
“If it feels like the celebration is entirely self-serving … if it’s personal and that’s all we’re talking about, then maybe it loses that broader morality of ridding the world of evil,” he says. “If it’s a self-serving, ‘USA! USA!’ Then that’s not really appropriate.”
What it comes down to is what God’s goals are, continues Sunshine. “What does God really want from the wicked at the end of it all? Is it God’s express will to punish the wicked, or hope that they come around, repent and do teshuvah?”
Rev. Larry Hayward was at the airport when he saw Obama announce that bin Laden had been killed.
“When Osama bin Laden died, one of the observations [my wife] Maggie made was about the burden that [the millennial] generation has carried about Osama,” says Hayward, of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alexandria.
Because bin Laden was at large for so many years, he is the most recognizable villain of the millennials’ time, he says. That may explain the overwhelming excitement many felt when they heard he was dead.
“Most of the deaths of someone like bin Laden [are] celebrations of justice rather than the death of a human being,” he asserts. Those spontaneous reactions of celebration are “certainly a human reaction and not something I would condemn somebody for. … At best, it’s a celebration of justice in this life.”
While it is relatively simple to determine how to react to the death of a bin Laden or a Haman or a Hitler, the dividing line becomes a little blurred when the one who has died was a family member.
Sunshine says that many rabbis believe the child of an abusive parent can refrain from the traditional Jewish mourning process. Because one of the purposes of shiva, shloshim (the first 30 days of mourning), and reciting Kaddish is to honor the deceased, “Why should you be honoring the wicked after their death?”
But, “there’s a difference between withholding those rituals and jumping up and down and saying, ‘Yay, my abusive parent died,’ ” he answers.
Victims of abuse should not pray for the death of the abuser, he counsels. For one thing, there are support systems for abuse victims.
“It would be much more appropriate to pray for the strength to take that action [seeking help from a support system] rather than praying for the demise of that person,” says Sunshine. “That person has tried to diminish our place in the world, and we should not try to do the same to them” by praying for them to die. “I’d rather not become the person that I’m trying to avoid.”
Bieler agrees that such a situation can be very complicated.
“There is the personal stuff, and it’s very difficult not to have certain emotional feelings,” he says. Rather than being happy that the person can no longer do any harm, you should be sad that the person did not reconcile with family members or right the wrongs that they committed.
Bieler offers a similar view of the sense of relief a survivor might feel upon the impending death of a loved one who is in pain or suffering. At the same time, he says, “you wish they could recover.”
And while relief that a person is no longer suffering is a natural emotion, that doesn’t change the fact that those mourning a death can also suffer at the loss. It is appropriate to feel both emotions, he says.
“It is entirely appropriate for a pastor or a family member or a person to pray close to their death,” in a manner similar to vidui, the confessional prayer that Jews say as they approach death.
Vidui, says Sunshine, begins with a prayer for healing. “Through the very end, we hope that the person will be able to heal and recover.” However, the goal of the rest of the prayer is to ask for God’s forgiveness and God’s protection and safeguarding of the person’s soul in the event that he or she does not recover.
Schwartzman adds that a person’s death relieves the pain of those around them.
“Their release from the pain of human suffering is our release, too,” she explains. “It’s painful for us to see them go through that … and there’s nothing immoral about [feeling relief at] that.”