When Jewish people escaped from Egypt, they saw the Pharaoh’s army descending upon them. Then the miracle occurred. They saw Pharaoh’s army drown in the sea.
It was the seminal moment in the lives of those present and was to become the seminal moment in the lives of our people and the Jewish nation.
In their great joy, they sang triumphantly what has become known as the “Song of the Sea.” According to biblical historians, this is one of the oldest passages in the entire Hebrew Bible.
Cheering and celebrating the death of tyrants and mass murderers goes way back in Jewish tradition.
Similarly in the story of Purim, after Haman and his 10 sons were executed, we are told: “On the thirteenth day of the month Adar; and on the fourteenth day of the same they rested, and made it a day of feasting and gladness” (Esther 9:17).
Proverbs 11:10 observes, “When the wicked are destroyed, there is rejoicing.”
These responses come from the part of our brain that has been called the reptilian brain. We have felt threatened and now the threat has partially been removed. Osama bin Laden is not able to murder again, and for that we feel a great sense of relief.
On the other hand, both biblical and rabbinic traditions give us a somewhat different perspective on the death of a mass murderer like bin Laden.
Proverbs 24:17 says, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls.”
The Talmud teaches us in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: “The Ministering Angels sought to sing the Song of the Sea (in celebration of the death of Pharaoh’s soldiers.) Said the Holy One of Blessing: The works of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you say the Song?!” (Sanhedrin 39b).
I am curious as to why this rebuke was addressed to the angels and not to the human beings who crossed the sea.
Perhaps in addressing the angels, our tradition was trying to say that that part of our higher selves, the angelic or godly part, should not be celebrating the death of a tyrant in such a way.
At the Passover Seder, we pour out 10 drops of wine to represent the 10 plagues. We do not drink these drops lest we be seen as celebrating the deaths of others.
As a matter of fact, traditionally when we pour out these 10 drops, we do so with our pinky finger and as such we are told that we are not even to lick off the remaining wine in order not to be seen as celebrating.
The higher brain functioning helps us understand what has happened in a different way.
First, we understand that just because bin Laden is dead, that does not mean the struggle against terrorism is over or has been won.
Second, theologically we can even empathize with God’s sadness. Bin Laden was after all a creature created in God’s image. He was not born with a tattoo on his chest that said, “This is an evil baby!” When he was a toddler, he did not wear a shirt that said, “I will grow up to be a mass murderer.”
The ability to hate others is something that we learn from others. It is not a “God-given” ability. Bin Laden’s story represents the most extreme example of educational failure.
As a Jew, I do not celebrate his death.
Having said that, I am not going to be critical of those students from American, George Washington and George Mason universities who descended upon the White House. These young people were 10 to 14 years old at the time of 9/11.
To a very real extent, the events of 9/11 have shaped the world during the past 10 years – and the adult identities of these young people. This celebration was an expression of their reptilian brain. As time goes on and with added maturity, they will begin to understand the significance of this event on a higher level.
My higher brain functioning tells me that the problem of terrorism and its very real threat, not only to the United States, but especially to Israel and the Jewish people remains very real.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood referred to bin Laden by the honorary term “sheikh.”
In the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, an imam vowed to take revenge on “the Western dogs” who killed Osama bin Laden.
Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, told reporters: “We condemn the assassination and the killing of an Arab holy warrior (shahid). We regard this as a continuation of the American policy based on oppression and the shedding of Muslim and Arab blood.”
A new Pew Global Attitudes poll shows that respect for al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden was the highest in the entire Muslim world among Palestinian Muslims, with 34 percent expressing confidence in him to “do the right thing in world affairs.”
We have lots to consider in our world. We are glad that the man responsible for the deaths of more than 3,000 Americans on 9/11 and many more, including thousands of Muslims, has been brought to justice. We know as well that the fight against terrorism is not over and that reconciliation is a long way off.
We pray that the Holy One of Blessing, the God who is the God of all Humanity, will bless us with peace.
May we live to see that day when as the prophet Isaiah said, “Nation will not lift up sword against nation.”
But let us interpret the second part of this verse in the following manner: “Neither shall they, children and adults, ever again be taught to hate and to be violent toward others for we are all created in God’s image!”
Fred Guttman is rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C.