Friday, May 6, 2011

Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue

Well, of course we have all been transfixed this week about the news concerning the death of Osama bin Laden.  No doubt we all feel a sense of relief that this heartless terrorist is no longer able to threaten the lives of innocent civilians, as well as our brave men and women in uniform.

I have had a number of conversations with congregants in the last week.  Many of them have expressed a bit of frustration: they aren't sure how they are supposed to be reacting to this (unexpected?) news.  Should they be rejoicing like the revelers in this video:

Or is something subdued more appropriate for this occasion?

A more subdued reaction would be Jewishly appropriate, if we think about it in terms of the fact that a human being died here.  Jews don't typically rejoice when a person has died.  We believe, after all, that every human being was created in the image of God - that every person has some essential spark of divinity in them that makes them non-completely- and-totally-evil.  That God weeps, on some level, for the loss of every person - and therefore, so should we.

(This is the basis for our Passover Seder practice of dipping our pinkies in the wine for each of the Ten Plagues: to lessen our joy by recalling the suffering of the Egyptians.)

Do you think that God is saddened by bin Laden's death, as God would be by every other human being's?  Or, was he so evil that he becomes an exception to this principle?

Certainly we've had other exceptions over the course of Jewish history.  The Book of Esther, for example, notes that following the deaths of Haman and his sons: "That was on the 13th day of the month of Adar; and they rested on the 14th day and made it a day of feasting and merrymaking" (9:17).

What about a Jewish basis for actively opposing bin Laden's killing?

There has been a minority strain in Judaism surrounding the issue of pacifism.

In terms of a more specific analogy from the Jewish past to compare bin Laden's killing to, we might recall the execution fifty years ago of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.  (Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt explores the comparison between these two here.)

Hannah Arendt, in her famous chronicle of the Eichmann trial, notes that: 

"The President [of Israel] also received hundreds of letters and telegrams from all over the world, pleading for clemency; outstanding among the senders were the Central Conference of American Rabbis [the CCAR - the Reform rabbinical organization], and a group of professors from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, headed by Martin Buber, who had been opposed to the trial from the start, and who now tried to persuade Ben-Gurion to intervene for clemency."

The CCAR's position on this matter is news to me!  I am trying to track down a more detailed statement about their position on this.  If I find it, I'll post it here.  Buber's position (given his well known liberal political credentials) is less surprising to me.

We can see, from all of this, that there are clearly options on the table here - in terms of different emotional reactions to the death of someone like bin Laden.

How have you reacted?  (As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts publicly here on the blog or privately over email.)

Are you overjoyed (as in the Purim story)?

Are you relieved, but not overjoyed (as in the Passover story and our seder custom of removing wine from our glasses)?

Or are you actively opposed to what happened (as Jews in the past have been because of their pacifism, antipathy toward the death penalty, etc.)?

However you are feeling, you should definitely make it a point of checking out the New York Times website.  Click here to see their interactive feature that allows people to graph their own reactions, and add comments about how they are feeling.  Chart yourself and/or see what others have posted.  It is fascinating.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

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