Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Celebrate Away!

There is a truism that we always remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard about certain pivotal events. Those who were around on the day of the assassination of President Kennedy, for example, remember where, when and how they received word. I was only a very small child in first grade in Queens, New York on that day, but I remember a sudden change in the school schedule, with an assembly being called at the end of the day to inform us of the events in far-away Dallas before dismissing us for the weekend. I have a similarly vivid memory of where I was and what I was doing when I heard about a much more recent event – the attacks on our country on September 11th, 2001.

I’m sure that many of you experienced one of those ‘pivotal events,’ as I did, last Sunday night, the First of May, 2011. I was sitting on the sofa downstairs in the family room, listening to the TV. I say ‘listening’ because I was soaking my eye with a warm compress and had my glasses off. Geraldo Rivera was on the tube, interviewing someone about something; I was paying scant attention. Then, suddenly Rivera’s voice went up an octave as he stopped in mid-sentence and began talking about the killing of Osama Bin Laden. This will be one of those moments etched in time for me; glasses off and the TV all fuzzy in front of me, and all of a sudden a clarity as reportage of the raid on that compound in Pakistan began to unfold.

I was happy, to be sure. Why would one cry crocodile tears over the death of such an evil man as Bin Laden? Even so, I was impressed when President Obama came on TV a while later, that he effected a serious and semi-somber tone. This, although I did imagine that the corners of his mouth were tending to curl upward as he made the announcement. But when I saw the video images of the crowds that had spontaneously gathered in front of the White House and in Times Square and at Ground Zero, celebrating jubilantly, I did feel some sense of disdain. Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, Proverbs 24 admonishes us. I cannot count the times I have heard that scripture quoted, or quoted it myself.

I’ve thought about that admonition quite a few times over this week as I’ve contemplated the reality that is the evil Bin Laden unleashed. I’ve thought about it as I’ve gone about my business in the days since Sunday. I’ve thought about it as I’ve seen everywhere faces full of new hope. Even in the cell blocks of the ‘Supermax’ prison in Florence, Colorado, where I went for my monthly visit with Jewish inmates, I noticed a more upbeat mood than usual. This, among the inmates as well as the staff!

I realize that this new hope, this jubilation at the killing of Bin Laden, is far more than gloating over the death of a bad man. It is an affirmation that, in addition to Evil, there is also Good in this world…and sometimes, Good wins. It is the same rejoicing that we experience – rightly so – when a serial rapist, or child molester, or murderer, is caught and brought to justice. We grouse when we see injustice; why shouldn’t we rejoice when we see justice?

On Monday night I received a mass e-mail from ‘Rabbi’ Michael Lerner, the publisher of the Jewish magazine Tikkun. In it, he cautioned us from rejoicing over the death of Bin Laden. He invoked the act we perform in the Passover Seder, spilling a drop of wine for each of the Ten Plagues visited upon the Egyptians. Just as our joy over our own deliverance is tempered by knowledge of the suffering of others, we should stifle any jubilation we may feel over the death of Bin Laden. So Lerner wrote, and he was not the only Jewish voice to express such sentiments. On Monday, Rabbi Shmueley Boteach posted similar sentiments in his blog on the Huffington Post.

Of course, in recent days I also heard the voices of a number of Christians who reminded their community of the admonition of Jesus that one must love one’s enemy. Rabbi Boteach reminds us that Judaism makes no such demand. He wrote the following:

Judaism stands alone as a world religion in its commandment to hate evil. Exhortations to hate all manner of evil abound in the Bible and G-d declares His detestation of those who visit cruelty on His children. Psalm 97 is emphatic: "You who love G-d must hate evil." Proverbs 8 declares, "The fear of the Lord is to hate evil." Amos 5 demands, "Hate the evil and love the good." And Isaiah 5 warns, "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil." And concerning the wicked, King David declares unequivocally, "I have hated them with a perfect hatred. They are become enemies to me." (Psalm 139) Hatred is a valid emotion, the appropriate moral response, to the human encounter with inhuman cruelty. Mass murderers most elicit our deepest hatred and contempt.

Even so, Boteach went on to invoke the spilling of wine for the Egyptians at the Passover Seder, as well as the aforementioned admonition of Proverbs 24, as well as the Talmud’s rebuke of the people Israel dancing over the demise of the Egyptians in the Red Sea, to caution us against rejoicing over the death of Bin Laden.

By the time I read all this, I had long since gotten over the initial disdain I’d felt toward the celebrants on the night of Sunday, the First of May. I had decided that they’d been right in following their instincts to spontaneously express their joy. The death of Osama Bin Laden is something over which to rejoice. For how many deaths has this man been responsible? Thousands directly, and many thousands more indirectly. We should spill out drops of wine for Bin Laden’s victims, not for him. Remember, at the Passover Seder we’re acknowledging the suffering of the Egyptians brought upon them by their ruler, the Pharaoh. We’re not crying for the fate of Pharaoh himself.

Rather than mute our celebration at the demise of one who caused so much evil, we should express solidarity with his victims. Our tears should be for the victims of evil, not its perpetrators. If we expressed a uniform regret at the loss of any human life, we would be in the position of equating an evil person with his victim. That for me is the supreme irony of the statement of Federico Lombardi, a spokesman for the Vatican. On Monday, he declared: “A Christian never rejoices in the death of any man, no matter how evil.” So for a Christian – at least according to this view – the value of one life is the same as another. I wonder how many Christians really believe this? Probably more than a few, since many Jews believe this also.

But the absurdity of this concept – that we should mourn the death of the evildoer just as we mourn the death of his victim – seems incredibly ironic in that it was published on Yom Hashoah, the day on which we memorialize the victims of the Holocaust. While not having been around then, I can’t imagine having felt anything other than jubilation at the news of Hitler’s death or that of the surrender of Germany in 1945.

What I’m trying to say, dear Jews, is that if you felt any sense of elation upon hearing the news of the demise of Osama Bin Laden, you needn’t feel any shame whatsoever. No, your happiness only indicated a moral clarity that enabled you to differentiate between an evil man and his victims. You should be proud that you possess such clarity. If that clarity enabled you to spontaneously rejoice – even loudly shouting U-S-A, U-S-A! then I hope you enjoyed the emotional release. It’s okay to celebrate raucously upon reading in the Megillah of Esther on Purim of the downfall of the evil Haman. So too it would have been okay to join the raucous crowds in New York, Washington and elsewhere on Sunday night in celebrating the downfall of an evil man. Or, to quietly say a shehecheyanu, as I did.

We don’t spill ten drops of wine over the death of Hitler, and we certainly shouldn’t do so over Bin Laden. We might spill wine, or simply express solidarity, with the people of Afghanistan whom Bin Laden and his allies the Taliban imprisoned in a prison of medieval hate.

I actually had an opportunity to do that in a very small way on a trip to New York in December, 2001. I was wandering around Times Square looking for a place to eat when on a side street I spied an Afghan kabob restaurant. Still wearing my Air Force uniform after the trip from Colorado, I marched in and sat down. It was a small place; the somewhat flabbergasted owner walked over to my table and stood over me with a questioning look on his face.

“It’s not your fault,” I told him, referring to his native country’s providing a base for Al Qaida. “Hopefully, this scourge will pass soon.”

I don’t remember the name of that little restaurant off Times Square where I ate that night. I do, however remember the smiles of the owner and the delicious kabobs I ate. And of course, that brings to mind the old joke about the common theme that runs through many Jewish holidays: They tried to kill us all, they didn’t succeed, let’s eat.

Bin Laden is dead. Let’s celebrate without guilt.