A lively discussion has sprung up over the question of whether it is proper to rejoice over the death of Osama Bin Laden. No where is that discussion livelier than within the Jewish community. As quoted by JTA, Rabbi Tzvi Freedman writing on Chabad.org says that even asking the question is very Jewish. "It's so typically Jewish to feel guilty about rejoicing," he observed. The JTA article quotes responses from various rabbis from all of the denominations of Judaism.
Jewish religious tradition is ambivalent on the issue. On the one hand, a wag once said that the Jewish festivals can be explained in three sentences: "They tried to kill us. They failed. Let's eat." Pesach, Channukah and Purim are prime examples of that genre of celebration.
And yet, at the Passover Seder, we spill drops of wine from our full wine cups when we recite the 10 plagues, and the most common explanation of the custom to express sadness that our enemies had to suffer in order for the Jewish nation to achieve its freedom from Egyptian slavery.
Moreover, there is a midrash that when Moses and the Children of Israel united in song at the Red Sea, upon witnessing the drowning of Pharoah and his army and chariots, the angelic hosts wanted to join in the chorus of praise for God, but God himself silenced them, admonishing, "The works of my creation are drowning, and you want to sing praises?" And yet, God did not silence Moses and the Children of Israel, and the Song at the Sea is considered a moment at which they achieved spiritual sublimity. Apparently, it was proper for the Children of Israel to sing and rejoice, but not proper for the angels to join them.
Here is the response of the esteemed Talmudist and teacher of Chabad Chasidism, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (photo above right)to the question:
In the Bible, we have two almost opposite reactions to the fall of an enemy. On the on hand, we have the famous verse that says, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.” (Proverbs 24, 17) On the other hand, we have, among many others, the verse, “When the wicked perish, there is joy.” (Ibid., 11, 10)
In fact, there is no contradiction between those two verses. The first one refers to a situation in which there is animosity or a quarrel between two people. In such a case, a person may have an enemy, but his downfall shouldn’t be any reason for rejoicing. Whatever the quarrel – commercial, political or any other kind – the enemy is just a person in opposition. Such people may cause discomfort to the other side, but essentially, both parties are equal to each other. Therefore, one should not rejoice when one’s enemy has fallen.
The other verse does not deal with personal or national disagreement, but with an objective fact: there indeed are in the world wicked people. And when the wicked are destroyed, others should express their approval and their joy that some vicious object or person has disappeared from the world. Osama bin Laden created for himself a very clear position as one of the wicked, and therefore the world should be happy when at least one element of evil is no longer functioning.
I will follow Rabbi Steinsaltz's advice and be happy at the downfall of a wicked person. What do you think?