Rabbi Arthur Waskow : Do We Rejoice in Death?

Do we rejoice in death? Photo by Matt Sunday / AP.

Bin Laden and beyond:
Addressing our higher selves

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow / The Rag Blog / May 3, 2011

How might we appropriately address the death of a mass murderer?

The Torah describes Moses and Miriam leading the ancient People Israel in a celebratory song after the tyrannical Pharaoh and his Army have been overwhelmed by the waters of the Red Sea. Later, the Rabbis gave a new overtone to the story: “The angels,” they said, “ began to dance and sing as well, but God rebuked them: ‘These also are the work of My hands. We must not rejoice at their deaths!’ “

Notice the complexity of the teaching: Human beings go unrebuked when they celebrate the downfall and death of a tyrant; but the Rabbis are addressing our higher selves, trying to move us into a higher place. (The legend is certainly not aimed at “angels.”)

Similarly, we are taught that at the Passover Seder, when we recite the plagues that fell upon the Egyptians, we must drip out the wine from our cups as we mention each plague, lest we drink that wine to celebrate these disasters that befell our oppressors.

I myself would have been a lot happier to see Bin Laden arrested to stand trial, but assuming the report that he violently resisted arrest is true, I have no objection to his having been killed.

Yet I was dismayed by the quasi-sports-victory tone of the celebrations that arose around the country — chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A,” for instance.

What I myself felt was more like “sad necessity” — and I would have preferred a mournful remembrance of the innocent dead of the Twin Towers and of Iraq and Afghanistan — a thoughtful reexamination of how easy it is to turn abominable violence against us into a justification for indiscriminate violence by us.

Can we now say, “Enough, enough!” — refuse to drink the intoxicating triumphalist wine of celebration, and turn our attention and commitment to ending these wars that take on a deadly “life” of their own?

With blessings of shalom, salaam, peace…

[Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center. He is co-author of The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims; author of Godwrestling, Round 2 and Down-to-Earth Judaism; and editor of Torah of the Earth. Read more of Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s articles on The Rag Blog.]

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3 Responses to Rabbi Arthur Waskow : Do We Rejoice in Death?

  1. Anonymous says:

    The rabbi speaks for me as well-

  2. Brother Jonah says:

    I find the Bible to teach us by bad example. Like God consistently saying “look, see what this person did here? Don’t do that, okay?”
    That and the Commandments lead back, one by one, to the notion that nobody can meet the requirement of absolute righteousness for judging another to death.

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