President Obama will address our nation and the world tomorrow from the site of the greatest mass murder ever committed on American soil. At that same location in Lower Manhattan, and in front of the White House, celebratory crowds continue to gather in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death. What message are we sending, and will the President send, to our nation and to the world? Is it the one we want to send? Is it the one we should be sending?
Religious leaders, like many others, are weighing in on the issue of the propriety of celebrating Osama bin Laden's death. Not surprisingly, they tend to cherry pick those portions of their respective traditions for the passages which "prove" what they already believe. But is it really as simple as all that?
What does it mean to cheer another person's death, even if they are a genuine enemy? Is it appropriate? Is it inevitable? Is it necessary?
The answers to these questions are not resolved with a few well-chosen quotes from whatever scripture one happens to hold dear. From a Jewish perspective, there is plenty of material that supports those who choose to celebrate bin Laden's demise, and plenty of other material that suggests such celebration is inappropriate.
Suggesting otherwise -- that the tradition supports only one of these reactions -- misreads the tradition and makes it small. The greatness of the Jewish canon, at least, is that it holds out a range of responses as wide as the range of human emotions which arise at such moments as the demise of a hated and/or feared enemy.
Examples abound, but one need look no further than the Exodus accounts of the parting of the Red Sea. Pharaoh and his armies drown in the sea. Moses and Miriam lead the people in song, celebrating God as a "man of war." Later rabbis however teach that as angels in heaven joined the earthly song, God demanded that they cease their singing, rebuking them with the words, "How dare you angels sing as My creations are drowning!"
Interestingly, God rebukes the angels, not the people, for singing. In that seeming contradiction, along with the tradition's refusal to settle on a single acceptable response to such events, we find a stirring message about the appropriateness of both celebration and sobriety in the phase of recent events.
The measure of one's response to such events seems to lie in one's proximity to the suffering caused by the one who is now beaten or dead. The Israelites, who suffered the agony of hundreds of years of slavery, celebrate the death of their oppressors. The angels, whose delight is purely theoretical -- the joy of seeing good win out over evil -- have no such right to celebrate.
People directly touched by the events of 9/11 or other acts of terror have a right to respond differently than those whose lives were not similarly shattered. For many, especially those who have suffered directly as a result of bin Laden's terror, the catharsis of celebration may not only be appropriate, but actually necessary.
Those who lost loved ones in the war against terror, or those who support loved ones wounded in that war, will and should respond differently than those of us who have not. How could it be otherwise?
The question is not so much which is the right response to Osama bin Laden's death; the question is who each of us is in relation to Osama bin Laden. The task at hand is not to figure out how God would want us to respond; the task at hand is to figure out how, whatever our chosen response may be, we will move forward in life and empower ourselves to build a world which in which all people are safer and more secure.