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Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater Headshot

Repairing Relations and Reflecting on the Death of our Enemies

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I thought I had my ideas in order for what I wanted to say on bin Laden, and then I heard Father Greg Boyle at the Pasadena Mayor's Prayer Breakfast yesterday. He got me believing that hope in this world is possible when we love one another, when we build kinship with one another, when we hold one another in the light of God's overflowing compassion and love. For those of you who have not heard Father Greg speak, you absolutely must if you get the chance. He is a Jesuit Priest, the founder of Homeboy Industries, an internationally-recognized gang rehabilitation operation like none other. He has spent his entire ministry, over 30 years, working in the poorest and most dangerous parts of Los Angeles. And he is the most inspirational human being I have ever been around. He spoke of loving human beings for who they are, returning human beings to themselves through love. In his new best-selling book, Tattoos on the Heart, which I highly recommend, Father Greg says "Our common human hospitality longs to find room for those who are left out." He didn't talk about Osama bin Laden at all, but his theme for the talk was hope. So, as we reflect on the killing of the greatest terrorist mastermind of our generation, the Amalek of our day, I feel that what we need now is a renewed sense of hope, a hope that can lead us to a brighter day in the aftermath of the long, dark and ugly shadow that this man cast upon our country and our world.

As many of you probably did, I sat and watched the news unfold Sunday night, with President Obama announcing, with what I found to be great poise, sobriety and seriousness, that Osama bin Laden had been found and killed by Navy SEALs. As the minutes passed, we began to see spontaneous crowds of people gathering at the White House, at Ground Zero, at Times Square, in Boston and I imagine in other places around our nation that didn't make the news. I have to admit, I was rattled and disturbed by the party-like atmosphere, especially outside the White House, where a large crowd of mostly college students were chanting "USA, USA," singing our national anthem, waving flags and cheering like at a football game. Throughout this entire week, there have been articles, blogs, interviews and comments from many rabbis and others, on whether this cheering and celebration was an appropriate response. Without these spontaneous gatherings, I believe the discourse this week would have been different somehow. On Sunday night, I was upset and uneasy, as my immediate reaction to this news was not to dance in the streets, but to reflect in quiet solemnity about what this moment means in our lives. I was embarrassed by the cheering and strong displays of national triumphalism, and I shut it off. As the week went by though, as I sat with my Tuesday morning meditation group I lead at my synagogue and discussed this after our 35-minute silent period together, as I talked to others, I found myself becoming more understanding of the reaction. I heard many people say it was not celebration, but an enormous, spontaneous, outpouring of relief, a collective cheer of "thank God," that comes with the knowledge that an enemy of our people, of all good people, has been silenced. I feel now that, especially with the college kids, the reaction, at least for some, was a recognition that the man who has defined evil in their lives, who has been the Hitler of our day, was gone, and that the relief which this news brought led folks to want to be together and to celebrate. Celebrate not the death of a person, but the birth of a new dawn, a new chapter in our country's history. That is not to say we can't be happy that the world is rid of such an evil person. Mark Twain said it best when he quipped, "I have never wished a man dead, but I have definitely gotten great pleasure at reading certain obituaries." I understand these feelings, and after this emotional week, I have come to share some of these feelings. As I talk to my children, and their classmates, about this news, I want to be reassuring to their sense of vulnerability that evil doesn't reign in our world, that good can triumph over bad, but that we don't clap and cheer when someone, anyone, dies. David Wolpe wrote to that affect on his Facebook page in the hour after the news broke, when he said, "this moment calls for sobriety, no revelry." Proverbs reminds us of this when it says, "Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; for God will see this and be displeased..." (Prov. 24:17-18)

I explained to some folks, who raised up Purim and the evil Haman in the Book of Esther, that the Jews celebrated and danced not because Haman and his sons were killed, but because they had survived his evil decree. And, of course, one of the greatest moments of collective celebration in our Jewish psyche takes place after leaving Egypt, crossing the sea and witnessing the drowning of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, when Moses, Miriam and the people dance and sing, declaring God "a man of war." Every rabbi in America that commented this week, for the most part, quoted the same 3-4 midrashim, teachings, about Jewish reaction to the death of our enemies. The most famous is the one that has the angels dancing and celebrating (maybe chanting "Adonai, Adonai, Adonai!") after the Egyptians are drowned, and God silencing them, saying, "how dare you celebrate when my children are dying." It was noted that God silences the angels, but not the humans. The psalms remind us that "we are but little lower than the angels," which often is taken to lift us up as superior beings. But, in this case, maybe we can read it as reminding us that while we do possess many remarkable and unique qualities, we are still animals, not angels, and that dancing and singing at the death of our enemies just might be a human reaction beyond our control sometimes. And so while I wouldn't dance in the street, I don't begrudge those that felt moved to. We humans have different needs, different avenues of release, different modes of expression. So, as long as we respect one another's reactions, without judging, we are free to react as we please. I am more interested in where our reactions lead each of us to go now.

We are reminded, in the other famous teaching which all of my colleagues referenced, that at the Passover seder, we take a drop of wine out of our cup for the plagues so as to diminish a bit of joy, which had to come at the expense of Egyptian pain and suffering. I want to believe that God is all-merciful, all-loving, all-compassionate, and that these are ideals and goals to strive for here on Earth. I also know that sometimes justice comes through hard realities, even death, which is what happened with bin Laden. I recognize that Judaism is not a pacifist religion, that our tradition, while taking pains to protect life at all costs, instructs us to fight, and even to kill, to save lives. I am often criticized by those who think my ambivalence about this reality is a sign of weakness, of moral cloudiness. Do I wish that bin Laden had been captured, arrested, tried and imprisoned for the rest of his days on Earth? At first I did, but now I am torn. I don't support the death penalty, and actually think that death, in this case, was an easy way out for bin Laden. Like Israel did with Eichmann, capturing him alive and putting him on trial, there is a part of me that wishes this could have happened. Yet, I also understand the grave danger in doing this for the brave men who performed this operation, for any country that would have taken him, and for the world, as his trial would have been a spectacle and flashpoint for terror the world over. Moreover, I would hate to see one more cent of our precious capital, human and monetary, be spent on this menace. I am comforted, also, in knowing that even the Dalai Lama, a great man of peace who is known to not kill mosquitos, seemed to hint this week at USC that, while he believes in nonviolence, compassion and forgiveness, killing bin Laden was perhaps justified. If the Dalai Lama is on board, then I can be too.

As a peace activist, I can't tell you how many times I have been asked, "so, what would you have done about Hitler? Not fight? Try and talk?" My ideal, my deepest hope in believing in the words of the Torah in Leviticus 19, which tell us, amongst other things, "don't hold a grudge, don't take vengeance, don't hate your brother/sister in your heart, love your neighbor as yourself..." is to always seek the highest ideal, to try and live up to these words. Yet, I am human, we all are human, we are not angels, which means we can strive but we often fall short. And, our realities on Earth are not like those in God's eternal realm, whether you call it heaven, the world to come, the messianic age, whatever. Earth is messy, evil is real, Amalek, Haman, Hitler, bin Laden, and all of the people who live their lives with an evil nature today, tomorrow, forever, will need to be fought, need to be battled. The Torah expresses the challenging nature of this task when, instructing us about Amalek, first in Exodus, it says, "God will be at war with Amalek throughout the generations," (Ex. 17:16) and then in Deuteronomy we read "blot out his name; never forget." (Deut. 25:19) The world is better off without Osama bin Laden, and yet I don't rejoice in saying that. I am saddened and pained, both for knowing how much suffering will continue, regardless of his death, for the families and victims of all of the attacks he orchestrated, most crushingly for us, Sept. 11th, and for the fact that this human life, this person who was born with the God-given talents and capacities that we all possess, chose to use them for such horror. I am saddened by how much ill-will and anger has been directed at the Muslim-American community, the overwhelming majority of whom are upstanding, hard-working, committed citizens of our country; I hope the downfall of bin Laden will lead us to reach out and repair relations, seeking to meet and embrace the Muslim-American community, knowing that they too, if not more so, suffered at the hands of his evil ways. This could be a tikkun, a repair, of extraordinary magnitude. And so, I think about the High Priest Aaron and Rabbi Akiva, who called us to love and pursue peace; I think about Dr. King, whose quote about darkness multiplying darkness has gone viral this week, and what he might have said in this moment. And, I am reminded of Father Greg, who gives love, support, rehabilitation and new life to some of the most violent, angry, and what many of us would call evil, people in our world: gang members. I don't know if Father Greg could have gotten through to bin Laden, but with the remarkable success he has had with gangs, a part of me wishes he could have tried.

I give thanks and praise to the brave members of our military who carried out this mission, and to our president, for his courage in directing this action. I pray our nation and our world can close this sad and painful chapter in our history, including the wars we launched in the aftermath of 9/11, and that the children who have been raised in the shadows of this darkness be given a new canvass of light and hope with which to design our future.