What a difference one year makes. Last year I praised President Obama for not wanting to "spike the football" by releasing gruesome death photos of Osama bin Laden. But this year, forget spiking the football. The president is doing an end-zone dance.
The Bible says that when someone incurs the death penalty and his body is hung on a tree as an example to others, he still must be buried the same day. We're not to desecrate the body of even the most vicious killer, because G-d created humans in His image. So America had no need to put out pictures of Osama missing a part of his cranium. The president last year stood by this, and it was impressive.
And as far as gloating over the demise of our foes is concerned, Proverbs 24 expressly forbids celebrating the death of our enemies: "Do not rejoice when your enemy falls and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles." We fight bad guys like bin Laden because we have an obligation to protect the innocent by resisting the wicked. But we don't gloat over it. War should never be about winning glory but protecting innocent life.
The obligation to protect the weak and punish their butchers is famously conveyed in Leviticus 19, "Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor," and again in Psalm 82, "Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them out of the hand of the wicked."
Osama bin Laden was evil personified. We had a moral obligation to abhor him, as the Bible makes clear in Amos: "Hate the evil and love the good." But while feelings of revulsion were justified, feelings of elation at his demise were not. This, too, President Obama understood last year, and I praised him for it.
But all that has changed with his current victory dance.
Well, we're in an election year. I get it. But that doesn't mean our morals should change. What was particularly strange was the president inviting NBC TV into the Situation Room, which had never before been penetrated by network cameras, because it's supposed to be the most classified and off-limits place in the country. There he spoke about how tough his decision had been to send in the SEALs to get the al-Qaeda head.
Much has been made of the difference between the speech given by President Bush when the U.S. captured Saddam Hussein and that given by President Obama when bin Laden was killed, with the former focusing on the bravery of the troops and the latter seemingly focusing on the president's own role in bin Laden's killing. But I'm not here to be petty and parse words, and in any event actions are much more important than speeches. Last year the president did not gloat over killing bin Laden, and he deserved praise, just as his complete about-face this year, in order to win votes, deserves to be criticized.
I am a huge fan of the mostly moral foreign policy of George W. Bush, which largely held tyrants accountable for slaughtering their people. I contrast this with President Obama's lack of response in Iran after Ahmadinejad killed his people, his leading from behind on Libya (even though in the end he did the right thing), his lack of leadership in the Arab spring, and his failure to do much of anything in Syria.
But even President Bush stumbled when he plastered "Mission Accomplished" on an aircraft carrier and flew in to do a tailhook landing in May 2003. At the time I honestly said to myself that this would work out poorly. The same was true when Bush used words like "dead or alive" with reference to bin Laden. Glory in battle nearly always ends badly.
The American way is not to gloat over war. It was summed up by Colin Powell in a brilliant speech at the MTV Global Discussion on Feb. 14, 2002:
Far from being the Great Satan, I would say that we are the Great Protector. We have sent men and women from the armed forces of the United States to other parts of the world throughout the past century to put down oppression. We defeated fascism. We defeated communism. We saved Europe in World War I and World War II ... all in the interest of preserving the rights of people. And when all those conflicts were over, what did we do? Did we stay and conquer? We defeated Japan, so Japan belongs to us? No. ... We built them up. We gave them democratic systems, which they have embraced totally to their soul. And did we ask for any land? No. The only land we ever asked for was enough land to bury our dead. And that is the kind of nation we are.
This uniquely humble American ethos stems largely from Judeo-Christian ethics. We Jews have suffered more than most. But we stubbornly refuse to celebrate the demise of our enemies or any military triumph. King David is Judaism's most famous warrior, yet rather than praising David's slaying of Jewish foes, God expressly denied his request to build the Holy Temple, because he had taken life, even in the defense of life: "But God said to me, 'You shall not build a house for My name, because you have been a man of war and have shed blood'" (1 Chronicles 28). Indeed, the great king was celebrated by generations of Jews not for dispatching enemy combatants but for beautiful Psalms accompanied by harp and lyre.
Hanukkah celebrates the miraculous military victory of the Maccabees over the Assyrian Greeks, inheritors of Alexander the Great, in the second century B.C.E. But it was the miracle of the lights of the Menorah that the Jews chose to emphasize rather than the necessary slaughter of enemy soldiers in self-defense.
Even on Passover, as we recite the Ten Plagues that culminated in the killing of the Egyptian firstborn, we pour wine out of our glasses so as not to revel in the demise of our enemies.
And while the modern State of Israel has enjoyed electrifying military victories like the 1967 Six-Day War, travel the length and breadth of that tiny country and you will not find a single victory arch or a monument to vanquished adversaries but only sad memorials to dead Israeli soldiers and civilians. Judaism is a religion of life. We do not celebrate death, even the deaths of those who made inflicting death their trademark.
Killing Osama bin Laden was absolutely necessary in order to establish justice and protect life. But the very necessity of the action betrays the highly imperfect world in which we live, one where the innocent are forced to shed blood in order to preserve the blood of the innocent. Tied as we are in Martin Luther King's "single garment of destiny," where "whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly," courageous soldiers of the U.S. military are forced to engage in war so that the rest of us might live in peace, to stain their hands so that our future might be clear. We do not gloat over the death of evil, because its very existence must be mourned.
The prophet Ezekiel expressed it best: "As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live."
Shmuley Boteach, "America's Rabbi," is the international bestselling author of 27 books and has just published Kosher Jesus. He is currently running for Congress to represent New Jersey's Ninth District. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley. His website is shmuleyforcongress.com.
This piece was written in memory of Machla Dabakarov, the mother of a dear friend of Rabbi Shmuley, who passed away last year.