Framing an Inclusive Jewish Reaction to the End of Osama bin Laden

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

These questions keep arriving in my in-box in one form or another:

Would Judaism condone celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden? And would our religious sources lead us to advocate tracking down and killing his adherents as well?

Reactions to these questions that I’m reading this week have varied from those who, like the biblical Aaron, fell silent; those who followed the lessons of Purim and celebrated; and those who have offered moral observations.

Frankly, having served as a 9/11 chaplain, celebration was not my first response or concern. How does one respond to the necessary killing of one who perpetuated such evil? What might a prayer might be for a departing soul of someone who has exceeded the status of enemy, for one who had become committed to evil behavior. And an answer came when I prayed for guidance. I posted it to Facebook where a minyan is always present:

May the soul of Osama bin Laden be relieved of all its evil proclivities on its journey into Mystery. If, heaven forfend, such flawed souls return at some point to embodied life, may the m’sadei gaver[et] (that Which Guides our footsteps) set that soul upon the work of universal kindness.

More after the jump.
What Helps the Human Spirit

The human spirit needs and continually creates ways to dispel the seeping damage of trauma. Jews know a great deal about this subject and we have developed imagery that can be helpful. Mme Collette Aboulker-Muscat, z’l, and her students have cultivated forms of psychotherapy and spiritual direction along these lines. Oleg L. Reznik, MD writes about her method: “In the short mental imagery exercise, an image is used to give a micro-shock that overcomes a person’s defenses (an inner wall that one builds to maintain a status quo, not the defenses of psychodynamic model), and initiates an inner movement in the direction of healing.”

Our tradition’s powerful images are part of our reservoir of strength and spiritual resilience. The prayer above feels to me in part derived from an image I learned from Simcha Paull Raphael, in Jewish Views of the Afterlife. As I recall, there he teaches how the Zohar, drawing on I Samuel 25:29, conceives of an after-death catapult, kaf ha-kelah, for tainted souls that shakes the departing soul of its errors and essence, and is sent off by God per I Samuel, “like a rock inside of a sling.” And while my emotional prayer was for the soul of one who has done great evil not to return, some of our sages saw just that as the task of such a soul, to return and find ways to expiate the wrongs created.

Further, from working with abused persons where empowerment is part of recovering from victimhood, there is the Talmudic story when Beruriah’s husband Rabbi Meir prayed for thieves he’d just witnessed to be struck down, and Beruriah protested, suggesting they rather pray for the thieves to change their ways. Might a moshiach (messiah) spark be each person who can go outside the box as a holy game-changer, in this case like Beruriah? What I appreciate about Beruriah is her offering an option that is not deadly, while also not denying his feelings or their expression. Why pray only moshiach ben david and not also moshiach bat david, when every spark is needed. (Decoding moshiach as “mei-siakh – from dialogue,” being one way the path to a more peaceful paradise on earth can proceed.)

Amalek, More than an Enemy

It seems reasonable to view Osama bin Laden (ObL, here-on) as a manifestation of Amalek and I am among those relieved and glad his soul has been sent for cosmic cleansing and rerouting. Outside the White House during our President Barak Obama’s announcement we saw live our Purim narrative almost on replay, save for in Megillat Ester the gallows are a prominent feature. Purim analogizes Amalek and Haman and teaches us

  1. the importance of leading for survival from where you are planted, and
  2. that for those who saw to the hanging of the villain, and the rest who survived by taking up arms to stop those continuing to follow the orders Haman had stimulated the king to issue.

For then, we learn: “there was – orah, v’sasson,v’simcha, v’yikar – light, joy, celebration and gladness. And it continues – keyn tihiyeh lanu – so may it be for us. We recite this verse weekly in Havdalah as Shabbat ends; in this way our practice is reinforced for challenging times, it’s all part of the Jewish healing plan, in my humble opinion.

Hear that? So may it be for us. So no need feel guilty about celebrating if that is how your soul handled the news. It’s one of the normal human reactions. In Deuteronomy two mitzvot are delineated to address the matter: “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, upon your departure from Egypt’… ‘You shall erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens, you shall not forget.'” Spoofing, stomping, hooting, celebrating, it’s all right there in Purim.

So, some would counter, how do we account for Proverbs 24:17: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, when [your enemy] stumbles, don’t have a glad heart.” Purim’s spiritual practices also underscore that there are difference between the Egyptians (conventional enemies enforcing the laws of their paradigm in the sense of Exodus) and the Amalekites (terrorist, preying on the defenseless), between Haman and say the nations with whom we warred for Israel’s 1948 Independence, between a consummately evil terrorist leader who targeted innocents, such as ObL and the heads of state in the Middle East struggle for territory. Amalek is a unique category that teaches us when such folks manifest they are to be wiped out.

In fact, the Talmud shows not only Miriam, but also God facilitating celebration in regards to the drowning of Pharaoh and his forces. While in recent decades Talmud Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b have been drashed to opposite effect, it is instructive to look at them (one is in the name of Rabbi Yochanan and the other in the name of Rabbi

“And they did not draw near one to the other all that night” – Said Rabbi Y…: The Ministering Angels sought to say the Song. Said the Holy One of Blessing: The works of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you say the Song?!

While with this, the Talmudic sages resolve that God does not celebrate the deaths of evil persons, for humans, R’Yose bar Chanina explains that God facilitates our celebration of the death of an evil one. Later in the tradition Shmot Rabbah 23:7, Eliyahu Rabbah, Tanchuma Beshallach 13, and Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 41 indicate that God
refused the angels’ praise because the Jews were not yet home free, not because the Egyptians were drowning. These have God saying not that “the works of My hand are drowning in the sea,” but rather “My children” or “My legions” are at risk in the sea. And, playing in the background is the Book of Proverbs 11:10, (in Hebrew, Mishlei) which observes: “When the wicked are destroyed there is rejoicing.” Trauma requires thoughtful therapeutic attention, multi-modal integration and release – collective and individual. The Jewish people are very aware of this.

And for some, silence is the only sane response in a seemingly insane world.. For those who fell silent, like Aaron, as in marriage, prayerful marinating in the torah of our experience is part of knowing God.

Our tradition gives us a further sense of how hard it is to be God, no less to aspire to the level of Godly compassion. The sages imagined a time when God asked for a blessing of Rabbi Yishmael b. Elisha, a High Priest:

Rabbi Yishmael b. Elisha said: I once entered the innermost part of the Temple to offer incense and I saw that God, the Lord of Hosts, was seated on a high and lofty throne. He said to me: Yishmael, My son, bless me. I said to Him: May it be Your will that Your compassion should suppress Your anger and that Your compassion prevail over all Your other attributes so that You should treat Your children with the attribute of mercy and You should stop short of the strict letter of the law for them. And God nodded to me with His head. [Translation of Hershey Friedman, from his article in Thalia: Studies in Literary Humor, Vol. 17, March 1998, 36-50.]

Embracing a Bigger God

While a Jewish Federation executive, I also directed a small Holocaust archive, filming the depositions of survivors and Allied soldiers who lived in Cumberland County New Jersey. A woman who survived Auschwitz told me that when the Nazis would tell the Jews at line-up to sing, that they would do so from the
Haggadah, intoning the V’hi Sheh’amda:

And this it is which has stood by our ancestors and us. For it was not one alone who rose against us to annihilate us, but in every generation there are those who rise against us to annihilate us. But the Holy One, blessed Be, ever saves us from their hands.

As time went on, I mentioned to her an understanding of the Shmei Rabba, the Great Name, the Tetragrammaton. The Name is composed of every form of the verb “To Be.” And it occurred to me then that perhaps God consciousness represents the Infinite Potential for Change embedded within creation. At that she wept to have a face of God in which she, a survivor of the greatest of the Shoah‘s horrors, could believe.

Also in this way, we can reread Abraham negotiating for Sodom and Gemorra and Moses using the 13 attributes, and even Reb Levi Yitchak’s Kaddish where he stroshers (threatening through pressure) the Holy One of Blessing.

Levels of Consciousness – Which, When, Why?

In discussion of the Purim practice of becoming spiritually intoxicated “ad lo yada,” until one cannot distinguish between Blessed be Mordechai and Blessed be Haman, Rabbi Eli Fisher on his blog teaches two perspectives that are apropos our questions. One is that being non-judgmental is an important skill up to the point that it becomes a value that makes judgment and justice impossible on this plane of being. There is right and wrong from which we live here.

Rabbi Fisher describes another level of consciousness. He teaches that the Ishbitzer school of Hasidus addressed a ‘aveirah lishmah – a sin done for its own sake,’ as part of introducing the category of “beyond-good-and-evil.” In this, once one achieves a state of consciousness where all is perceived as pure manifestation of God, we no longer experience ourselves as autonomous beings, rather as a being of God’s pure, instinctive ‘ratzon-desire’. In this state, “ad lo yada” means experiencing Haman as coming from that place. It means experience the holy Midwife, the face of God, in every character of life and Torah, where harsh behaviors also shape who we are becoming.

Hmm. Could that perhaps be why if one sees Buddha on the road the injunction is to slay him? It was perhaps from such a perspective that acts like the suicides by Jewish communities during the crusades were later prohibited by the rabbis. Which is a long way around to the words of King David in Psalm 97:10, “You who love God, hate evil.”

What Would Maimonides Do?

If evil is the differential between a conventional enemy and a rearing of the face of Amalek, then is it justice to track down and kill those who take up with Al Qaeda? Judaism offers a framework for contemplating this issue. David Hartman and Jonathan Molino, in Judaism and Modernity, point us to Hilchot Melachim vi, 1 and 4, where
Maimonides expresses the view that only those who turn down the opportunity for peace, once offered, must be killed. They note that in his Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides carefully upholds the humanity of every person, focusing on behavior, while respecting personhood.

For Maimonides, when “Amalekites” agree to and actually change their behavior, when they honor the Noachide laws of ethical living that pertain to all of humanity, they are not to be killed. (A fine would be levied in his model, if the situation occurred in the Land of Israel.) Here the Rambam becomes a holy game-changer focusing on justice and serious shift.

My hubbatzin, Barry Bub asks as he reads my numerous wrestling drafts of this article: “Isn’t that essential…to still search for the humanity in the followers of bin Laden? To offer them a chance to change? Aren’t, Barry asked,many likely too be brainwashed young people, or impoverished foot soldiers most happy to receive minimal pay? Yes and the alienated and ignorant and those lost on path…surely some, and clearly not all.

Some are just as sociopathic as ObL, at least based on their behaviors. While Torah enjoins us to act for life, to save ourselves, how we do that surely requires that we and those representing us be careful and humble in judging even while maintaining full pursuit.

How do we proceed now, knowing that the Berlin wall fell; apartheid ended. Wonders do happen. A Jewish state was voted into existence by the United Nations after we were nearly annihilated by Hitler’s forces, The Infinite Potential for Change, Be Blessed.

So it is to Emunah – faith, that is HaMakom – the Place to which this investigation presently lands. You know as well as I, that even among friends, we have to be holy mirrors to help keep one another ethically aligned, and few if any among us are likely inclined toward evil action. Even though we are so far in our evolution from the level our sages ascribe to God consciousness at It’s best, I invite you to pause and imagine R’Chanina formulating a prayer for us.

Nu? Please share. What did your spiritual imagination have him pray? Trust what comes.

Written in memory of Andrew J. Alameno, the son of my 1980’s ski partners – Dr. Carmen and Grace Alameno. Andy was murdered during the 9/11 assault on the World Trade Center.


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