Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Dancing and Singing about Bin Laden

At this point, it almost feels like old news: Bin Laden is dead. Over the past few days, the news sources, blogs and just about every other source you can think of has been filled with various takes on this momentus event. And, far and away, the Jewish sources (mostly blogs) that I've been reading have had one repeated them: Jews should never, ever celebrate the death of an enemy (I've seen this from non-Jewish sources, as well, naturally).

The most common prooftext offered for this opinion is a famous Midrash (Rabbinic story) about the crossing of the Red Sea. When our people were freed from Egypt, we famously were saved, in part, by God splitting the Red Sea, and letting us walk across on dry land. Once we were through, God let the Egyptions cross, too, but He closed up the sea on them, drowing them all. In response to this, our people burst spontaneously into song, celebrating this great victory, and also explicitly celebrating the death of our enemies. 

That much is in the Torah. The Midrash expands on that story, though, and has God offering a chastisement. "How dare you sing," God rebukes, "while My people are drowning?!?" The Egyptions may have been our enemies; they may have been our opressors. Many of them may have been evil. But, they were also people. They were, each and every one, created betzelem elohim - in the image of God. They were each a human life which, our tradition teaches us, is of infinite value. To celebrate the death of a person -- any person -- is a sacrilege, and an affront to God. We are allowed to fight back; we are never allowed to celebrate the death, or suffering, of our enemies.

There is one big problem with this teaching, though. It's incomplete, and it's often misquoted by Rabbis. God does not chastise the Jews for singing in joy at the death of the Egyptions*. God lets us sing. Twice, in fact (once the men; once the women). But, then the angels start to sing, and that's when God steps in. God chastises them, not us.

*In fairness, I should say that this is true in the most famous version of this Midrash, as it's found in Midrash Rabbah. But, there are often variant versions of any Midrash, and it could be that there is another version which goes against what I'm saying here.

The lesson? It seems fairly obvious to me. It's reasonable for people to celebrate the deaths of their enemies. But it's not ideal. It's not holy.

Our tradition is trying to be nuanced. It's so easy, as always, to be a bit extreme, to see the world in black-and-white. Either it's acceptable, or even laudable, to dance in the streets when an undeniably evil person like Bin Laden dies. Or, it's wrong, and it's something we should never do, and it's somewhat shameful when we do (I've seen more than a few blog postings which take a, for lack of a better word, condescending tone towards those who celebrate).

The best take I've seen on this yet? It might be from a decidedly non-Jewish source - a blog that my wife pointed me to, named Girl's Gone Child:

Because it IS complicated. Because I want more than anything for my children to understand that everything is. Even this. Especially this.

No one in their right mind is sad that Bin Laden is dead. But, should I be celebrating? Reflecting? Thinking pensively about the nature of the world? Honestly? I want to do it all. Some may not reflect the best parts of me, but they're real. I've got a bit of angel in me that's just sad about the whole, tragic thing. There's part that wants to dance in the streets, since one of the most evil men in the world is gone. 

It really is complicated, isn't it?

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