Joy at the downfall of the wicked al-Baghdadi – Boteach got it wrong

The US Special Forces flawlessly executed a daring raid eliminating the evil head of ISIS, al-Baghdadi. Should we rejoice? Surprisingly, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, in both the Jerusalem Post and Algemeiner Journal cautions that, as Jews, we should not rejoice at this happy news.

Boteach, in an effort to demonstrate that not rejoicing is not merely his personal opinion molded by Western liberalism, cites a few Jewish sources. The sources are all misquoted or misunderstood. As the appropriate reaction to the death of an evil individual or group of people is indeed complex, here I will merely address the three sources used by Boteach.

He begins with a Biblical quote, Proverbs 24:17 – “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls…”. He does not note the apparent contradictory Biblical verse, Proverbs 11:10 – “… when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy”, which the Talmud (Sanhedrin 39b) applies to the Jews rejoicing when the evil king Ahab ben Omri was killed in battle. Furthermore, the Talmud (Megillah 16a) actually places into Haman’s mouth the verse cited by Rabbi Boteach when it portrays Mordechai kicking Haman as he uses him to climb onto a horse. Haman cites Proverbs 24:17 to Mordechai, to which, in the Talmudic version, Mordechai responded that the verse applies only to Jewish enemies, i.e. personal enemies, but not to non-Jewish enemies of God and the Jewish people. When a person has a personal conflict with another individual it is not proper to rejoice at their failing. But when a truly evil person is defeated, there are appropriately “shouts of joy”, and Tosafot (Baba Kama 17a) says that when Ahab died the righteous of the generation were glad. This is the same distinction that Rabbi Boteach nicely made when discussing whom he thinks Jesus would forgive and whom not.

Rabbi Boteach next informs the reader that Jews pour out some wine at the seder as the Ten Plagues are mentioned “to demonstrate that we will not raise a glass to the suffering of the Egyptians.” No doubt this explanation is widespread. However it is also of recent vintage. The original explanation from the early 13th century Rokeach related it to God’s 16-sided sword and was explained as a silent prayer to God that He save us from the plagues as they continue to fall upon our enemies. And it is not only subtle – we explicitly request at the seder “Pour out Your wrath …”.  (A great article on the history of spilling out some wine can be found here: http://www.hakirah.org/Vol19Ron.pdf ).

And Boteach’s final source is actually not stated as he claims. He asserts “Likewise, after the Red Sea split and drowned the Egyptians, Moses and the Jewish people sang the Song of the Sea. Yet the Talmud says that God himself rebuked the Israelites: “My creatures are drowning in the sea, yet you have now decided to sing about it?”” The Talmudic passage he is referencing (Megillah 10b) actually says that God restrained the angels from singing. There is no hint there nor in other sources that the Jews were rebuked for the Song of the Sea; the opposite idea is taught. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 94a) tells us that God wanted to make King Hezekiah the Messiah but refrained from doing so because he did not sing praise to God when the Jews were saved and 185,000 Assyrian troops killed. The Song of the Sea is recited daily; it is traditionally a paradigm of praise to God. It was a positive reaction to the Jews being saved as well as to the Egyptians being drowned. Furthermore, the hesitation at the song of the angels might not even relate to the Egyptians. The phrase “My creatures” likely refers to the danger that the Israelites were in, as evidenced by the parallel passage in Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezar and Tanhuma which explicitly refers to the Jews.

So while Rabbi Boteach may not rejoice at the demise of one of humankind’s most evil men, Jewish sources give the green light to one who desires to celebrate.

About the Author
Ari Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar Ilan University. Also trained as a rabbi and shochet, he has a masters degree in Jewish history. He has written extensively on topics of Jewish history, culture, and traditions, in particular in his regular column (now running 20 years) in the OU magazine Jewish Action and in Mishpacha magazine.
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