When Your Enemy Falls: No Tears for Bin-Laden

As was the case for so many others here in New York, Osama bin-Laden’s death at the hands of American troops this week triggered a flood of memories from September 11 and the days immediately thereafter.

Aside from the horrors of that day itself, I think that one of my most vivid and enduring memories is of listening to some of my Hebrew High School students who attended school near the World Trade Center speak – in the days immediately after September 11 – of watching people jumping out of the towers to their death, and how their teachers tried to make them turn away from the windows in a desperate attempt to limit the extent of the trauma. It’s almost ten years later, and I can still remember my horror, wondering how those teens could ever be whole again.

They are all, thank God, alive, well, and thriving.

Fast forward… In talking with my Hebrew High School students about bin-Laden’s death earlier this past week (interesting that very few of them were given an outlet to talk about it in their various fine public schools here in New York; I was so glad that they were open to talking about it with me, in a synagogue context), I realized that I felt no misgivings whatsoever about bin-Laden’s violent death.

If anything, what I felt was deep satisfaction. He was an evil man who had caused far too much death and pain, well beyond redemption and certainly compassion. If anything, I was relieved that he had died as a result of an American attack, and not natural causes. He deserved even worse than what he got.

But neither did I feel anything at all like exultation. The west’s war against terror is far from over. You don’t declare victory until the war is won and the mission accomplished. President Bush learned that the hard way on that aircraft carrier. To indulge myself in that kind of release would have felt like a betrayal of those who were killed, and even worse, the loved ones they left behind.

Since it was first announced by President Obama that Osama bin-Laden had been killed by our special forces, numerous Jewish bloggers and columnists have pointed to Judaism’s ambivalence about celebrating the fall of one’s enemy. The book of Proverbs says that that when the wicked are vanquished, there is joy. The Mishnah enjoins us not to rejoice when our enemy falls…

I have seen behaviors that reflect both of these attitudes, and truth to tell, I haven’t really been able to relate to either reaction.

I watched college students spontaneously pour out of their dorms and fill quads, beers in hand, shouting “USA! USA!” It looked as much like a frat party as anything else. And then there were those voices protesting bin-Laden’s dehumanization. After all, they claimed, no matter how wrong his path had become, he was, still, a human being, and deserving of some kind of dignity. Deserving of dignity? Bin-Laden? I don’t think so.

The fact that so much Jewish ink is being used on this discussion is, to me, a wonderful tribute to our religious tradition. We are, after all, the people who just spilled wine from our cups at the Passover Seder as an acknowledgement of the suffering of Egyptians during the Exodus- our redemption! When all is said and done, we are not them- and that is a very good thing. That we can even raise the question of what constitutes an appropriate response to the death of the world’s most wanted and morally depraved mass murderer indicates that we have not- despite our totally justifiable relief and even joy at his exit- completely lost our moral bearings.

So I talked all this through with my students, gave them all the room in the world to share what they were feeling, and then admitted my own sense of the moment. No regrets…

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation, and vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. To read more "A Rabbi’s World" columns, click her

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.