Following the killing of Bin Laden and the ensuing celebrations at the White House and Ground Zero, I heard a number of Jewish friends and commentators argue that we should not celebrate OSL’s death. Conspicuous among those making this argument was Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue who wrote the following at Frum Forum:
How does our religion teach us to respond to the death of a hated and evil man like Osama Bin Laden?
When hearing about the downfall of an enemy, the rabbis remind us of the verse from Proverbs: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.”
This is in line with the tradition that no matter how wicked our enemies are their destruction is not a cause for celebration. The Talmud tells us that “God does not rejoice with the fall of the wicked.” As the rabbinic teaching goes, as the Children of Israel were crossing the sea and the army of Pharaoh was drowning, God rebuked the angels for showing excessive joy. And to this day, our liturgy reflects that by limiting the psalms of joy that we recite to commemorate that event.
The reason for this muted celebration is twofold.
First there is recognition that even when our enemy falls, this does not signal an end to all our troubles. Just because one enemy or one army or one threat has been removed does not mean we are entirely safe.
Second, we must acknowledge that the destruction of the enemy did not necessarily arise from our own merits. We are perhaps not worthy of the good fortune that we have received and so we do not want to tempt God, as it were, or remind the Angel of Death of our own defects.
So our tradition is clear: Public rejoicing about the death of an enemy is entirely inappropriate. (full post here)
Two comments in response if I may be so bold:
1) The Torah doesn’t seem to be clear cut on celebrating the death of our enemies. Yes, there are the seeming condemnations of celebration as noted above by Herzfeld. But since we just finished Passover, it is also worth mentioning that the Israelites and the angels celebrated after they walked through the Red Sea and the Egyptian armies drowned. God let the Israelites keep on singing. He only rebuked the angels.
Also check out Proverbs 11:10 “at the the destructions of evildoers, there is joy.” Seems like this would include Osama Bin Laden… (h/t Rabbi Lefkowitz).
2) But even if the literal text of the Torah were crystal clear on celebrations of death, the above phrase from Proverbs can’t be read as certain condemnation of celebrations of the death of enemies. After all, we don’t always follow the literal text of the Torah (whether because the true meaning is only illuminated by the oral law or because the Torah is fallible is a discussion beyond this post).
For instance, the literal text of the Torah also says that we should stone wayward children:
“This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a profligate and a drunkard. Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death.” (Deuteronomy 21:20-21)
We don’t stone disobedient children, and we never have. And if we can offer one instance in which we don’t follow the text of the Torah exactly, why can’t this case of celebrating be a second instance? In simpler terms, if we thought all apples were red, but then we find a green apple, we can no longer say with logical proof that all apples are red or that all Torah text should be practiced as read literally.
Does this mean that it’s OK to celebrate OSL’s death? Not necessarily. I just don’t find this appeal to authority to one line in Proverbs to be a convincing argument that we shouldn’t celebrate.
 Gather the Jews has posted previously about Rabbi Herzfeld and Ohev Sholo – The National Synagogue including this recent story about a DC vote during Passover and this post about the newest innovation for selling chametz.