Category Archives: Philosophy

“According to His Will”

     “This is the state of the contemporary Liberal world – the fear of giving offense has been self-inculcated in a group which must, now, consider literally every word and action for potential violation of the New Norms” (David Mamet, in The Secret Knowledge).

     That, as well as anything, explains the recent self-immolation of a colleague on the “Orthodox left” (perhaps, better, “left Orthodoxy”) who demeaned and denounced the daily blessing recited by men thanking G-d for “not having made me a woman” and opined that he has stopped saying it, in breach of a Jewish tradition that is several millennia old. Stealing from the non-Orthodox playbook, he castigated Orthodoxy for its “maltreatment” of women, and our “inherited prejudice that…women possess less innate dignity than men.” He even brazenly declared the blessing a “Desecration of G-d’s Name,” trampling any sense of propriety and humility and demonstrating the ability to leap over the spiritual giants of Jewish life in a single bound – quite a stupendous feat.

    To be sure, the condemnation of his remarks elicited from him a standard (and partial) retraction, apologizing for the stridency of the remarks but not their substance. This is the flip side of a fairly typical liberal criticism, the clichéd “it’s not what you said, it’s how you said it,” when, actually it is the substance, often irrefutable, that bothers them. Here, not only was the tone repugnant, but the sentiments were equally abhorrent – and were not only not withdrawn but educed defenders from the “left Orthodoxy” who are adept at finding the one source that seems to support their views (even if it doesn’t) and are blithely contemptuous of Jewish tradition, history, custom and the wisdom of our Sages. It is impossible to read his remarks without sensing that he perceives the Talmudic sages and their spiritual successors down to our day as, G-d forbid, small, bigoted, and immoral people who are his moral inferiors. One wonders why he can respect anything that they say, being so flawed, and why any of his students or congregants should care to study the opinions of those hopeless misogynists. A rabbi must have enormous self-confidence, to say the least, to set himself up as judge and jury over the guardians and transmitters of the divine word, and he must also be inordinately sensitive to feel pain when none is intended.

     Some of my learned colleagues have written eloquent articles about the provenance of this particular blessing, starting with the Yerushalmi (Brachot, Chapter 9) that explains it as referring to man’s obligation in Mitzvot that are numerically greater than those of a woman, a servant and a heathen. (See, e.g., Rav Dov Fischer at Another distinguished colleague wrote beautifully of an encounter with a woman who said that she loved the female version of the blessing – a woman correspondingly recites a blessing thanking G-d “for creating me according to his will.” She understood it as follows: women were the last entity created during the six days of creation, and therefore represented G-d’s special creation – the only entity created perfectly, “according to His will.” It is the man who recites wistfully that G-d did not make him a woman. Not only is that interpretation clever, creative, respectful of Chazal, and reflective of a joy and contentment with life, it also echoes Rav Hirsch’s commentary that women are spiritually superior to males and naturally closer to G-d than men are. I don’t have to agree – I think men and women are spiritually equal before G-d but just given different roles – to respect her satisfaction with her station in life. That is true love of G-d and love of Torah – the exact opposite of the embittered assault on Torah and Orthodoxy (among other sins – batei din, agunot, the lack of female rabbis, etc.) that emanated from the quarters mentioned above. The task of the Rabbi is to teach Torah to the unlearned, not reinforce their basest stereotypes, and one who chooses an interpretation of Chazal’s words that put them in a bad light, as opposed to teaching the many traditional interpretations that are holy and positive, is defining himself and his biases rather than the Torah. Indeed, it is peculiar that a rabbi who claims to be concerned with women’s spiritual dignity would find that dignity not in a uniquely feminine role but in rank mimicry of man’s role.

     We are living through a period of history in which “sensitivity” has become so acute that every word and deed is scrutinized by self-appointed moralists for even the possibility of offense, and in a world in which we try to co-exist with numerous individuals who are always taking offense about something or other. Some people are just thin-skinned, but today there are many who have no skin at all; they are just a bundle of raw nerves, claiming either victimhood or an unrestricted license to protect potential victims as they see it, and using that status as a club with which to beat the less-enlightened who do not share their views. There is little that, read a certain way, does not give offense, so here’s a brief list of blessings that the fastidious might also consider omitting:

     Blessed is Hashem…Hamelamed Torah l’amo Yisrael (who teaches Torah to His peopleIsrael) – might offend the world by singling out the Jewish people for our special relationship with G-d;

 …hamachzir neshamot lifgarim meitim (who restores souls to dead bodies) – might offend those who r”l die in their sleep;

She’lo asani goy (who did not make me a heathen) – might offend non-Jews;

She’lo asani aved (who did not make a slave) – might offend the working man;

 …pokeach ivrim – (who opens the eyes of the blind) – might offend the blind;

 …matir assurim – (who unties the bound) – might offend the incarcerated;
 … zokef kfufim – (who straightens the bent) – might offend the hunchback;

 …she’asa li kol tzarki – (who provides all our needs, i.e., shoes) – will offend Shoeless Joe Jackson;

… hameichin mitzadei gaver (who prepares the steps of man) – might offend the lame;
 …Ozer yisrael bigvura and oter yisrael b’tifara (who girdsIsrael with might, who adornsIsrael with splendor) – really offends non-Jews who apparently were not so blessed with might or splendor;

hanoten laya’ef koach (who gives strength to the weary) – will offend the exhausted who nonetheless wake up every morning;

Yotzer ha’meorot (who formed the luminaries) – offends evolutionists, and sounds too much like the claims of those right-wing creationists.

Habocher b’amo yisrael b’ahava (who chose His people Israel with love) – offends…well, it is obvious. There are many others. It is not that everyone will be offended by everything; it is rather that someone might be offended by some of them, and the sensitivity police will be on the case, poseurs all.

     And, of course, noten Hatorah (who gave us the Torah) – will offend those who do not believe that G-d actually gave us the Torah but assume it is a man-made ball of wax that can be shaped as they wish in order to conform to the prevailing political correctness of every generation.

   But I suppose that is the whole point of this exercise. My colleague prefers to abstain from this blessing citing the Rabbinic dictum “Shev v’al taaseh, adif” (“it is preferable to sit and not do…”) Of course, that dictum is our general recourse when we confront a conflict of laws – when an action will simultaneously fulfill and violate different commandments; it is does not at all relate to a case in which one chooses not to fulfill  mitzva because he has shamefully construed it as a “sin.” And what really is the source of the alleged sin, to add to Mamet’s quotation at the top ?

     One of my distinguished colleagues recently called attention to the introduction of the Steipler Gaon to his work “Chayei Olam.” The Steipler writes that too many Jews are spiritually perplexed – either a consequence of intellectual confusion or uncontrollable desires whetted by what they see in the world around them – and usually because they have gazed in the works of free-thinkers whose words are impure and transmit impurity, and this nonsense is retained in and shapes their minds. And then he writes (translation mine): “It is appropriate to respond to these confused individuals that do they really think that they are the first people ever to have these questions and doubts ? Does it take some genius to be thus confused ? Rather do you not understand that thousands of the giants of Israel in every generation wrestled with every possible question, doubt and angle – and yet their faith remained perfect and complete, in force, and they all served the will of their Creator with fear and reverence because their souls were pure and in the light of their understanding they saw the truth clearly – what is true and what is false and counterfeit… From the simple faith of all our Rabbis, you will be able to understand that for every question and doubt there are clear answers….”

     Part of humility is deference to those whose wisdom, deeds and moral attainments were greater than ours, and teachers of Torah should attempt to inculcate that deference – rather than affect an air of moral superiority. This most recent effort to impose the fleeting morality of modern times on the eternal values of Chazal does more than disparage generations of Jews – men and women – who properly understood the intellectual depth and moral goodness of our Sages; worse, it ordains every individual to pass ultimate judgment on every aspect of the Torah, filtering every detail through a subjective moral code that will differ from person to person. Such lacks more than just humility; it undermines the unity of the Jewish people, our faith in Torah, and our acceptance of the “yoke of the divine kingship.”

      Many have traveled down that road; few have returned. The substance is as shallow as the articulation was disgraceful. Both should be withdrawn, and the honor of our Sages and their formulation of our daily prayers, and the spiritual dignity of men and women, affirmed.

Piety and Dysfunction

     What was most striking about the reaction to last week’s piece on dating, published in the Jewish Press, was not just the chord that it struck with so many people about the miseries of the contemporary dating scene or the incapacities of many men to embrace adulthood but especially the criticism that was rooted in the prevalence of promiscuity in modern life and the methods of preventing its encroachment in our world. As many readers stressed, even casual and public interactions are unavoidable inducements to randy and sinful behavior. Strange as it sounds, the objections challenge – or at least, invert – a statement of Chazal.

    The Gemara (Bava Batra 165a) says, in the name of Rav, that certain sins are hardy perennials that are difficult to suppress: “Most [people are guilty] of theft, a minority of promiscuity, and everyone of slanderous speech,” which the Gemara soon qualifies to mean the “dust of lashon hara” – indirect, disparaging
speech but not overt gossip. (It is safe to say that these days few roll only in the dust of lashon hara.) But what of the Gemara’s assertion that “mi’ut ba’arayot” – only a minority are guilty of sexual misconduct? The overheated rhetoric that came my way seemed to imply – strike that, it was stated explicitly and quite stridently – that if young men and women simply talk to each other, even in public and even in controlled settings, that sin is inevitable for all but the most unresponsive and lifeless among them. How can that be, if the Gemara perceives only a minority as succumbing to these sins?

    Conversely, since the more prevalent danger is theft, why do we not embrace the same restrictions in this area that are suggested in the dating context? Rashbam notes that people are prone, especially in business, to allow themselves leniencies that increase their own profits at the expense of others (known in today’s parlance as shtick). Recall that Rav Yisrael Salanter said famously that just as there is a prohibition to seclude oneself with another’s wife (yichud),
so too there should be a prohibition to seclude oneself with someone else’s money. Reb Yisrael was undoubtedly correct, as always, that the temptation of illicit money exceeds that of lewdness, and yet we have not incorporated the same restrictions: we don’t require two people to work a cash register in a Jewish store, we are not admonished not to enter stores alone lest we shoplift or
remain alone in someone’s living room in the presence of his I-Pod or other desirable devices, nor do we require that young people with uncontrollable lusts for money and no legitimate means of earning it just avoid any contact with it.
Perhaps we should – but we don’t, because erecting limitless fences around sin
does not build character or develop reverence for Heaven. What is does is leave
a person incapable of exercising any self-control the moment one of those
fences collapses.

    Indeed, Chazal did establish one fence regarding relations between unmarried people – the prohibition of seclusion that was decreed by the Sanhedrin of King David in the wake of the Amnon-Tamar episode. Consequently, it is surely forbidden for unmarried people to seclude themselves. But how then is another fence built around the initial fence – a decree added to a decree – that would prohibit even public interactions? Is the world so much different today than it was 50, 100, 500, 1000 or 3000 years ago?

    Yes and no. The world is different in terms of the dissemination of bawdy material and the tawdry imagery that inundates our senses. Modern means of communication has eased transmission of both the holy and the profane. Our eyes and our souls are always at risk whenever we venture out into the world, and even when sometimes we sit at home or in front of a computer. But human nature is the same, and we delude ourselves into thinking that, somehow, today’s young people are more concupiscent than people in ancient, medieval or pre-modern times. That is simply false. People are people and human nature is human nature. (Even the display of raunchy material is nothing new. Visit any art museum – I was at the Louvre in Paris last week – and one realizes that medieval art was almost exclusively either Christian-themed or naked women – and sometimes both, simultaneously. Of course, they called it art, like others term even more salacious material today. Either way, there is not much for a Jew to see. I developed a new appreciation to the genius of Monet, and even Morris Katz.) In the past, the public frowned on debauchery, but that does not mean that its incidence was any less frequent than today.

     Obviously, the Bible has many stories of misconduct between the sexes, and the Torah prohibitions reflect that one’s desires gravitate toward those areas. The Maharal himself was banished from Prague (after his first stint there) because the people resented his carping about one of their prevalent vices – adultery – and this in a community that numbered just several thousand Jews. There is nothing new under the sun. So, knowing what we know, how can Chazal say that just a “minority” are guilty of promiscuity? Would they say the same today? Would Rav amend his statement to read that, today, sadly, “all are guilty
of theft, lechery, and gossip” – in which case, what hope is there for any of

     I conclude that Chazal were correct, and that only a minority of people are guilty of licentiousness. All people are subject to fantasies, even persistent ones, but most do not act upon them. Hirhur (fantasy) is part of the human condition; fleeting thoughts are impossible to inhibit and our obligation as strivers for perfection then becomes uprooting them, not dwelling on them, and becoming involved in some more gainful and productive pursuit. To think that we can eliminate unconscious thoughts reflects an ignorance of human nature, and
Chazal profoundly understood human nature. And to think that we can eliminate sin by supplementing the Torah’s and Chazal’s prohibitions with even more prohibitions is misguided. It simply drives sin underground – to which a
generation of Jews who hide televisions in their closets, or received deliveries of televisions in air-conditioner boxes, or who furtively sit over their computers surfing the internet without a life-preserver can undoubtedly attest. At the end of the day, there is no alternative to self-control, which is a function of reverence of Heaven.

     Human nature is human nature, and no community is immune from sin or devoid of sinners. The Jewish world – right, left, center, Modern, Haredi, yeshivish – has its share of miscreants, pedophiles, thieves, psychos, murderers, adulterers, degenerates, deviants, and those who would expose or cover up those sins and sinners, crimes and criminals. The comfort might be that our numbers are smaller relative to the general population in all these vices, and that lasciviousness is still perceived as aberrational conduct that is not or should not be tolerated in our midst and appropriately shocks us when it does occur. But to think further that there is one foolproof way that works for all – one way to avoid sin or temptation, one way to find a spouse, and one way to have a happy, fulfilling marriage – is delusional.

   There is something else that needs to be said, an outgrowth of some of the responses I received. Fear of sin is a virtue in Jewish life, in a way that it is simply not understood in the rest of the world. We should always be mindful that we can stumble at any time, and therefore always have a conscious awareness of G-d’s presence. But there is a fine line between piety and dysfunction that tends to get blurred. Reading recent accounts of families that segregate the sexes for meals – or families in which brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law do not converse for fear of the “next step” – crosses the line from excessive piety to palpable dysfunction. If we posit that Chazal are correct – and who among us would not? – that only a mi’ut ba’arayot – then we have to accept that self-control and self-discipline are sufficient to allow normal interactions and to restrain, even among the most lustful among us, improper conduct. If not – if one cannot walk the streets or converse or casually interact without harboring persistently impure or libidinous thoughts that coalesce with an uncontrollable urge to lunge at random females, that is dysfunctional, and such a person requires all the safeguards that we can conjure, and even some that we have not yet imagined. But normal people do not require that.

    The bottom line is that one who does not learn self-control before marriage will not learn it after marriage either, and invariably fall into that minority category that Chazal addressed. And one who cannot restrain his passions in any area of life – money or gossip included – will never learn to restrain it until he/she begins a process of teshuva, self-awareness, and discipline. That process is the true perfection of the soul that is a primary purpose of life itself, and
that process must always be informed by the recognition that the ways of Torah
are the “ways of pleasantness,” as well as normalcy.

Dating Self-Help

(This was originally published as an op-ed in the Jewish Press, on July 8, 2011.)

A recent piece posted on signed by “A Crying Bas Yisroel” chillingly lamented the plight of a young single woman, with fine personal qualities but without any family money or yichus, who sits forlornly waiting for her phone to ring with calls from shadchanim. Alas, the phone never rings, and for her, the shidduchsystem is an ongoing nightmare.

     Not coincidentally, but perhaps surprising to some, almost all the weddings I attended this past month were those of couples who had “long-term” relationships. They either met in high school or when high school age, or in Israel or their early college years, and almost all of them met on their own. They did not use shadchanim, but met the old-fashioned way: in healthy social settings where young men and women mingle naturally, without the pressure of “potential spouse” hovering over every encounter. That is not the norm in Jewish life these days, but perhaps it should be.
     That is not to say that the shidduch-system is failed, or failing, or broken. Too many people work too hard on setting up unmarrieds that it would be incorrect and insulting to say that it is broken. So it is not broken – but perhaps it should be a b’diavad (post facto) and not a l’chatchila (ab initio) system. L’chatchila, it would seem, Chazal emphasized that we should find our own mates. The Gemara (Kiddushin 2b) cites the pasuk “When a man takes a woman [in marriage]” and explains “darko shel ish l’chazer al ha-isha,” it is the way of men to pursue women [in marriage]. It is not the way of men, or shouldn’t be, to enlist a band of agents, intermediaries, and attorneys to do the work for them. By infantilizing and emasculating our males, we have complicated a process that should be simpler and made a joyous time into one of relentless anguish and hardship for many women.
    This is reminiscent of the life story of a pathetic man we recently encountered in the weekly Torah reading – Ohn ben Pelet. The Gemara  (Sanhedrin 109b) states that “ishto hitzilato”his wife saved him from the clutches of Korach. Ohn was an original co-conspirator who is not mentioned again after the first verse, because his wife explained to him the foolishness of his conduct (Ohn loses if Moshe wins and gains nothing if Korach prevails), prevented him from joining his fellow conspirators, and, as the Midrash adds, held onto his bed to prevent the ground from swallowing Ohn and then dragged him to Moshe to beg forgiveness. Ohn was a sad excuse of a man.
     Mrs. Ohn, in effect, saved her husband not only from Korach but also from himself. The problem with Ohn is that he perceived himself as an object, and not a subject or an actor. Ohn wasn’t a leader – he was a born follower, just an object for others to use, He just allowed himself to be yanked along by anyone – for evil and for good. He was just part of the crowd, the personification of the personality of weakness, dependence and self-abnegation. He took no responsibility for his own destiny.  An object is a tool of others; a subject is the master of his destiny. In the realm of dating and marriage, we are breeding Ohn’s by the thousands by freeing men from their obligation to pursue their potential spouses, and thereby relegating women to the dependent role of passively waiting to be the chosen one. Why do we do that, and is there a better option ?
    Some will argue that the shidduch system spares our children the pain of rejection – but part of life, and a huge part of parenting, is preparing our children for a world in which they will experience rejection at some point. That is called maturity.
     Others will argue, with greater cogency, that we prevent young men and women from sinning. Relationships that begin when couples are younger, or friendships that start outside the framework of parental supervision, can induce or lead to inappropriate behavior. That possibility is undoubtedly true, but can be rectified by applying a novel concept called “self-control,” which in any event is the hallmark of the Torah Jew. We do not tell people to avoid The Home Depot even if one wants to buy a hammer lest he shoplift some nails, nor do we admonish others not to shop in Pathmark because one might be led to sin by the aroma of non-kosher foods. Self-control and discipline are routine components of the life of a Jew. And, even granting that “there is no guardian for promiscuity,” it should still be feasible for a young man to talk to or display his personal charms to a woman without assaulting her.
     Sad to say, there is a promiscuity problem, even among some of our high school youth and certainly in college, that cannot be swept away. It can be resolved if parents take responsibility and sit down with their sons and teach them how to respect women – and sit down with their daughters and teach them how to respect themselves.
    Something is not normal, and against human nature as Chazal perceived it, for men to be so diffident, so timid, so Ohn-like, and sit back comfortably relying on others to procure them dates. Young men who would not allow others to choose for them a lulav and etrog do not hesitate to delegate others to find them a spouse. This also unduly delays their fulfillment of the commandment of Pru u’rvu (procreation). And something is not normal, and frankly, unfair, that young women have to sit by the phone for weeks and months waiting to be contacted by agents. As well-meaning as the system intends, it must be demeaning and deflating – worse than even the rejection that happens after casual encounters.
    What is the solution, or the other option? For those people currently of age and in the system, or for communities that would accept only the shidduch­-system, there is no other solution but to redouble our efforts. They will reap the reward, and also, sadly, the misery of those who choose to be passive in life. Obviously, unmarried men and women should be seated together at weddings to facilitate more natural, pressure-free encounters; it is so obvious, it is surprising that it is even debated.
    But for younger people today – say, older teens – there has to be a better way. The paradigm of “don’t smile/talk/socialize/date” until one is ready for marriage constricts the capacity of our young people to assume responsibility for their own lives. Many will disagree with me, even among my colleagues, but if we wish to minimize the heartbreak of so many of our young people, we must find healthy ways of encouraging interaction between teenagers – in shuls, in schools, in youth groups. We have to de-stigmatize self-help and personal initiative. For example, at a shul Kiddush, it should not be construed as abnormal or off-putting if a young man approaches a young woman who has caught his eye, and asks her name, and “would you like a piece of kugel?” That should be normal; at one point, that was darko shel ish. Indeed, that should be even more normal among people of marriageable age, and would consign the shidduch­-system to its appropriate b’diavad status, for people who have not been able to meet on their own. Perhaps the young woman whose lament was featured above should take similar initiatives as well.
     Dating at too young an age is certainly problematic, but teenagers who learn to socialize in groups demystify the opposite sex and learn appropriate boundaries, communication skills and modes of interaction. Such contact makes males more sensitive, and helps them learn at an early age that a young woman is not a shtender, in the Steipler’s elegant phrase, or a vehicle for their own gratification, in the modern lexicon. It certainly helps prepare a couple for marriage if they know each other longer than three weeks or three months, and the recent spate of broken engagements and early divorces in the Jewish world would tend to confirm that. And conversely, the plethora of recent weddings of couples in our community who know each other for years would corroborate that as well.
      I am mindful of the opinions of the gedolim who proscribe any male-female interaction before one is ready to marry, and those gedolim who permit such contact in controlled settings. As a community we have other options than the false choice of isolationism or promiscuity, and we need to strengthen our young men with the inner confidence to guide their own lives. There are too many people walking around with Y chromosomes who are not men. They have an Ohn-like existence, sitting back comfortably and letting others plot their destiny in life. They will never be masters, only objects who cannot lead or build or create. That does not bode well for Klal Yisrael.
      May Hashem bless with success the work of all shadchanim. But we need to shift the culture away from the passive indifference of the well-connected to the active pursuit of spouses by all, and thereby mold more assertive men and more confident women. That is because more is expected of us – as a nation that is called by G-d for greatness not mediocrity, to be active not passive, to be followers of G-d and leaders of mankind.

Death of the Evildoer

    Purgatory gained a new resident, and, at least for one year, the solemnity of Yom Hashoah (27 Nisan) was lightened, with the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed by an elite American Navy Seals team in a fortified compound in northeast Pakistan. The details of the raid are worthy of a Hollywood spectacle, and undoubtedly will be in due course, but it is time to celebrate the death of the mastermind of the worst atrocity perpetrated on American soil in history.

    President Obama can rightly claim credit for this success that greatly weakens Al Qaeda’s capacity and influence. The fact that its founder and charismatic leader was killed by the “great Satan” demoralizes terrorists across the globe, removes a symbol of the “rise” of radical Islam, and likely reduces access to the bin Laden family fortune. Since the “fish stinks from the head,” chopping off the head from the snake of radical Islam is a grave setback that allows moderate Muslims, to the extent that they exist, to come forward and reclaim the legacy they assert is theirs. Certainly, there are al Qaeda cells across the world, and the Muslim Brotherhood is on the ascent in every Arab country with public unrest. Hamas quickly condemned the “assassination of the holy warrior,” something that itself should preclude any American acquiescence to the Fatah-Hamas rapprochement and is reminiscent of the celebrations that erupted in Gaza, Ramallah and elsewhere in the Arab world when the Arab terror attacks of September 11 took place.

       Nevertheless, something was missing from the Obama announcement. It was not only the lack of graciousness to his predecessor. Typically, Obama asserted that he made the capture of bin Laden a priority immediately after he took office, implying… that Bush did not make that a priority? President Bush wrote in his memoirs that the failure to capture bin Laden was one of his “great regrets” as president, especially after pursuing him relentlessly for several years. A more gracious president would have acknowledged that this has been an American priority since 2001, and, to a great extent, even going back to the Clinton administration. Yet, the only reference to President Bush was to incorporate his statement after the Arab terror of September 11 and reiterate the cliché that America is not “at war with Islam.”

     What was missing from Obama’s address (besides smoothness; he is a much better speaker with the dual teleprompter that enables him to move his head right and left than he is with the single screen monitor directly in front of him – one reason he consistently eschews the traditional Oval Office address) was joy. Simple joy, but even what President Bush’s critics would have termed “smug satisfaction” had this occurred under his watch. (I recall a great Bush line, in which he referenced the criticism of his “swagger. In Texas, we call that walking.”) It is as if killing bin Laden was an unpleasant task, for which Americans should feel at least some guilt and sorrow; that he deserved it but we didn’t want to do it and we hope the Muslim world realizes it is not about them, it was just one bad apple, etc.  A smile, a gleam in the eye (even when thanking the unit that succeeded,  acknowledging their exceptional professionalism and courage) – show some joy ! Bush (I and II), Reagan, Clinton – they all would have known how to gloat without overdoing it. But Obama underdid it. Whatever happened to “when the wicked perish there is song” (Proverbs 11:10) ? There were spontaneous outbursts by the crowds that assembled outside the White House, in Times Square, and even at Ground Zero –  “USA, USA !” They had it right; Obama’s passion was missing, and somewhat discordant. Why ?

    Defenders will say that he projected seriousness because the war is ongoing, new terror attacks might be in the offing, and we do not want to provoke these attacks through excessive boastfulness (as if terror against innocent civilians is brought upon them by their own deeds, and not the evil of the terrorists). But maybe there is something else afoot  – the liberal’s aversion to war.

     All this is reminiscent of the famous discussion in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 39b) that during the miraculous salvation at the Red Sea, which necessitated the complete annihilation of the Egyptian military, “the Heavenly angels wished to utter a song of praise before G-d but He rebuked them, saying ‘My handiwork (the Egyptians) is drowning in the sea, and you wish to utter a song before Me’?”

     This passage is popularly understood as a reason not to celebrate the downfall of the wicked, and even the reason why we do not recite a full Hallel on the anniversary of that miracle, the Seventh Day of Pesach. (This is based on a Midrash, even though the Gemara Arachin 10a-b offers a wholly unrelated reason for reciting half-hallel that is the operative halachic principle here.)

     Yet, although the angels were rebuked, Moshe and the Jews did sing a most glorious song upon beholding the death of the Egyptians (“I will sing to G-d for He is exalted above the arrogant, the horse and its rider are hurled into the sea… the mighty sank like lead into the water”), a song that we sing every single morning, and an event that we commemorate every morning and evening. And we do recite Hallel on the Seventh Day of Pesach, just omitting a few verses from two of the chapters; it is not as if we don’t celebrate the event at all but are sunk in grief over the loss of Egyptian life. And in a very similar event – the miraculous destruction of the armies of Sancheirev, the Assyrian king, that also took place on Pesach – the king Chizkiah was criticized by G-d for not singing a song of praise over the majestic salvation of the Jewish people and an abrupt end to the siege over Jerusalem (Sanhedrin 94a). So, which is it – do we sing or not sing, do we rejoice (like the crowds of Americans responding to the news of the death of our enemy or do we remain somber (like the Commander-in-Chief) ?

     The answer is in the statement of the Talmud itself: the angels were rebuked by G-d, not the people who experienced the great victory – who endured the suffering and pain inflicted by the evildoer and now lived to see justice done. The “angels” reflect a divine perspective. From G-d’s perspective, evil itself is a terrible waste of human endeavor, and the death of every human being is a net loss. The most wicked individual was created by G-d in the “divine image,” which he then trampled and abused and then forfeited. We are supposed to acknowledge the divine perspective, because it is an aspiration for all human beings.

     But we are human beings, and in the world of human beings, the suffering of innocent people troubles us and the destruction of the wicked delights us. That is why “when the wicked perish there is song” (Proverbs 11:10), and that is why Moshe sang the song that we sing every day since – about G-d’s exaltedness, and the triumph of righteousness that is heralded by the death of the wicked. That is why Chizkiah was punished and, according the Gemara, not designated as the Moshiach – he did not sing when he witnessed the hand of G-d. If we cannot feel joy when the wicked perish, then our love of justice is impaired.

     Certainly, the boisterous and young crowds chanting “USA, USA” were not praising G-d or singing Hallel, which they might have had their educations and upbringing been different. But they were rejoicing in the death of the wicked and the triumph of good, something that should evoke joy and not guilt, and in the President, a facial expression of satisfaction rather than one who looks like he is chewing gravel.

     The war is not over, but yesterday’s accomplishment was a great milestone. Like the death of Saddam Hussein that abruptly ended the fantasy of some Iraqis that he was still lurking and might return to power, the brutal death of Osama bin Laden sends a clear message to all Arab/Muslim terrorists: there is a day of reckoning for all. President Bush vowed in the aftermath of the Arab terror of September 11 that Osama bin Laden would be captured, “dead or alive.”

      He was, and “dead” is better, and an occasion for rejoicing and thanksgiving. So kudos to the President and his team for a job well done, as bin Laden prepares to be greeted by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam and Arafat.