Our neighbors: Jeffrey Dahmer and Osama bin Laden –by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls.” -Proverbs 24:17

“Then Moses and the children ofIsraelsang…Pharos’s chariots and army God has drowned in the sea!” -Exodus 15:1

Should we cheer at the fall of Bin Laden?   The Biblical book of Proverbs would seem to indicate we should not.   On the other hand in the Biblical book of Exodus when the Jewish people walk through theRed Seaand the Egyptians who are perusing them drown Miriam and Moses lead the Jewish people in song and dance in thanks to God for saving them from Pharaoh and his army.  So which is it?

The Talmud, Judaism’s most basic book of law, in discussing capitol punishment asks how capitol punishment should be carried out if a criminal is deserving of the death penalty.   The Talmud concludes that it must be carried out in the most painless way possible.  This is learned from a familiar Biblical verse used in a shocking way:

“And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” – Choose for him a good death (Talmud, Sanhedrin 52b).

Of those we are inclined to see as “our neighbor” to be treated as ourselves, the least likely candidate for such status is a criminal so horrendous they are deserving of capitol punishment.  Yet it is precisely to such a situation that the Talmud understands the Biblical dictum to apply.

I remember about 15 years ago I was in the dollar store and came across a book by Jeffrey Dahmer’s father about his son’s life.  Dahmer was, in most of our minds, the most horrid of criminals.  He met men at bars, brought them to his apartment, had sex with them, cut them up into bits and ate them.   I paid my dollar and snuck the book out of the store as if it were pornographic.

In reading the book I was amazed.  This individual whom I saw as so horrible as to not really be human, at least not the same catagory of human as I, had a real life, a real father, mother, and childhood, not unlike most of us.  He played, ate, waked the dog, and had what seemed to be normal parents.   It was a revelation to me.  Suddenly this person whom I thought was so other, so disgusting as to not be of the same humanness as the rest of us, was indeed much like the rest of us.

It made me wonder if perhaps we all have the potential to be so evil and I began to see the most horrendous of criminals as a little less “other” -as my neighbor.   Which does not mean we should not punish them or even mete out capitol punishment when deserved, but at the same time we must realize they are human like the rest of us, and in loving them, our neighbor as ourselves, we must do the work of choosing for them the best death.  Death and justice certainly, but a death in which we can not free ourselves from seeing them, we can not see them as wholly other, but as our neighbor….albeit a neighbor so wicked they deserve death.

Perhaps the message is that justice must be done, it is good to bring Osama Bin Laden to death and rid the world of a bit of evil, but at the same time perhaps we must not separate ourselves mentally  from him, we must realize he is “our neighbor”  and choose for him a good death.  A death  not of revenge and pain, but of mercy and justice.

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