A time to hate

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Saddam Hussein’s death by hanging came too late to provide much satisfaction – too late for the hundreds of thousands of human beings killed on his orders – hundreds at his own hands. The taking of his miserable life can neither bring back the lives he so callously snuffed out nor compensate for them.

Still, there was rejoicing at the sight of Saddam on the gallows, though personally I would have been far happier had he fallen into one of the meat grinders into which he, and his equally sadistic sons Uday and Qusai, dropped so many of his subjects.

My satisfaction has nothing to do with bloodlust. I would not have been one of the thousands of Iraqis vying for the post of Saddam’s executioner. Rather it derives from being witness to the turning of the wheels of Divine Justice. The Midrash states that the Divine throne only became firmly established in the world when the Jewish people sang God’s praises at the Sea. Their joyous song was a consequence of watching the precision with which the suffering of each drowning Egyptian was meted out: The Egyptians either died instantaneously or slowly and painfully, according to the degree with which they had afflicted the Jews in Egypt.

Divine vengeance, then, is the righting of an imbalance in the world, and refers equally to the punishment of the wicked and the reward of the righteous. When we merit witnessing the enactment of justice, our belief that there is both Justice and a Judge is strengthened.

Three times daily, we call in our prayers for God to “destroy speedily all His enemies.” Can there be a greater enemy of God than one who murders hundreds of thousands of His creations? From the beginning of human history, God proclaimed the rule, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6).

NEEDLESS TO say much of the world does not view matters as I do. And I don’t just mean the Palestinians who benefited from Saddam’s generous subsidies to the families of suicide bombers or to Saddam’s erstwhile partner in various oil scams, the notorious Russian xenophobe Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The latter labeled Saddam’s execution “the greatest crime of the 21st century.” The so-called civilized world joined in the chorus of condemnation. The European Union and its member states expressed their repugnance at the imposition of the death penalty in all circumstances. Tim Hames, writing in the The Times of London, went so far as to proclaim Saddam’s execution “as ethically tainted as the crimes that produced that sentence.”

Following that logic, the execution of Nazi war criminals tried at Nuremberg was as “ethically tainted” as Hitler’s crimes. Those who hold that position no doubt are convinced of their superior humanity. To my mind, however, the opposite is true. Their narcissistic back-patting partakes of a certain inhuman coldness.

The critics refuse to enter imaginatively into the world of Saddam’s victims and to contemplate the true nature of his evil. They do not wish to contemplate what it is like to be a parent forced to watch your child tortured to extract your “confession,” what it is like to spend your entire life afraid to enter into an intimate conversation with another human being for fear that he or she might be one of Saddam’s informers, what it is like to have parents, siblings or children taken away in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. And then multiply such scenarios millions of times of over.

During Saddam’s 23-year reign of terror, nearly 300,000 Iraqis disappeared – more than 12,000 a year, 240 a week. And that number does not even include the hundreds of Iraqi athletes crippled and maimed for life in Uday Hussein’s torture chambers for failing to bring sufficient glory to the regime, or the thousands of girls seized off the streets to satisfy the lusts of the Husseins.

At his trial, Saddam neither denied his crimes nor expressed the slightest repentance. The equation of Saddam’s execution, after trial, to his crimes is on a par with those pat moral equivalencies so beloved of Left intellectuals during the Cold War – Soviet imperialism vs the cultural imperialism of Hollywood.

Yale computer scientist David Gelernter, who had a bomb sent by the Unabomber blow up in his face, made mincemeat of this moral equivalency in his book Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber: It is through capital punishment of murders – and not by running to forgive them – that we as a society “show our respect for the dead and proclaim the value of human life,” he writes.

Among those rushing to condemn Saddam’s execution was the Vatican, which pronounced his hanging “tragic.” Few issues so distinguish the Torah viewpoint from that of many Christian groups as that of forgiveness for mass murderers.

Shmuley Boteach rightly noted the consanguinity between the Vatican’s condemnation and Pope Benedict XVI’s reception of the Iranian foreign minister, who was fresh from organizing Teheran’s conference of Holocaust deniers, and his conveyance of warm regards to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who boasts of his plans for the next Holocaust.

The condemnation and the warm regards share a certain moral obtuseness, and provide proof of our Sages’ insight: “He who is merciful when he should be cruel will end up being cruel when he should be merciful.”

What is lost in the pat equation of Saddam’s life with those of his victims is horror of evil. And that loss of horror paves the way for further evil.

The contrast between Jewish and Christian attitudes to forgiveness was recently highlighted by the response of an Amish community to the cold-blooded murder of five schoolgirls and the serious wounding of 10 more. At the funeral of one of the slain girls, her grandfather spoke and said of the perpetrator, “We must not think evil of this man.” The neighbors and friends of the victims’ families professed to feel no hatred towards the girls’ killer.

In contrast to the Vatican’s cheap sympathy for Saddam, the attitude of the Amish, at least, manifests spiritual grandeur. They offered forgiveness to the murderer of their own children and grandchildren, not to the mass murderer of distant victims.

Jews too are instructed to hate the sin and not the sinner. But sometimes the two are inextricably bound, as in Saddam’s case. And often, easy forgiveness of the sinner diminishes the horror of his crimes. As Rabbi David Gottlieb of Baltimore pointed out in the wake of the Amish tragedy, even God Himself does not forgive sins committed against a fellow human being until the victim’s forgiveness has been secured. No one can confer forgiveness on behalf of the victim, and all the more so when no forgiveness was sought.

Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is also “a time to hate.” Would we really wish to live, asks Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby (an observant Jew), in a society in which no one gets angry when children are slaughtered, a society in which there is an instantaneous dispensation for the most horrific acts of cruelty? I would not. And that is why I was glad to see Saddam hanging at the end of a noose.

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post.

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20 Responses

  1. DMZ says:

    I guess I should point out that in Judaism, there are times when we can apply the death penalty for things which aren’t vengeance-related, at least not in the sense you’re thinking of. For example, chillul Shabbos – under some (limited) circumstances, someone being mechallel Shabbos can be executed by beis din. Ditto for avodah zarah – you’re not taking vengeance for any horrible atrocity done on your family. That’s why I take issue to what appears to be your basic premise: that capital punishment is always vengeance-related.

    In this specific case, was it about vengeance? Probably at least partially. But we’re also dealing with a part of the world where vengeance is often considered justice. That’s where I think the argument also goes awry. You are very much approaching this from a Western ideal, and the Torah doesn’t say “and if you live in the West, your opinions are more valid than those elsewhere”. If Iraq has a functioning, government-approved court system that’s uncorrupt, and this one seemed to make the grade, their judgement is halachically approved.

    G-d gave us the authority to judge others. That much is clear from the entire establishment of beis din (Tannaic source, if you prefer: Moshe’s appointment of the judges and teachers). Are some matters more serious than others? Absolutely. But it is absolutely clear that in some circumstances, men are given the choice of deciding whether other men live, and that G-d approves (elsewise, why would He have written it?).

    Again, I’m no huge fan of capital punishment. I know the subject well enough to know there are abuses, biases, and screw-ups. But at the same time, I feel there ARE situations where things are clear-cut enough to merit it. Mr. Hussein was one of those situations, in my mind.

  2. SM says:

    DMZ: I didn’t mean that being anti-capital punichment is the only Jewish position. And I accept the argument about secular society having to preserve public order.

    But two points are starkly clear. Firstly, the preservation of public order is almost exactly the LAST purpose this execution has served. So, applying that test the decision was wrong.

    Secondly and more importantly, the issue of who is to judge a person’s right to live remains a valid issue. The gemarra’s position is not irrelevant when used as an aid to discern what the ammoraim felt about that issue. And I remain troubled by the rush to exercise that judgement by virtually everyone. To judge someone’s right to life is about as serious as it gets. Yet people who wouldn’t buy a new oven without asking their rav whether it would suit for Shabbat don’t feel bothered by this.

    It seems to me that some of that willingness to judge is driven by a wish for vengeance. I don’t believe that vengeance is ever anything a court should give expression to (which is why it’s “the State against X” or “The People against X”). If I can quote a non-talmudic source, Winston Churchill once said “Don’t speak when you’re angry. You’ll make the best speech you ever regret.”

  3. One Christian's perspective says:

    Ori: “secular courts…do not draw their authority from G-d or Torah.” DMZ: “Gentile governments have the halahic authority to carry it out”.

    I believe everyone (Jew and gentile) is under G-d’s authority whether or not they believe He exists or even agree with His statutes

    I don’t like capital punishment because one can argue that it prevents one the opportunity to turn to G-d and repent even though a lengthy trial can do the same. On the other hand, I think history has shown that there are some people who so evil that their hearts will never be softened toward G-d and that this form of punishment, approved by the people of the land – not for vengeance but justice – may be necessary to bring order out of chaos and an end to a reign of terror and facilitate closure and healing. Those in power in our times who have authorized and done wholesale murder of others for no apparent reason than they can, may further bring terrible pain to the survivors just by staying alive in prison.

  4. DMZ says:

    “DMZ: that’s simply not right. The way in which the gemarra restricts the death penalty makes it clear that, absent a Sanhedrin, we can forget it. It’s not left to the reader. And even with a Sanhedrin it was the gemarra’s opinion that executing once every seven (perhaps seventy) years was more than enough. I think that makes my point.”

    I’m not wrong, and you’re “proving” that using bad arguments. You’re applying Jewish standards to gentile courts, which they aren’t halahically required to follow. You misrepresent one opinion in the gemara (an irrelevant opinion, as I’ve just said) as the only opinion, too.

    I understand your extreme revulsion to capital punishment, even though I don’t share it. But, as Ori has already pointed out, gentile governments have the halahic authority to carry it out. Please, please do not paint being “anti-death-penalty” as “the only Jewish position”. You didn’t explicitly say it, but I felt as if that’s written between the lines.

  5. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Halacha gives the authority to execute criminals to two human institutions:

    1. Batey Din, Rabbinical courts, which are tied up in so much procedure according to Mishna and Talmud that it’s almost impossible to execute anybody in practice. A Beit Din draws its authority directly from G-d and the Torah.

    2. Kings, who are allowed to execute criminals for the sake of public order. See Mishneh Torah, laws of Kings and Wars, 3:11 at http://www.mechon-mamre.org/i/e503.htm.

    Mishneh Torah speaks about kings, but that could be because kings were the common form of government at the time. Tanach shows a ruler who is not a king, and does not draw his power from a king, executing people (Gideon in Judges 8:17). In today’s world, an elected government would probably have the same Halachic permission, even though it is run on written rules rather than a king’s decisions.

    Secular courts, especially in a society that is predominately non Jewish (Iraq and the US both apply), do not draw their authority from G-d and the Torah. They draw their authority from the government (or the king when there is one). Therefore, they operate under #2 (rulers executing for the sake of public order), rather than under #1 (Halachic death penalty).

    The discussion in Sanhedrin deals with the Halachic death penalty under #1. It simply does not apply to public order executions by a secular government.

  6. Baruch Horowitz says:

    The meforshim discuss contradictory sources in chazal and tanach regarding rejoicing over the death of the wicked(see link from Kollel Iyun Hadaf below). Even when killing insects, Rav Moshe Feinstein mentions the concern that habitual killing, even when justified and required, may implant cruelty in one’s heart(see Ohr Hachaim regarding Ihr Hanidachas). Jewish happiness upon the elimination of evil is tempered by the concern that one shouldn’t become blood thirsty. As Rabbi Shafran wrote after Arafat’s death “Jews don’t dance in the streets and fire weapons in celebration when their enemies die”.

    In “Go My Son”, Chaim Shapiro, a former yeshiva student of Kamintetz and Baranovich, after personally witnessing the cruelty of the Nazi’s to himself and his family, describes his efforts to join the Russian army to fight against Hitler and his army. He becomes a tank commander, and is commanded to fire on German soldiers. Far from feeling satisfied, he is unable to sleep that night, and “feels ashamed for himself and the human race ” for killing a human being.

    When he remembers low-flying Blitzkrieg pilots who machine-gunned his younger brother and others innocent fleeing civilians, he is then able to maintain the perspective necessary during war. After eliminating an enemy tank in a later battle, he quotes from Devorah’s song “so may all your enemies perish, Hashem”. I can not find any fault in such a reaction, nor with the reaction of President Bush to Saddam Hussein’s execution. As in the title of this post: “la’kol z’man va’eis l’chol cheifetez tachas hashomayim”.

    Rabbi Mordechai Becher has a good discussion of these issues on OU radio(appx. 30 minutes into the tape titled “Can Jews Forgive, Eating a Clone”), and Kollel Iyun Hadaf on Megillah 10b discusses the contradictory sources regarding the issues of b’nfol oyivcha al tismach(see also Megillah 16a).

    http://www.ouradio.org/ouradio/channel/C292/

    http://dafyomi.shemayisrael.co.il/megilah/insites/mg-dt-10.htm

  7. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “Divine vengeance, then, is the righting of an imbalance in the world, and refers equally to the punishment of the wicked and the reward of the righteous. When we merit witnessing the enactment of justice, our belief that there is both Justice and a Judge is strengthened.”

    In Rabbi Rosenblum’s Yated piece, he quotes from the Sichos Mussar of Rav Chaim Shmulevitz based on Berachos 33a to support the idea that “nekama”(vengeance) is not the same as the very human, cathartic feeling for retaliation, described as “sweeter than honey” by the Mesilas Yesharim. Rav Chaim’s thought is developed as well by Michtav Meliyahu(vol II, Purim) to reconcile the different verses in the battle with Midyan between “revenge of Hashem”, and “revenge of Jewish People”(Bamidbar 31), as well as by Mishnas Rav Aharon(Vol III) to explain why Jews were able to sing praise at the Yom Suf, unlike the angels.

    The Jewish concept of revenge, forgiveness, and happiness over death of the wicked has been a subject of discussion following the recent Amish school tragedy, and after Yassir Arafat’s death. The issue is relevant as well to the response to Nazis following the Holocaust, as well as in the Israeli-Arab conflict. Eli Wisel(The Sunflower) compares the Jewish attitude towards forgiving Nazis with that of a number of other religions; this is discussed as well in Rabbi Meir Solevecihik’s “The Virtue of Hate” quoted by Steve Brizel, above.

    Following the Holocaust, there was a group known as the “Avengers” (DIN, or Dam L’yehudi Nokem), whose goal unlike that of Simon Wisenthal, was to assassinate, rather than bring Nazi murders to trial. On the other hand, Golda Meir is quoted to have said, “I can forgive the Arabs for having killed our soldiers but I can never forgive them for making us kill theirs.” This was criticized by one Jewish militant as being worthy of entry to the “Hall of Fame of Insanity”. I can see why it may be perceived as weakening the right of self defense which every nation exercises to protect the lives of its citizens.

  8. SM says:

    DMZ: that’s simply not right. The way in which the gemarra restricts the death penalty makes it clear that, absent a Sanhedrin, we can forget it. It’s not left to the reader. And even with a Sanhedrin it was the gemarra’s opinion that executing once every seven (perhaps seventy) years was more than enough. I think that makes my point.

    I am concerned by people who feel that they are able to distinguish between those who should live and those who should die. If that person is a murderer we lock them up out of the way (or execute them alas). But if that person is a politician or a Judge we praise them. I’m a Judge – and I simply don’t share that faith in human beings. My experience is that everyone gets it wrong some of the time. And it isn’t a question of guilt or innocence. It’s about who deserves to die. You can’t answer that question, I can’t and nor can the President or the Prime Minister of Iraq.

    Let’s walk humbly with God.

  9. alfie says:

    you have confused justice with vengeance. justice is based on law and there is significant discussion about the legality of the trial of Saddam. Vengeance is based on deep-seated emotions – and according to the Torah is relegated to G-d.

  10. DMZ says:

    “Capital Punishment is wrong.”

    Unfortunately, it seems G-d disagrees, seeing as he actually prescribes such punishment in His own holy book for some crimes. You can not like it all you want, but it’s pretty clear that this sort of punishment can be “not wrong” in some circumstances. Whether this is one of them is left for the reader.

  11. Jewish Observer says:

    “it’s kind of dishonest”

    these are kind of strong words

  12. Dr. E says:

    I think that they should have held off and scheduled the execution on 15th of Adar in the ancient city of Shushan. And any remaining kin would be taken care of as well.

  13. SM says:

    Capital Punishment is wrong. The proposition that we assist anything by the formalised murder of that man is bizarre – all we do is demonstrate that we will behave as he did (which behaviour, of course, we condemn). It was a grim irony that Cheney said of the late President Ford that “he understood that healing was necessary” whilst ensuring that Hussein hung.

    And, if we are talking about repentance – where is ours? We have taken a human life without any divine sanction for doing so and we are “satisfied”?? Teshuva would seem appropriate.

    As a society we really need to get our heads round the fact that killing someone by way of “execution” (as if renaming it changed the character of the act) is simply giving way to the desire for vengeance. That is not a principle by which civilised societies (and I include the USA in that) should live. Politicians who support capital punishment either lack the moral capacity to govern or are prepared to kill others for the sake of their own advancement – and it’s usually the second.

    And no – I wouldn’t have hung Hitler. And yes, I have been in the position of seeing a much loved young relative murdered.

  14. Tal Benschar says:

    “Even capital punishment among B’nei Noach cannot be meted out when there is no kohen makriv.”

    This does not appear to be the view of the Rambam in Hil. Melakhim. It certainly was not the view of R. Moshe Feinstein, who wrote a teshuva generally supportive of the death penalty.

  15. One Christian's perspective says:

    Many Christians, believing by faith that we stand before G-d at death to answer for our words, thoughts and deeds in this life, prayed earnestly that G-d would soften Saddam’s heart that he would “be able” to confess his sins and seek forgiveness from G-d not unlike David when he prayed the words of Psalm 51. Did I want to pray for Saddam ? I had not been doing so. I had been praying for the families who suffered at his hands. When I heard that his execution was within hours, without hesitation I could not stop praying for him. This year, I learned that it is G-d alone who initiates mercy and then softens our hearts to carry that out. Perhaps, G-d who softened our hearts toward Saddam so we could pray for someone we were not, perhaps, G-d heard our prayers and softened Saddam’s heart so he could chose to say in humility and in sincerity “I am sorry G-d that I killed your image bearers”.

    G-d is not a G-d of disorder and chaos. From the TORAH, I learned just how interested He is in maintaining order and preserving life and delivering justice. Seeking forgiveness from G-d and man is a spiritual act of worship. Carrying out justice within the laws of the land -assuming the laws are just as G-d would see them – is maintaining order and not chaos as G-d desires us to live.

    Forgiveness is spiritual. Carrying out justice for crimes against humanity is also spiritual if our hearts are pure.

  16. Ahron says:

    The leaders of the European Union have certainly shed more tears over Hussein’s death than they ever did for his victims. The noxious Mr. Zhirinovsky, too, seems far more vexed by Saddam’s execution than he ever was by Saddam’s people-shredders.

    Logic would lead one to assume that such expressions and non-expressions of sympathy also reveal their owners’ true moral leanings.

  17. Nachum Lamm says:

    Adamchik, it’s kind of dishonest for you to cite one small part of an article dedicated to refuting that small part.

  18. Adamchik says:

    Note R. Ahron Soloveitchik’s words:

    “[I]t is irresponsible and unfair to submit a statement in favor of capital punishment in the name of Orthodox Jewry. In my humble opinion, from a Halachik point of view, every Jew should be opposed to capital punishment. It is true . . . that the Torah recognizes capital punishment. However, the Torah delegates the authority to mete out capital punishment only to Sanhedrin, not to anyone else. Even Sanhedrin are [sic] not able to mete out capital punishment if there is no Beis Hamikdash.

    B’zman she’yesh kohen makriv, yesh nefashot, b’zman she’ayn kohen makriv, ayn nefashot. Even capital punishment among B’nei Noach cannot be meted out when there is no kohen makriv.”

    There is more at

    http://www.ou.org/public_affairs/article/njd_tradition_cp/

    but you get the idea. This is not an easy topic.

  19. Ori Pomerantz says:

    If I understand the Vatican’s position correctly, they are not spouting the moral equivalency nonsense of Tim Hames. What they are saying is that by executing a sinner we are taking away his opportunity to do Tshuva, condemning him to an eternity in hell. Since they believe that by right they belong in the same hell for their sins, and salvation is a gift, it is hard for them not to have sympathy.

    I can see their point. Maybe it would have been better to keep Saddam alive. I’m sure that the Baghdad zoo could spare a cage to show a homo sapiens who relinquished his humanity, as well as a bit of the same raw meat they feed other vicious carnivores.

  20. Steve Brizel says:

    As R M Y Soloveitchik (one of RAS’s grandsons and a profound thinker in his own right) pointed out, Torah Judaism, especially as indicated in Koheles, requires us to recognize the difference between good and evil and that there is a time for love, peace, hate and war that we must utilize in order to make the world a better place. We seriously believe “Yimach Shmo VZicro” when we refer to a perpetrator of evil, as opposed to other faiths that urge mankind to be pacifist or to turn the other cheek.