Iron Furnaces


I want to offer my reflections on the death of bin Laden from a midrashic perspective. One of the main purposes of the development of midrash is as a need to deal with the presence of cultural or religious tension and discontinuity.

There is a Midrash (Megillah 10b) discussing the celebration of Israel’s victory over the Egyptian army, after they drowned in the Sea of Reeds. While the Israelites were praising the victory of our God over Egyptian might, God forbid the angelic hosts from partaking in the celebration of the Egyptian defeat. The Midrash tells us that God forbid the angels from celebration because the Egyptians were also the creations of the Creator (“the work of my hands”). God pities the “enemy” and laments their destruction. Midrashim such as this give us pause. Every year we celebrate our Exodus from Egypt. But, in the end, even God laments the death of the supposedly wicked person. In effect, God’s question is asking, “What has come over you? My creatures are drowning in the sea and you are singing? How can you praise me with your hymns at a time when human beings are dying?”

I think an appropriate question is, “what does this narrative look like in the realm of the human world, and not simply representing a lonely speech of God’s?” Do we, as human beings, being created in the image of the Sacred have an imperative to question the destruction of supposedly evil human life when God does as well? Some might question this, but Jewish tradition advocates that it is not God alone who redeems. Rather, it is redeemed through the mutuality of divine and human labor; the world is mended not solely from above but also from below. That is unlike the origin myth of Christianity, Original Sin, which reveals human beings as part of a cycle they cannot break, one making it truly impossible to be good, Judaism speaks of the human experience as neutral: we have the impulse to do good and the impulse to do bad. This opens up the possibility for us to be co-creators with the Sacred.

The rationale for using this text is that it does allow, for some sense of relief in the downfall of the wicked. The Israelites are given the freedom to rejoice because they have escaped from the hands of their enemies. We are given the ability to proclaim on Passover that Jews were liberated from the iron furnace of Egypt, liberated from the slavery and oppression of empire. If we think about this in terms of our own suffering, to some bin Laden’s death might seem like justice and perhaps we should allow such opinions. However, most of us are not the Israelites. Most of us did not suffer injustice on 9/11. Perhaps if we are thinking on a communal level, we might be able to argue that it is justice from the American perspective. But I am incredibly cynical about the latter view, considering our track record for justice. If we truly thought communally, there would be some sort of reparations given to African-Americans, who had to suffer under slavery, jim crow and still live under institutional and cultural racism daily (not to mention they were promised reparations). Or mention that some sort of justice must be given to Native peoples for the fact that our government broke treaties constantly with them.

So I am incredibly cynical from the view point that justice has actually been done because their are plenty of citizens who still have not received a modicum of justice that they deserve as citizens. For some people the United States is not the Promised Land, it is the Iron Furnace. In this sense, I think an apt quote to reflect upon is one given by Cornel West. His response to 9/11 was that it gave white Americans a glimpse of what it means to be a black person in the United States, the feeling of being “unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, and hatred” for who they are (Democracy Matters, 20).

West’s views are both a condemnation and an invitation. They condemn white Americans for failing to recognize that there are already Americans who feel unsafe and who continue to feel unsafe. While West is speaking in particular about race in America, I think his views are particularly poignant when talking about what it means to be a woman, or what it means to be queer, or what it means to be Islamic, or what it means to be any combination of the above. West points out the story of Emmett Tills mother, who is quoted saying, “I don’t have a minute to hate. I’ll pursue justice for the rest of my life” (Democracy Matters, 21).

This is the invitation. “…we as a blues nation must learn from a blues people how to keep alive our deep democratic energies in dark times and not resort to the tempting and easier response of militarism and authoritarianism” (ibid). It allows a glimpse of sympathy and empathy. To move into the Torah’s legal motivations and principles, more legislation has the rationale “…for you were a stranger in Egypt” than any other principle within the Torah. The rationale is a means of telling us that the motivations behind our community life must represent a different way from the way we were treated in Egypt. In other words, our theological and political motivations must be forged through empathy and through imagining a better possibility for a people who lived in the Iron Furnace. The main thesis of Judith Butler’s book Precarious Life, a collection of essays reflecting on 9/11, is the vulnerability of the human subject and the ethical capacities that those experiences of vulnerability have to bear on our ethical/political life. It is only when recognizing that we all suffer, that our society will take a turn for the better (Precarious Life 30). Butler is also clear that we have to be willing to see the suffering of others because until we do, violence is inevitable.

In the midrash, God has sympathy for the creatures that, while misguided, were too formed by God. What does it mean to hear, or rather read, God asking the angels, “The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?”

I do not think most Americans have learned anything after 9/11. This is why people celebrating the death of bin Laden cause me to roll my eyes.  Bin Laden revealed that the United States government and many of its people are just as violent as Islamic Fundamentalists, or that someone how our quest for vengeance can truly be justice.  Our response to an act of terrorism was not a call to imagine a different way, one of equality and nonviolent cooperation as Butler and West suggest, or a call to find a fairer response to our suffering Egypt, as the Torah suggests.

So while  bin Laden committed unspeakable acts, I question what has been done to make our world more fair and just as a result of our militaristic and violent response to 9/11.  That’s where I come out of this. It is not to ignore the suffering of others but rather to think of a more helpful solution, or perhaps a better possibility.


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