This past weekend, a United States Special Operations Forces raid finally rid the world of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Like Osama bin Laden before him, al-Baghdadi’s killing at the hands of U.S. troops raised a perennial question: How should we react to the death of extraordinarily evil people?
This is a particular dilemma for Americans, whose culture has been substantially shaped by Christianity. In the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus exclaims, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but I say to you, love your enemies.” Is this the ethical standard we should apply to al-Baghdadi? If we feel hatred in our hearts toward a man who directed, and personally participated in, an ongoing campaign of mass rape, murder, mutilation, and genocide, should we judge our emotional response as an unfortunate if understandable moral failing?
Or, put bluntly: Is it acceptable to hate al-Baghdadi?
In a remarkable sermon delivered at Manhattan’s Jewish Center synagogue in 1973, Rabbi Norman Lamm, my grandfather and the former president of Yeshiva University, addressed this very question. His lecture, “A Hale and Hearty Hate,” laid the groundwork for a philosophical approach to hate among American Jewish thinkers that would develop through the early aughts, and provide a framework for present-day responses to al-Baghdadi’s death.
Lamm structured his remarks around the Jewish holiday of Purim. Set during the fifth century BCE reign of the Persian Emperor Xerxes, the Purim story recounts a plot hatched by Haman, Xerxes’ viceroy, to exterminate the empire’s Jews. But as Haman and his many sympathizers prepared to slaughter their Jewish neighbors, the Jews manage to turn the tables, killing their would-be oppressors instead. Purim celebrates the Jews’ salvation from destruction.
Lamm began by referring to a certain professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who used to take advantage of a technical quirk in the laws of the Jewish calendar in order to avoid having to celebrate Purim altogether. Why did he do this? Apparently, the professor objected to the fact that Purim celebrates hatred. To this day, in fact, when Jews across the world read the account of Purim in the biblical Book of Esther, they cheer Haman’s death, booing and hissing at his very name. The Hebrew University professor found this display of animus repulsive, and so sought to wash his hands of it.
Was the professor right, Lamm wondered? Isn’t hatred morally corrosive? Shouldn’t we all strive to avoid Purim?
Lamm replied with a full-throated defense not only of Purim, but of hatred as a necessary tool in our moral arsenal. “It is not at all true,” said Lamm, “that it is absolutely wrong to hate. … Indeed, I am weary of people who cannot or do not hate at all.” There is something deeply wrong with “our liberal culture, reinforced by the Christian environment,” that refuses ever to hate.
In building his case for the value of hate, Lamm made three points about hatred in the Jewish tradition. First, there are some ideas, movements, or even people who are so profoundly, unusually evil that hatred is not only justified but required. All decent people should feel hatred for a Haman, or a Hitler, and no contextualizing or relativizing will exempt us from this basic requirement. There is nothing that we can learn about Stalin’s background, or Pol Pot’s childhood, that can earn them our love and forgiveness.
Second, the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes famously prescribes that there is an appropriate time for everything: for laughter and mourning, for silence and speech, for birth and death. The list concludes with, “a time to love and a time to hate.” The Bible sees hatred as a natural part of the human experience. It is folly to think we can abolish it, any more than we can abolish death. The real question is whether we can control it. Jewish tradition therefore permits hatred so that it can tightly regulate its use. When we attempt to ban hate entirely, it doesn’t disappear. It simply flourishes unchecked on the moral black market. Here, too, Lamm saw a key difference between the Jewish and Christian moral frameworks.
In his third and final point, however, Lamm offered a strong caveat to his case for hatred. While Judaism allows for hatred, and sometimes even mandates it, in nearly all cases, Jewish tradition made it practically difficult, or even impossible, to actually engage in such hatred. Take, for example, the commandment to hate the evildoer. According to Jewish law, we may not hate a sinner before we have attempted to correct his ways. Only after the evildoer has rejected our reproof must we express our hatred. But according to Rabbi Abraham Isaiah Karelitz, an enormously influential 20th-century Jewish scholar known as the Hazon Ish: “Since [in the post-Talmudic era] we no longer know how to reprove the sinner properly … every sinner must be regarded by us as one who has not yet been reproved. Hence, we are commanded to love the evildoers.” Jewish tradition throws up such systematic barriers to real-life hatred for a reason. Hatred is important in theory, but can be extremely dangerous in practice. In the wrong hands, or the wrong dosage, it can be deeply toxic.
But Jewish tradition does not discard the positive aspects of hatred. While the Hazon Ish may be right that we may no longer hate sinners, Lamm enumerated three cases in which a healthy society should express hatred. First, and most simply, we should still reserve our hatred for sinful acts themselves. Second, it is good to channel our hatred toward symbols of evil. When we see a swastika, or a Confederate flag, we should feel hate for the evil causes they represent. Finally, some evildoers are so extraordinarily evil that they are worthy of our hatred. This group is very small, including only the most barbarically cruel, but we must recognize it nonetheless.
The intellectual ground that Lamm staked out in 1973 laid the foundation for a classic essay published in 2003 in First Things magazine by the American Jewish thinker Rabbi Meir Soloveichik. Titled “The Virtue of Hate,” Soloveichik in fact wrote his piece while serving as a rabbi at the very same Jewish Center synagogue where Lamm had delivered his sermon 30 years earlier. While Lamm had acknowledged the stark difference between Jewish and Christian attitudes toward hate, Soloveichik sought to explain it, and—like Lamm—defend the Jewish view. According to Soloveichik, Christianity disallows hatred even toward evildoers because of its belief that ultimately none of us deserve salvation. Ultimately we are all in need of God’s grace, me no less than Hitler. Judaism, by contrast firmly rejects this conclusion. It maintains, in Soloveichik’s view, “that God affords every human being the opportunity to choose his or her moral fate, and will then judge him or her, and choose whether to love him or her, on the basis of that decision.”
But, also like Lamm, Soloveichik described hate as an extremely potent force that must be vigilantly monitored lest it poison us from within. It must never be directed at individuals unless they have crossed some profoundly horrifying boundary beyond, to borrow a phrase, what we might call “usual evil.” Even when hatred is virtuous, we must learn to extinguish it when necessary. One of Soloveichik’s examples is Judaism’s contemporary relationship with Christianity. “After centuries of suffering,” wrote Soloveichik, “many Jews have, in my own experience, continued to despise religious Christians, even though it is secularists and Islamists who threaten them today, and Christians should really be seen as their natural allies.” The ability to recognize goodness is just as important as the capacity to identify evil.
Writing in the aftermath of 9/11, Soloveichik continued the tradition of Lamm who spoke in the wake of the Holocaust and constant persecution against the fledgling State of Israel. Lamm himself built upon two-and-a-half thousand years of Jewish wisdom dating back to the era of Purim. But whether Haman in antiquity, Hitler in the 20th century, or Osama bin Laden in the 21st, Judaism has always known that there is “a time to hate.” By the same token, Jewish tradition has also understood hatred’s wildly destructive potential. It has thus sought deliberately to circumscribe it as much as possible, reserving it only for those singularly evil individuals who unquestionably deserve it. As Lamm concluded his lecture, “We must live our lives so that the commandment of hatred becomes the most difficult of all to observe. And by restricting our hatred to evil and those who personify it … we shall learn to act lovingly to all God’s creatures.”
So, may we hate Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? For Lamm, not only may we; we must. In his words, “monsters who seek sadistically to wipe out whole populations—such people remain deserving, on purely moral grounds, of actual contempt and hatred.” Or as Soloveichik put it 30 years later, “while no human being is denied the chance to become worthy of God’s love, not every human being engages in actions so as to be worthy of that love, and those unworthy of divine love do not deserve our love either.”
All people should hate evil men like al-Baghdadi. In so doing, we will better be able to love each other.
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Rabbi Dr. Ari Lamm is the CEO of the Bnai Zion Foundation, and a historian of religion