Beliefs Ethics Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion Politics

Mourn for Scalia, don’t gloat

Credit: Brandon Bourdages, via Shutterstock
Credit: Brandon Bourdages, via Shutterstock

Credit: Brandon Bourdages, via Shutterstock

To all of my fellow liberals: I know that you didn’t like Antonin Scalia’s rulings.

We get it.

Frankly, I don’t blame you. I found Scalia’s positions on church-state relations, sexuality, guns, abortion, death penalty, and pretty much everything else to be very problematic. (Though he was the first Supreme Court to use the word “chutzpah” in a legal decision.)

Let me ask us all a favor.

Can we all just keep quiet about that, at least for a little while?

Or, better yet: let’s mourn the death of a significant American jurist who was arguably one of the greatest legal minds of our generation.

Yes, even if we didn’t agree with his opinions.

Because, based on what I am seeing on social media, there has been a lot of inappropriate snark about his sudden passing — stuff like “Ding, dong, the witch is dead” and “who will tell Clarence Thomas how to vote now?”


This is not how good people treat the death of a great person, even if you disagreed with that person’s ideas.

How does the Jewish tradition us on how to handle the death of a person that we don’t like?

First of all, biblically-speaking, there are only two people whose deaths we are allowed — even encouraged – to hope for and even celebrate. One would be the infamous Amalek, who led his hoards in attacking helpless Israelites as they left Egypt.

And the second person is his descendant, the Persian tyrant, Haman, who is the villain of the story of Esther, and who sought the destruction of the Jews of Persia, which is the back story of the holiday of Purim,

Yes,  Jews rejoiced when Hitler died, and again, when Stalin died. They were, of course, mass murderers of the most heinous variety, and the very symbol of evil in our time.

So, a few Jewish insights into how we should treat the deaths of people we don’t like (and who fall into a lesser category of evil than Hitler or Stalin):

  • When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea after the Exodus from Egypt, God parted the waters for them so that they could escape safely. As the Egyptian soldiers pursued them into the sea, the waters came back together, drawing the entire Egyptian army. That victor is enshrined in the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15, which is one of the oldest songs in history. According to Jewish legend, the angels on high broke into rejoicing as well, but God silenced them, saying: “The work of My hands has died, and you are singing?!?!” (Talmud, Megillah 10b)
  • “If your enemy falls, do not exult; If he trips, let your heart not rejoice, lest the LORD see it and be displeased, and avert His wrath from him.” (Prov. 24:17). Translation: don’t celebrate the misfortunes of your enemy. If you do, God might just ignore the bad stuff that your enemy has done and turn His (sic) attention on you.
  • “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” (Exodus 23: 4-5). Translation: you have civic and civil obligations to your enemy. The obligation to return lost property (modern equivalent: your enemy’s Mercedes) has nothing to do with whether you like that person. Emotions have no place in determining social responsibilities.

On the other hand, Judaism also has its “dark side” on the treatment of enemies:

  • Psalm 137 ends with the cheering of the death of Babylonian children.
  • The traditional Passover Haggadah exhorts God to pour out Divine Wrath on the enemies of the Jews.

We can put these teachings into their proper historical context — the ruminations of a persecuted people who were powerless to do anything, other than chant to themselves: “Hit ’em again — harder, harder!”

Christianity (and I say this with profound respect) isn’t always so pure in this regard.

Yes, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that we should “love our enemies” (Matt. 5:4).

But, Christian history has often belied that commandment.

Let’s remember how a true Jewish mensch dealt with Scalia.

I am talking about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She and Scalia hardly agreed on anything — other than their friendship and their mutual love of opera.

We need friends with whom we agree to disagree on political, cultural, and moral issues. I cherish my relationships with friends who are far to the left of me on, say, Israel and the Palestinians, as well as those who are far to the right of me on, say, abortion and guns.

So, how do we respond to the death of Antonin Scalia?

At this time, only this.

We send condolences to the Scalia family on the death of their husband, father, and grandfather. It stinks to lose a loved one so suddenly.

For the time being, that’s all that we have to do.




About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.


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  • “Can we all just keep quiet about that, at least for a little while?”


    Let Scalia’s family and friends (like RBG) mourn him and remember him fondly. The rest of us are under no obligation to praise his abilities or achievements or pause from criticizing his statements and actions on the court.

    While each of us does “need friends with whom we agree to disagree on political, cultural, and moral issues,” Scalia was not our friend. He was not your neighbor or uncle who spouted off embarrassing ideas at Thanksgiving dinner. He was a judge on the highest court in the land and his judicial record reflects more than mere “disagreement” with peers. His decisions and opinions held and continue to hold real power over the lives of a nation of people. Many of those people were affected adversely by his votes and had no comparable power to impact how he lived and worked.

    I can love my enemy and be glad they are no longer able to act as my enemy.

  • Good comment Eric, and good article Rabbi Salkin.

    This situation reminds me of funerals for abusive and/or cruel family members. I am very opposed to falsely “saintifying” the dead. At funerals I always tried to give family and friends permission to accept their feelings of anger and relief at his death, not shame them for not grieving. I usually made a statement about having mixed feelings about the death, that such feelings are normal and understandable in the eyes of God.

    The visible relief I could see in the family’s faces was clear. In only one instance was the reaction bizarre. The man was a violent and raging alcoholic. Yet 4 of his 13 adult children got up and spoke of how wonderful he was. They were following the prescribed script and it was very sad. There was no healing for those 4.

    So no, I don’t mourn Scalia. Neither do I gloat, despite the pain he has caused to many thousands of LBTG families, among others.