Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, October 2, 2020 / 14 Tishrei 5781
Summary: Many people are reacting in different ways to the news that president has contracted Coronavirus. This week’s Oasis Songs asks what guidance can Judaism provide us.
Praying for the President—A Question of Schadenfreude
By now, you are aware that the president and first lady have contracted coronavirus. Among some rabbis, people were asking, should we include the president’s name on our misheberach list? Should we offer prayers of healing?
My colleagues’ concerns arose in part because of how polarizing a figure the president is, and because in our part of the Jewish world, 70-80% of Conservative Jews vote left of center. In other words, some people had concerns that is was not wise for them to include the president in our prayers for healing.
Others asked, “does your community offer prayers for all political leaders who become ill?” They wanted to ensure that their community would act in a consistent manner. Their question probably would be more germane if it was refined to ask, “do we pray when an important or major political leader is ill?” In our community’s case, the answer is yes. For months, we had included Ruth Bader Ginsburg in our prayers for healing.
While rabbis were asking the questions above, I noted other comments on social media. One common refrain was, “serves him right. He got what he deserved after months of playing down the pandemic.” Many comments were far more vitriolic, and it was clear that there are a lot of people who are positively gleeful that President Trump has contracted COVID-19. One of the more famous German words describe this impulse. Schadenfreude—taking pleasure in another’s suffering.
Given these sorts of responses, it will be useful to ask some questions from a Jewish perspective.
- Are Jews permitted to revel in feelings of schadenfreude?
- May Jews pray for others’ downfall?
- What might be the repercussions of taking pleasure in another’s suffering or praying for their downfall?
Are Jews permitted to revel in feelings of schadenfreude?
There are few characters in Biblical literature whose personalities are rendered as fully as King David. We know so much about him, that it becomes difficult to decide if he is a protagonist or antagonist of Jewish history. Partly that difficulty is because his portrayal is so human, so real.
In Psalm 109, David is speaking with God and says: “They curse me, but You bless me. When my enemies are disgraced, I, Your servant, shall be glad.”
David is, at the very least, imagining the feelings of schadenfreude he hopes to enjoy at some future time.
But that seems to be more descriptive than prescriptive, meaning it tells us what he feels, but not whether he is permitted to strengthen those thoughts and emotions.
A more prescriptive viewpoint can be found in Mishlei, in the book of Proverbs. In chapter 24, we learn: “When your enemies fall, do not rejoice, lest the LORD see it, and repent of wrath against them.”
Proverbs is a book of what is known as wisdom literature, and instructs us on how to behave. It urges us that even if the all-too-human feelings of schadenfreude arise in us, we should note them, not celebrate them. In fact, once we detect such bitter feelings, we should allow ourselves to regret them. Moreover, as in our third question above, there’s a risk that schadenfreude can backfire. In this case, the author of Proverbs worries that God may reverse the fortunes of our enemy precisely because we gave in to gloating.
A few chapters later, Proverbs pushes this concept further. In chapter 29, we learn that “fools vent all their rage; the wise contain it.”
May Jews pray for others’ downfall??
There’s a famous Talmudic story (Berakhot 10a) about Rabbi Meir and his consistently wise wife Beruriah. Basically, they lived in a neighborhood with some unsavory delinquents who enjoyed taunting and bullying Rabbi Meir. It got to the point that, “once, Rabbi Meir prayed so that they would die. His wife Beruriah turned to him, “What makes you think that such a prayer is permitted? Is it because in Psalm 104 it states, ‘Let sinners [chataim] cease from the earth’? But is it written ‘chotim‘—sinners? Rather it is written ‘chataim‘—that which causes one to sin, namely the evil inclination. Furthermore, the end of the verse continues, ‘…and let the wicked be no more.’ Since the sins will cease, there will be no more wicked people. “Rather,” she concluded, “pray for them that they should repent, and there will be no more wicked people.” In the end, he did pray for them, and they repented.
Rabbi Meir must have been an exceptional individual for his prayers to be so effective. Not so for most of us. The moral of this story, however, gets embedded into the weekday Amidah. One of the 19 blessings of the Amidah (v’lamalshinim) asks God to “frustrate the hopes of all those who malign us; let all evil very soon disappear. Let all your enemies soon be destroyed…”
This prayer captures a deep tension. On the one hand, it asks for evil to disappear, not the wrong doer. On the other hand, the prayer does ask for God to uproot and crush the arrogant. Regardless, the religious perspective here recognizes that humans should delegate such decisions to God, who presumably can judge more accurately than we can the full context of another human and the conditions that made them that way.
What might be the repercussions of taking pleasure in another’s suffering or praying for their downfall?
There are some good reasons to delegate such fraught decisions to God. In Pirkei Avot 4:19, we encounter a teaching by Shmuel Hakatan: “When your enemy falls, don’t rejoice; when they stumble, don’t let your heart be glad. Perhaps God will notice, and find your behavior displeasing, and turn Divine wrath from your enemy and on to you.”
Shmuel Hakatan seems to be worried about bad karma. If we take too much joy in another’s suffering, perhaps the universe will be sure to provide payback.
I don’t think any of us can say with certainty if midah k’neged midah (the Jewish phrase for karma) is hard-wired into the universe. What does some clear is that the stance we take toward others tends to operate psychologically within us. There’s a well known phrase that reminds us how “resentment is like swallowing poison and hoping the other person will die.” When we harbor grudges against people (and who hasn’t at one point or another), there’s normally a price to be paid.
Throughout history, Jews have prayed for the government where they lived and for its leaders. One example of this prayer was on behalf of the Czar of Russia, not exactly a country that had a history of caring for or protecting its Jewish citizens.
We pray for the health of a leader because it’s the human thing to do.
We pray in the hope that their illness and recovery will make them a better leader.
We pray, like Rabbi Meir does, that people change their ways.
We pray for people, not against them, because we don’t want to give in to the cheap feeling of schadenfreude, even as we recognize it as a natural human emotion.
We pray for others because we are rachamim b’nei rachamim, we are a community that has practiced the art of compassion from one generation to the next.
May our species soon have a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19. Too many people are suffering physically, emotionally and financially.
Shabbat Table Talk
- What is your earliest memory of feeling schadenfreude? Can you describe what was happening?
- Judaism doesn’t believe in “turning the other cheek.” We are encouraged to resist evil, and to upbraid others so that we won’t harbor grudges. Simultaneously, it wants us to limit the stories, self-talk and vitriolic thoughts we engage in. Discuss this interesting balance.
If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.