The Murder of Nick Berg by Rabbi Boruch Leff

Trying to make sense of the savagery:

Are there any words to describe the diabolical evil of Islamic terrorists beheading Nick Berg?

Can one possibly fathom the savage barbarism of slaughtering a human being at the neck like an animal?

Can one comprehend humans acting like monstrous beasts, holding the severed head aloft as if it were a trophy?

Or the way they proudly posted the videotape online for the entire world to see?

And even more, all the while claiming to act in the name of God.

Here is the first lesson of the murder of Nick Berg: Left to their own devices, people can come to justify anything. As the late Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg said:

“Relative ethics are meaningless. They create an opportunity in which one does what he feels like doing, and then creates the justification for it… Hitler demonstrated that there is no action which a human being cannot justify, to himself and even to others.”

For those accustomed to a philosophy of “who is one person to say what’s right for another?” the Islamic terrorists have a good argument. “We believe that God wants us to behead Americans on videotape. If you believe otherwise, it’s one person’s word against another.”

But Judaism subscribes to the principle of absolute truth. And the Torah, for the person committed to thoughtful study, teaches the guidelines of true good and evil.

Islamic terror, despite the supposed “invocation of God,” is pure evil.


The second lesson is that even when we must kill evil criminals or terrorists in order to bring greater good and peace to the world, we never do it with the total disregard for human dignity and life shown by the murderers of Nick Berg.

In confronting evil, Jewish thought distinguishes between hating the perpetrators, and hating the evils committed. Do we hate the person, or the action? If we hate the person, then our response will be based primarily on personal revenge, whereas if we detest only the evil action, we will react with a strong desire to root out only the evil deeds.

There is a world of difference between those who kill out of hatred, and those who kill out of necessity. Rabbi Chaim Brisker explained that these two types can be compared to a housewife and a cat. The housewife and the cat both want to rid the house of mice. But there is one crucial difference: the cat is happy to have a mouse to pursue and kill, whereas the housewife would prefer not to have any problem in the first place.

There may not be a physical or active difference between these two approaches on the ground. In both cases, great battles will need to be waged to fight the evil and sometimes wars and killings will be involved. But this differentiation of intent when fighting evil is immense.

We must feel pained and distressed in our rooting out of evil and our punishing of perpetrators. We must not let our personal feelings of anger and fury dominate us. This is what is meant by:

“When your enemy falls, do not rejoice; and when he stumbles, let your heart not be glad.” (Proverbs 24:17; Avot 4:24)

If we don’t accomplish this, we risk killing and punishing for all the wrong reasons. We risk losing control of ourselves and fighting in ways that are completely personal, and not for the side of good at all. We risk slipping from good to evil.

One of the tremendous lessons from America’s war on terror is how deeply humane we are. Far from the incitement, demonization, hatred, and glorification of the killings of innocent civilians that plagues many Islamic societies, American policy is not to take pride or satisfaction in fighting or killing its enemies.

And when some American soldiers do abuse and terribly mistreat their enemies, as has recently been discovered in Iraq, America bends over backwards to punish the perpetrators, in addition to apologizing and stating clearly that these soldiers’ immoral behavior is an unacceptable and severe aberration.

America’s wars and violent struggles are always fought with goals of preventing future terror attacks and saving lives. This is in stark contrast with the culture of Islamic terror that targets civilians and glorifies their dastardly killings.


We dare not forget the savagery of the enemy that is threatening the entire free world. These past two weeks have been an especially difficult time for the Jewish people. First there was the vicious murder of a pregnant mother and her four daughters in Gaza, as Palestinians emptied their guns point blank into each of them, including the 2-year-old still strapped to her car seat, and then added a bullet into the mother’s belly, murdering her 8-month fetus as well.

Then, Israeli soldiers out to destroy a weapons factory were killed when their vehicle was bombed in Gaza; Arabs then snatched body parts, parading the human remains through the streets of Gaza City, in front of reporters, and in a video of a soldier’s head that was broadcast throughout the Arab world. Then, only two days later, the story was repeated as another Israeli vehicle was blown up in Gaza, killing five more Israeli soldiers. Then on Friday, two more soldiers were killed by Arab sniper fire.

Something that was lost from the major headlines was that Nick Berg was Jewish. We do not know whether the murderers were aware of this since, unlike the murder of Daniel Pearl in 2001, the terrorists in the video did not make Berg mention that he was a Jew. Yet Berg did have an Israeli stamp in his passport, and has a Jewish-sounding last name.

And then, buried amidst the thousands of news articles was this:

“Berg’s father said his son was Jewish and had a fringed religious cloth with him.”

Of course, we know that the ‘fringed religious cloth’ was tzitzit. The wearing of tzitzit is a positive commandment in the Torah.

Apparently, Nick Berg was not only Jewish by birth but was moving closer to Jewish observance. Friends said he undertaken “intense study of the Bible.” He most likely did not wear the tzitzit in public, which could be quite dangerous in an Arab country, but he must have worn them many times while he was in Iraq. Nick Berg may have been alone in a strange land, but he carried his Jewish identity with him.

We mourn the tragic loss, and pray that evil be eradicated from our midst.

The Murder of Nick Berg

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