When a friend told me that Charles Manson had died in prison at age 83, my immediate response was: “Good.”
Was that wrong?
For those of you who have not been paying attention, and/or are too young to remember, Charles Manson was the infamous leader of a murderous California cult that went on a killing spree in August 1969. Among their victims was the actress Sharon Tate, who had been married to director Roman Polanski.
The murders were particularly macabre. The killers painted the word “pig” on the front door of the house. Manson, who admired Hitler and the Nazis, had hoped that blacks would be blamed for the murders, thus triggering a race war.
Manson had a Svengali effect on the young women who worked for him, and who were sexually available to him. He had told them that he was the reincarnation of Jesus, that they were the incarnations of the early Christians, and that American authorities were the Romans — and, therefore, should be killed.
In that sense, Charles Manson was a false messiah. Jews have had plenty of experience with false messiahs. Several of them, such as Shabbetai Zevi and Jacob Frank, were known not only for their charisma but also for their sexual depravity.
If there had been T-shirts bearing their images, Manson would have worn them willingly.
Let’s think about Charles Manson and the 1960s counterculture, upon which Manson left a bloody fingerprint.
The Manson murders occurred in August 1969 — a few weeks before the Woodstock festival.
Woodstock and Manson represented the twin sides of the 1960s — a hopeful, idyllic vision of a new Eden, as well as its nihilistic, destructive potential.
Bizarrely, one rock star admired him enough to adopt his name, i.e., Marilyn Manson.
As Paul Berman wrote in Tablet:
“The really frightening thing about Charles Manson was not so much his own murderousness (except from the standpoint of the people being murdered, of course), nor his hold over his insane family, the cult murderers, but his acceptability and even his appeal to other people, the sane and high-minded and groovy bystanders…since Manson’s enemies were the established world, and the established world was loathsome, why shouldn’t Manson be accepted as one more voice in the chorus of rebellion?”
The late Leonard Cohen got it right — when he invoked Manson as a metaphor for the American apocalypse:
You’ll see a woman
hanging upside down
her features covered by her fallen gown
and all the lousy little poets
tryin’ to sound like Charlie Manson… (“The Future”)
Back to my one-word reaction to Manson’s death.
Was that a “nice” thing to say about the dead?
In fact, it wasn’t.
And for good reason.
Judaism does not always require that we be nice.
It does require that we be good, and that we strive for justice, and that we make clear ethical claims.
In a world in which we frequently eschew such terms as “evil,” the life of Charles Manson bore grisly witness to the fact that, yes, there really is evil in the world.
As Rabbi Meir Soloveichik wrote in his essay, “The Virtue of Hate”:
“While Moses commanded us ‘not to hate our brother in our
hearts,’ a man’s immoral actions can serve to sever the bonds of brotherhood between himself and humanity. Regarding a rasha, a Hebrew term for the hopelessly wicked, the Talmud clearly states: one is obligated to hate him.”
So, yes — it is quite acceptable to (even quietly) cheer Manson’s death.
Finally, the title of this piece. Do Jews believe in hell?
As a matter of fact, yes. As I wrote recently, Judaism certainly believes in an afterlife.
When we speak of it, which is rarely, we frame it as olam ha-ba, the World to Come, a place of eternal reward.
But, along with the olam ha-ba, Judaism also believes in gehenna — the closest that Judaism gets to the idea of hell. The word gehenna comes from the Hebrew “gei hinnom,” or “gei ben hinnom,” the valley of Hinnom. It is the valley that separates the new city of Jerusalem from the walled old city. It is the place where ancient idolaters would sacrifice their children to the Canaanite god, Molech.
That sounds like hell on Earth to me.
But, gehenna is really not hell. Conceptually, it is much closer to what Christians would call purgatory, a place of atonement for sin, and from which, presumably, you would finally gain entrance into the (far nicer) olam ha-ba.
You might be agnostic (in the true sense of the word) about the notion of an afterlife. You might be skeptical about the idea of divine reward, and divine punishment.
You would be in good company.
But, if there is a world after this one, I refuse to believe that Charles Manson will be hanging out in the same neighborhood of eternity as, say, Mother Teresa.
The world isn’t fair.
But God’s justice stretches far, far beyond what our mortal eyes can see.
The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.