This article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the website, The Jewish Thinker, on 10 March, 2012.
The release of Gilad Schalit was an old-new problem for Jewish ethics. Old, because pidyon shevuyyim – the redemption of captives – was on the Jewish agenda many times in history. New, because there were unique features in the modern incarnation of the problem, not fully covered by previous debate.
This article looks at the background ethical arguments, pinpoints some of the modern issues, and asks whether we have learnt anything from the Schalit prisoner exchange.
The array of charity boxes in many historic synagogues included one
for pidyon shevuyyim, which indicated that in the past the captors’ demands were generally for money. If a Jew was taken captive, the question was whether the Jewish community could afford to pay the often exorbitant ransom and whether success in raising money from the Jews would embolden gentiles to take further Jewish captives.
From Abraham’s time onwards (Gen. 14) it was taken for granted that a Jew had to be saved from his captors. The Talmud regards captivity as a fate worse than death, calls pidyon shevuyyim a great mitzvah, and says that money allocated for charity or for building a synagogue may be used to ransom a captive (BB 8a/b).
Maimonides (Hil’chot Mat’not Aniyyim 8:10-12) rules that failing to
redeem a captive transgresses three commandments – “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour” (Lev. 19:16), and “Do not harden your heart against your brother” (Deut. 15:7). According to the Shulchan Aruch, a person who does not redeem a captive is as if he murdered him (Yoreh De’ah 252:3).
It all depends, however, on whether redeeming the captive costs more
than his value – Ein podin et hashevuyyim yoter al kedei demeihen (Gittin 4:6). This rule in the Mishnah is explained as being mip’nei tikkun olam – “for the general good”. What yoter al kedei demeihen – “more than their value” – means is a matter of Talmudic debate (Gittin 45a).
Does it mean not burdening the community with an excessive financial burden? In that case a generous individual might be prepared to pay the ransom and save the community from such a vast expense.
Does it mean that paying the ransom will encourage the kidnapping of further Jews? In that case the generous individual might be inviting the taking of further captives. These views are spelled out by Rashi
The way in which the taking and ransoming of captives impacted on Jewish life in the Middle Ages is described in detail in the Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 5, cols. 154-5. In the halachic (Jewish legal) literature the many reported cases show how anxious the communities were to ransom prisoners even if it meant not sticking to the strict rule of the Mishnah.
Indeed in the Talmudic discussion in Gittin 45a we hear that when Levi bar Darga ransomed his daughter for an excessive amount, “he did not act according to the will of the Sages”.
From the Tosafot commentary we derive a series of exceptions to the Mishnah that seem to have a direct bearing on the Schalit case:
• In a situation of sakkanat nefashot (mortal danger) it is permitted to pay an excessive ransom.
• If the captive is a special individual, particularly a talmid chacham (sage), we may pay an excessive amount.
• If Jews are already targets for kidnapping, paying a high ransom for one Jew will neither encourage nor discourage further kidnapping.
However, these cases involve a monetary ransom, whilst the current
dilemma bears a difference kind of price tag – the exchange of
one or more Israeli soldiers for a (usually) large number of Arab prisoners.
The latter are in prison because of terrorist activities, and there is a fear that if released they will resume anti-Israeli and/or anti-Jewish terrorism.
Now that the Schalit prisoner exchange is several months behind us we can judge whether this is a real fear, and the indications are that it is. The fact some former prisoners have been re-arrested illustrates the danger to the public if prisoners are released.
A major halachic/ethical issue is whether redeeming an Israeli soldier (or a small group of them) endangers the whole community, implying that the community’s welfare is more important than that of the individual/s.
Some rabbinical writing on the subject (e.g. the responsa of Rabbi Shlomo Goren) opposes prisoner exchanges for this reason.
Rabbi Chayyim David Halevi accepts Rabbi Goren’s halachic analysis but considers that Arab terrorism and kidnapping are a fact of life and the danger will continue whether or not prisoner exchanges take place, and if an Israeli soldier sees that the State will not rescue him he will rather retreat than be captured and the overall morale of the Israel Defence Force will suffer.
In relation to the individual-as-against-the-community issue one might argue that Gilad Schalit and (God forbid) others like him do not have the status of mere individuals but actually are the community in microcosm. A Schalit is symbolic of the community. If one asks whether the community is in danger because a soldier is redeemed, albeit for a very high price, one could argue that not redeeming him already endangers the community.