Judaism is comprised of a complete and specific system of practical Torah, and through the Talmudic process, sweeping Divine principles are translated into practical application. One must descend from the clouds of theological inspiration, roll up one's sleeves and tediously weigh the bits and pieces until one has ascertained that he is meticulously fulfilling God's will in the most practical of circumstances.
Let us take a most relevant of cases: the three abducted Israeli soldiers and the demands of their kidnappers for the freeing of thousands of terrorists in order to release them.
Before we proceed further, a few caveats. The author of this article is no way a competent enough authority to rule on so weighty an issue; the length of this article is barely enough to scratch the surface. The real circumstances are known only to the government authorities.
But still this case will provide a fascinating insight into the some of the complexities in Jewish law that a rabbi must consider, and how misleading it is to translate a position into a simple, popular slogan.
The following would be a Talmudic thought process:
1. "Freeing captives is the greatest form of charity and it supersedes all other causes" (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 252, 1). "Anyone delaying this mitzvah is considered as guilty of blood-spilling" (ibid.).
This would seem to urge us to do whatever it takes in order to free a prisoner.
2. The Talmudic sages, however, seeing a terrible consequence of this great mitzvah, enacted the following decree:
"One does not free captives for more than their value (i.e. one would evaluate them as indentured servant -- their potential earning power."
The reason was twofold: (a) Captors demanded ransom that would devastate the community, causing widespread suffering, and (b) great ransom whetted the appetite of kidnappers and encouraged more and more kidnappings.
This would seem to imply that if the demands are outrageous, then one ought not to exchange them.
3. What if the captivity will conclude in the killing of the captive -- do we still refrain from ransoming him at an exorbitant price?
Torah authorities have debated this point and many are of the opinion that if the captive's life is in danger, then the above injunction does not apply.
It would seem that we ought to do whatever it takes to free them, for there is definitely an almost certainty of their being killed.
4. The above principles make sense when we are giving up money in order to save a life; but in the case Israel is presently grappling with, we are giving up murderers who potentially endanger other people's lives. Looking at the whole picture, can it be stated that we are in effect saving lives by agreeing to terrorist demands?
5. Yet another point must be considered. Is the killing of the captives, God forbid, a certainty if they are not released? And is the damage done by the release of terrorists to be viewed as a likelihood, not a certainty?
6. One more issue. This injunction applies to the community as a whole. What about the individual himself? If he can negotiate his own release, may he do so at an exorbitant price? What about his immediate family?
The list of issues and sources go on further and further.
Some of these issues had an extraordinary public application about 700 years ago. The leader of Ashkenazic Jewry at the time was Rabbi Meir ben Boruch of Rottenberg. He was imprisoned by a German ruler, Rudolph, whose voracity knew no bounds. Rabbi Meir (known as Maharam Mi'Rottenberg) was imprisoned until his death, and his body was not released. The community did not ransom him, as he himself had ruled. Seven years after his death, a private member of the community paid almost all of his own money to release the body, with the stipulation that he be buried next to him.
It is important to bear in mind when we see the devastated parents of the captives on one hand, and the look on the face of those who lost kin at the hands of terrorists on the other hand, that decisions about life and death should never ever be decided by raw emotions. Torah values, principles and laws must be weighed by the responsible minds of Torah authorities, and only then can we feel that we have done that which is right, price notwithstanding.
Please pray for three kidnapped soldiers: Gilad ben Aviva, Ehud Ben Malka, Eldad Ben Tova