The Morality of Redeeming Captives: Gilad Shalit and the Talmud

he law, as articulated in rabbinic Judaism's founding document, is unambivalent: one does not negotiate with kidnappers. But the sage discussion doesn't stop with a simple rule.
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On Oct. 11, Israel's government made international headlines when it agreed to release more than 1,000 violent prisoners to obtain the release of Sergeant Gilad Shalit, who had been kidnapped and held hostage by Hamas for more than 5 years (without any of the rights granted under the Geneva Convention for a captured soldier). His release was a cause for relief and joy throughout Israel, Jewish communities around the world, and for those moved by the humanitarian concerns of his family and friends.

But simple joy at a young soldier's release is not the only emotion friends of democracy in the Middle East feel today. Along with pent-up relief comes a sense of foreboding -- that such a disproportionate exchange may be seen as a reward to Hamas violence, encouraging the terrorists within Hamas to yet another spasm of kidnapping and murder. Indeed, the Hamas leadership wasted no time in noting that the exchange was a victory for violent obstruction, the head of the military wing of Hamas, Ahmed Jabari, promised more kidnappings, and crowds in Gaza chanted, "The people want a new Gilad!" encouraging Hamas to seize more Israeli soldiers.

In the American press -- general and Jewish -- journalists have noted that the noble impulse to redeem Gilad Shalit was in part an expression of the ancient Jewish virtue of pidyon shivuyim, redeeming the captive. This mitzvah is regarded as among the greatest of the commandments, whose timely implementation remains a supreme religious obligation. With an abundant display of pithy quotations, scholars, rabbis and bloggers have rushed to treat this redemption as the simple fulfillment of an unambiguous religious imperative.

Beware those who assume that religion can obviate reason and make obvious the complicated. There are good reasons why statescraft requires training, courage and extensive input from diverse areas of expertise. Knowledge of religious traditions or spiritual wisdom has a valuable role to play in reminding participants of the ethical concerns and parameters for such interactions. But religion cannot erase real complexity, nor substitute for reasoned, nuanced, informed reflection.

So, let's rejoice that Gilad is home with his family. That is a real human triumph and one that all decent people should celebrate.

But there is good reason to fear that the extravagant numbers of bloodstained hands released to gain his freedom will encourage yet more rounds of attack and slaughter against innocent Israeli civilians.

Without treading where statesmen and security experts ought properly to decide, this rabbi wants to speak out in favor of recognizing life's irreducible intricacy and to the proper role of religion to help us live with that complexity. I turn to a multilayered Torah to navigate situations that won't distill to simple, self-evident (and false) policy decisions.

Take this redeeming captives, for instance. The Mishnah (ancient anthology of rabbinic sayings, laws and interpretations, around the year 250 C.E.) legislates that captives should not be redeemed for more than their value, to prevent abuses. Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel says, "to prevent the abuse of other captives."

The law, as articulated in rabbinic Judaism's founding document, is unambivalent: one does not negotiate with kidnappers. Paying more than the market value for redeeming human captives is forbidden because it leads to even greater abuse.

But the sage discussion doesn't stop with a simple rule. The Gemara (later rabbinic comments on the Mishnah) seeks the reason for the prohibition: The question was raised: Does this prevention of abuses relate to the burden which may be imposed on the community, or does it relate to the possibility that kidnappers may be motivated to act in the future?

What, in other words, is the abuse that we seek to contain? Are we concerned that paying extravagantly to redeem captives will impoverish and bankrupt entire communities? Or is our concern that pirates and terrorists will be encouraged to kidnap even larger numbers of innocent people because of the remuneration?

Come and hear: Levi ben Darga ransomed his daughter for 13,000 gold dinarii. Said Abbaye: Are you sure he acted with the consent of the Sages? Perhaps he acted against the will of the sages!

The conclusion of the talmudic tale (Gittin 45a) is where my interest lies. We know the rule: no extravagant payments to redeem captives, perhaps because it simply costs too much, perhaps because it will encourage more kidnapping. But the rule and its reasons can't be the whole story. The Talmud still needs to tell us of a father who broke the rule and spent a fortune to redeem his daughter. Perhaps there is more to consider than just the principle.

Yet even that complication isn't enough: We don't even know if Levi ben Darga broke the rule with the consent of the authorities or despite their prohibition. The Talmud doesn't resolve our uncertainty. Sometimes a father's heart can't be constrained by a law. Sometimes a people must extend themselves despite established policy.

In the end, the Talmud gives us a rule and its violation. Society requires principles, and sometimes the heart requires us to go beyond established guidelines. The wisdom of the tradition doesn't specify whether or not Gilad should be redeemed at a particular price, but it does indicate that caring human beings have wrestled with this dilemma for millennia, and that the complexities of human life reverberate through the ages.

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