During centuries of exile and wandering, the Jewish people have, sadly, accumulated immense experience with extortion and abductions. Wherever they went, Jews tended to excel but, unfortunately, often lacked the means to defend the fruits of their labor. Too often they became easy prey for kidnappers.

Jews’ strong emphasis on the value of life, their belief that they share a common fate and their strong feeling of mutual responsibility led them to go to extreme measures to free hostages. And this was ruthlessly exploited by their enemies.

Many of the moral deliberations surrounding the prisoner exchange deal to release Sgt. Gilad Schalit have been agonized over by Jewish sages for ages. And there are no easy answers.

The Mishna, written in the first centuries of the first millennium when many Jews lived under the Roman Empire, already prohibits redeeming captives “for more than their monetary value” to foster “society’s welfare.”

Payment of exorbitant ransoms, explains the Talmud, might bankrupt the community. Also, it notes, the knowledge that Jews are willing to pay dearly to release hostages might encourage future kidnappings.

Some contemporary rabbis have extrapolated from these rulings to support prison swaps.

Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli (1910-1995), a leading national religious Halachic authority, ruled that an unwritten agreement exists between the state of Israel and the soldier that no efforts will be spared to secure a release in the case of kidnapping.

This obviously serves to bolster the soldier’s morale and is a reassuring message for the soldier’s family and loved ones.

Sadly, the Jewish people’s trials and tribulations have not ended with the creation of the state of Israel. And while our rich tradition offers no definitive decision on the Schalit deal, it does provide unique insight into the many facets of an age-old dilemma with no easy answers.

— The Jerusalem Post, Oct. 16


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