Ask the Rabbi: For the fallen

To what extent should IDF soldiers go to retrieve the bodies of killed comrades?

January 22, 2009 12:15
4 minute read.
Ask the Rabbi: For the fallen

IDF Gaza 224 88. (photo credit: AP [file])


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Q To what extent should IDF soldiers go to retrieve the bodies of killed comrades?- E. Nyer, New York A As last year's emotional burials of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev poignantly showed, the burial of killed or captured fighters arouses great national emotions. It is undoubtedly to our credit that we care so much about the loss of each soldier. Yet as the final Winograd Report noted, these tragic events demand a rational discourse on the extent we sacrifice to bring a soldier to his final resting place. The Torah deems it a positive commandment to bury someone, including his body parts, and even demands interring the bodies of convicts receiving the death penalty (Deuteronomy 23). A number of commandments to preserve the corpse's dignity stem from this passage, including the prohibitions of deriving benefit from it and delaying its burial. The law further demands that one take responsibility for a corpse which does not have a caretaker (met mitzva), even if this entails financial expenditure or a kohen defiling his purity (Yevamot 89a). A soldier killed in enemy territory would seemingly fit into this category, since this might represent the only opportunity to retrieve his body for burial. To a certain extent, medieval Jews grappled with a similar situation with regard to redeeming the corpses of Jews killed in jail or captivity. Frequently the local authorities refused to release the body until the Jewish community paid a ransom. Jewish communal leaders balanced the desire to bring their members to burial with the potentially deleterious effect of encouraging hostage taking and harsher treatment of future captives (Beit Yosef YD 341). Contemporary Israel knows this dilemma all too well. Some argue that we should release Arab prisoners to return captured corpses, while others retort that any negotiations only lead to further kidnappings and ultimately endanger ourselves by releasing terrorists. It is undoubtedly virtuous to bring our dead soldiers home for a dignified burial. Yet there might be limits to the price we pay to do noble deeds, including the commandment of burying a met mitzva. Our battlefield situation, however, seemingly adds an entirely different dimension that makes it incomparable to either medieval or contemporary deals to redeem dead captives. In the latter case, the debate revolves around the financial or political price of these exchanges. In the former, we directly endanger other soldiers by asking them to retrieve bodies under fire or in dangerous territory. While the mitzva of burial is important, it certainly does not trump preserving one's life. Of course, in battle, one does not always know if a downed soldier has been killed or merely wounded. With a bona-fide corpse, however, the commandment of preserving life (pikuah nefesh) certainly overrides the commandment of met mitzva. Indeed, after a 2004 terrorist explosion in the Philadelphi Corridor led to soldiers combing the sand to retrieve their comrades' body parts in dangerous territory, one noted contemporary authority, Rabbi Zalman N. Goldberg, asserted that one should not endanger himself to perform the commandment of met mitzva. Nonetheless, IDF ethos remains otherwise, with numerous stories of heroic attempts to retrieve bodies under fire. Moreover, at least three former heads of the Chaplaincy Corps have endangered their own lives to retrieve corpses. The most notable case was that of Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who on multiple occasions crossed enemy lines or entered minefields for this task. As Rabbi Yehuda Zoldan has noted in a penetrating essay on this topic, a biblical precedent might exist for this bravery. After the Philistines denigrated and left to rot the corpses of King Saul and his sons, the residents of Jabesh Gilead brazenly snuck into enemy territory to retrieve their bones (I Samuel 31:8-13). Of course, the denigration of a king is a unique affront to the nation that demands exceptional responses. Nonetheless, one might argue that in the modern media era, any captured corpse represents the entire country. This sensitive symbolism, however, might in turn stem from our unique, and possibly overstated, concern for burial. The most compelling and frequent argument made to defend IDF policy is that soldiers left on a battlefield, captured or otherwise, harm the morale and fighting power of other soldiers, and therefore endanger our nation. This might be particularly true if the killed soldier held important documents or weapons. Others note that burials help bring closure to the bereaved. Corpse or body part retrievals also help identify the deceased and prevent cases of agunot, alleged widows unable to remarry because of the indeterminate status of their husbands. These are serious considerations about which reasonable people can disagree. Do we risk one man's funeral for the sake of another man's burial? This question demands a level-headed dialogue, with prayers that it remains a theoretical discussion. The author, editor of, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.

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