Releasing Taliban prisoners: Kindness or weakness

Excessive kindness is a weakness that ultimately leads to cruelty.

US President Barack Obama with Bob, Jami Bergdahl (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST)
US President Barack Obama with Bob, Jami Bergdahl
(photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST)
The recent decision by the US Government to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from captivity in return for five-hardened Taliban terrorists has sparked debate. Those in support hail President Obama as a decisive leader, who made the courageous choice to save a life. Those who oppose it argue that negotiating with terrorists incentivizes them to kidnap more soldiers.
The United States has long held a policy of no negotiation with terrorists, but this doesn’t mean they can’t bend the rules now and then. The State of Israel also maintains a ‘no negotiation’ policy with terrorists, but at times, has negotiated. It has, on occasion, released hundreds of terrorists for a single prisoner. The question is this: is such negotiation a sign of kindness or weakness?
Jewish law has precedent on this subject. The mitzva to release the captive is the highest form of charity. On the other hand, paying above market price prices for a captive is forbidden even if the captive will remain in captivity precisely because it incentivizes further kidnapping. This issue is further exacerbated when you consider that there is little to no assurance that the released terrorists won’t return to their occupation of choice - threatening further lives.
This position seems cruel. The captives and their loved ones wait with baited breath for their release and here we deny them what little hope they have. On the other hand, what of the others who might be endangered by such a release? The real question is this: Are such deals acts of kindness or cruelty? In fact, can kindness ever cross the line into cruelty?
Korach was a Levite, who led a rebellion against Moses. To his view, Moses had established an autocratic system of governance with privileged leaders at the top and underprivileged masses at the bottom. Korach argued that every Jew can be a leader. Moses was not better than others, he was simply born in the right place at the right time. Given the chance, any Jew could lead as well as Moses.
He suggested that Jews do away with a caste system that places a small minority of Kohanim (priests) in the elite, a slightly larger minority as Levites and the wide masses, simple Israelites, at the bottom. Korach suggested that everyone should be a Kohen and the High Priesthood be shared equally by all.
Korach’s rebellion ended in disaster, when he and his supporters were swallowed alive in an earthquake. But considering the goals of his rebellion we see a link to our discussion on kindness.
In the ancient Temple, the Kohen was at your service, if you wanted to bring an offering on the altar, the Kohen would facilitate it for you. This entailed a great deal of work, but the Kohen performed his duties with alacrity because he was a loving person. By contrast, the Levite’s primary task was to guard the Temple’s entrances to bar access to the Israelite.
The Kohen took you in and facilitated your atonement. The Levite kept you at bay to ensure you wouldn’t stray beyond your bounds. The Kohen was focused on providing a welcoming and uplifting experience, the Levite was focused on ensuring that you don’t venture where you may not go.
In other words, the Kohen was kind and the Levite was strict. Jewish mystics postulated that the kohen’s soul is rooted in the Divine attributes of kindness and the Levite’s soul is rooted in the Divine attributes of strength and severity. It turns out that Korach was the ultimate liberal. He wanted everyone to be a Kohen – he wanted to embrace and welcome everyone. He would have voted for social programs and welfare. He never would have sanctioned disciplinary measures. So far as he was considered, love was the answer to all the world’s ills. Yet Korach’s bid ended in disaster because love, in the real world, must be tempered and balanced by strength.
Suppose you raise your children on a diet of pure love and grant them their every wish. They would love you as children, but resent you as adults for failing to prepare them for the real world. This isn’t a kindness, it’s a perversion that amounts to cruelty and ends in disaster. A friend once put it in this way. A father that relents and grants his child’s every whim is thinking of himself, not the child. He gives them what they want because it is more expedient and it feels better to grant them their wishes than to engage in protracted and unpleasant chats on discipline. Ultimately, if the father were concerned for the child’s welfare, he would pull back and give less now, so the kids would gain more later.
I remember my second grade teacher telling us that if he punished us in our youth we would be grateful to him as adults, but if he relented in our youth and failed to discipline us, we would blame him as adults for our social and moral ills.
Excessive kindness is a weakness that ultimately leads to cruelty. Temporary discipline builds character that stand our children in good stead in the long run.
This is why G-d struck what he termed a “covenant of salt” with Aaron, the High Priest, immediately after Korach’s rebellion. Salt has a chemical composition that readily absorbs heat. Not only does it absorb heat, it raises its host’s heat absorption capacity. This is why saltwater is slightly warmer than freshwater. In a roundabout way, this is also why salt melts ice back into water.
Water is cool and flowing and represents kindness. Kind people rarely grow angry and their generosity is always flowing. Heat represents severity. Strict people are usually uptight and grow easily hot under the collar. Salt, representative of stricture, merges with water, representative of kindness, exerting a warming influence on the water.
G-d’s covenant with Aaron was presented as a covenant of salt to convey the message that Korach’s idea, while ideal in theory, is unrealistic in the real world. It is a form of kindness that masks cruelty. You cannot be excessively kind where it is inappropriate – that leads to unmitigated disaster. It did in Korach’s day, it does in every family household and it does in the modern world.
Kindness must be tempered and balanced with stricture so that it isn’t seen as a weakness to be exploited. When we show kindness to one who manipulates it, we do that person no favors. We merely give them rope to hang themselves. We reinforce their anger and dissatisfaction with life by teaching them unrealistic expectations of instant gratification. In the real world, this doesn’t work.
I don’t know if releasing prisoners is too high a price to pay or if it incentivizes further kidnapping, this has to be judged carefully by qualified experts on a case by case basis. But I do know this: Before negotiating with terrorists, we must consider it carefully. What is kind to one, can be cruel to countless others. What appears like kindness isn’t always kind. Sometimes it is weak and sometimes even cruel.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a respected writer, scholar and speaker, is the spiritual leader of Beth Tefilah congregation in London, Ontario. He is the author of Reaching for God: A Jewish Book on Self Help, and his new book, Mission Possible: Living With Higher Purpose will be released this spring and can be pre-ordered by emailing