What would the sages say about the agreement?

Cabinet members could have tapped into a rich Jewish tradition when they sat down Sunday.

cabinet in TA 298 (photo credit: GPO)
cabinet in TA 298
(photo credit: GPO)
Cabinet members could have tapped into a rich Jewish tradition when they sat down Sunday to deliberate whether or not to swap Palestinian terrorists for captive IDF soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. Throughout nearly 2,000 years of exile the Jewish people's high regard for life has been repeatedly exploited by ransom-seekers. As a result, the Jews have developed an extensive rabbinic literature dealing with the redeeming of hostages. Over the centuries, prominent (and not so prominent) Jews have been kidnapped, imprisoned and ransomed by criminals armed with the knowledge that Jewish sensibilities would not permit a Jewish hostage to remain in captivity. There were times in history when kidnappings were so common that extreme measures had to be taken. An example was the case of Rabbi Meir of Rotenberg (1215-1293). Rabbi Meir, a major rabbinic figure, was taken hostage by a German vassal named Rudolph who demanded an exorbitant ransom. The imprisoned rabbi, in an act astounding in its selflessness, issued a ruling from his cell ordering his students and followers not to pay. True normative Jewish law obligated the Jewish community to free a major rabbinic figure like Rabbi Meir at any cost. But the rabbi knew that if the ransom were paid this time, there would be no end to extortion attempts against the Jewish community. Rabbi Meir died in captivity seven years after he was kidnapped. He was buried on the prison grounds. Unfortunate stories like these offer modern rabbis precedents that can aid them in deciding present-day challenges. However, Rabbi Meir's plight is only partially instructive for the decision makers of Israel in the 21st century. We might be able to learn from Rabbi Meir how to avoid the exploitation of the Jews' emotional attachment to life. But there are some things that we cannot learn from Rabbi Meir's story. We cannot learn from Rabbi Meir or any other Jewish source that it is permissible to endanger Jewish lives to retrieve the body of a Jew. Only for the sake of saving a life is a Jew obligated to go to extreme lengths. Assuming Regev and Goldwasser are dead, there would be no Jewish legal precedent for freeing terrorists in exchange for their bodies. Nevertheless, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ordered Shas's ministers to vote in favor of the deal. Yosef, who served at the time as Chief Sephardi Rabbi, ruled during the 1976 Entebbe hostage crisis that Jewish law permitted the release of Palestinian terrorists, including those guilty of murder, to secure the release of the kidnapped Israelis and Jews. A successful IDF commando operation ended up preempting the hostage swap. David Yosef, the Shas mentor's son, said that his father also supported the May 1985 Jibril deal in which Israel released 1,150 Palestinian terrorists, including Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, in exchange for three Israeli POWs. Critics of the deal said it sparked the first Intifada, which began two years later, and encouraged Palestinians to perpetrate additional kidnappings. But Yosef argued that the immediate danger to the Jewish hostages overruled the potential danger of future terrorist attacks. But never before has Yosef condoned freeing terrorists for bodies. Perhaps Yosef's decision was based on the fact that the Jewish people of Israel are living a radically different political reality from their forefathers, who lived in exile. With the creation of a state, the Jews of Israel were faced with a whole new set of considerations unknown to an exiled people. Not since the defeat of Bar Kochba and his Jewish warriors at the hands of the Romans in the beginning of the second century CE has the People of the Book been forced to cope with issues that are pertinent to a sovereign people with its own military forces and geopolitical considerations. For instance, how does implementation of a hostage exchange or refraining from implementing one, even if all we get in exchange are bodies, affect soldiers' morale? Perhaps soldiers will be less likely to endanger themselves if not everything possible is done to redeem them from captivity? But Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who served as chief IDF rabbi for two decades, ruled that it was permissible to desecrate Shabbat not just to save live soldiers, but also to retrieve a dead soldier's body. In a conversation with Rabbi Ya'acov Ariel after the Yom Kippur War, Goren said that it was even permissible to endanger lives to retrieve soldiers' bodies. That's because our enemies use soldiers' bodies as bargaining chips to free terrorists. There might be other differences between the state of Israel and Diaspora life. Perhaps the state has a special responsibility to its citizens which is more encompassing than a loosely organized, rootless community in the Diaspora? Rabbi Shaul Israeli, who headed the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, thought so. He ruled that the relationship between the state and IDF soldiers was like the relationship between a husband and wife. In Jewish law the husband can pay any sum of money to free his wife. No one can restrict him, even if a danger exists that enemies will exploit this.