September 18, 2019

Obligation to redeem captive trumps heavy price paid

The announcement last week of the release of Gilad Shalit after being held in captivity by Hamas for more than five years was met here in Israel with mixed feelings: On the one hand, tremendous joy. And on the other hand, grave doubts about the price paid and fears about the ramifications of this deal.

In a column I wrote previously in The Journal (“Free the Hostage, But at What Price?” July 1), I tried to find some guidance by borrowing a page from Jewish history. I wrote that in Judaism, redeeming the captive is very important: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother” (Leviticus 19:16). However, this cannot be done at all costs. One of the old Jewish sages clearly cautioned against it. Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, better known as the Maharam of Rotenburg, was one of the leading rabbis of Germany in the 13th century, when King Rudolph started persecuting the Jews.

The king arrested the Maharam, hoping to get a huge ransom for him — 23,000 marks silver. Indeed, the Jews started to collect money for that purpose, and leading rabbinical leaders like Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel managed to raise the funds. Yet the Maharam, from his cell in a fortress near Ensisheim in Alsace, issued a directive strictly prohibiting such a move, by citing the Jewish religious law: “It is forbidden to redeem captives for more than their worth.” He pointed out that setting a precedent in his case would endanger all Torah sages, who would become instruments of kidnapping and extortion.

The Maharam died in prison after seven years. He became a symbol of resilience and for generations was cited as the ultimate source on how to stand against extortion. However, few people care to read on in the history books. Fourteen years after his death, a ransom was paid for his body by Alexander ben Salomon Wimpfen, a rich Jewish merchant, who was subsequently laid to rest beside the Maharam at the Jewish graveyard in Worms.

The question, then, is: If a ransom was eventually paid for the Maharam’s body, wouldn’t it have been wiser to pay that money for the living sage? For, in the end, isn’t the rescue of a single human life equivalent to saving an entire world (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)?

A few years ago, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of the greatest poskim (authorities in the halachah) today, was asked to comment on the Maharam’s precedent, in light of a possible freeing of convicted Palestinian terrorists in exchange for Shalit. Rabbi Yosef said he believed that the Maharam’s argument was wrong. The dictum of the Torah, he said (“You shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother”), is stronger than the edict of the sages (“It is forbidden to redeem captives for more than their worth”), and therefore it overrules the latter.

Rabbi Yosef was not indifferent to the risks involved in a prisoners swap. He knew perfectly well that many of the terrorists released in previous swap deals had returned to their gruesome business of murder. His philosophy, however, is founded on the belief that the Arabs want to kill us anyway, and we are always in danger, under any circumstance. With regard to Gilad Shalit, Rabbi Yosef concluded that since there was a clear and imminent danger to Shalit’s life, the heavy price should begrudgingly be paid for his release.

All this discourse might sound strange to American ears, because the United States doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. Period. Many in Israel — myself included — wish we could do the same. Without even reading Benjamin Netanyahu’s books on the subject, one knows that in the long run, absolute refusal to negotiate is the right way to deal with terrorism. Yet Israel is not a superpower, and also, Jewish tradition and values guide us in different ways.

Once the celebrations of the return of Shalit are over, we will be left with the hard questions of the price paid for his release. However, with all the difficulties ahead, we will most certainly emerge from this event with a renewed feeling of solidarity: Kol Yisrael arevim ze la’ze, every Jew is a guarantor for his fellow Jew. This belief has helped us in dire times in the past; it will also help us today.

Uri Dromi, a columnist based in Jerusalem, was the spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governments (1992-96).