The concept of ransoming captives (Pidyon Shevuyim) is rated very highly in Jewish thought. It is cited in Tractate Baba Batra 8a and b. RAMBAM stresses it in his Yad HaHazakah, saying that it supercedes giving alms to the poor. However, the Rabbis set a limit on the ransom, putting it at no more than the value of a slave, with some exceptions.
In this case, the issue is clearly not the amount of a ransom. It is a matter of Shalit being used as a tool for political gain. It is clearly immoral to hold him captive. Therefore, since we believe in redeeming prisoners, it is very important that we keep his case in the forefront. Whatever pressure can be applied on the Gazans to release him is within the structure of Pidyon Shevuyim. Go for it!
Pidyon Shevuyim, the redemption of captives, is considered a vital mitsvah, a significantly important obligation, outweighing many others. However, complicating the issue, the Gemara tells us that we don't generally ransom captives for more than their ordinary ransom-price. In the Gemara's time, remember, kidnapping was a financial venture, not a life-threatening one; the expectation was that the kidnappers wanted a sum of money, and as long as it wasn't out of the ordinary, Jews would pay it. In fact, that is assumed to be one of the central financial responsibilities a husband owes his wife, the guarantee that should she be abducted, he will ransom her.
In our times, with Gilad Shalit, there is at least some room for concern for his very life, which changes the calculus and would allow different measures to try and save him. For example, in times of war, people are allowed and expected to put themselves in harm's way, if that is what the war effort requires. Where ordinarily, Jews are expected to take care of their lives and health, war provides an exception. Were there a feasible option to perform a raid and thus free Gilad Shalit-- like Entebbe, for example--that would seem to be permissible, as a function of the reasonable expectation of danger to his life, and it being in the context of ongoing war.
So, sum total, yes, there is great value to trying to free Gilad Shalit, either monetarily or by physical force. However, as that Gemara reminds us, there are ramifications to whatever we do for this captive, and we have to take those into account as well. We would hope that the Israeli government, which is both best positioned to know the situation better than I can and also the body most likely to be able to secure his release, is taking all the factors into account as it struggles to handle this situation.
Diaspora Jews' obligations to Gilad stem from our shared national bond as Jews. If there are effective steps we might take to hasten his freedom, without significant consequences, we should certainly try to do so, since redeeming captives is such an important obligation. Too often, though, we do not have effective steps to take, and, out of frustration, spend time and energy on meaningless or wasted efforts. In those cases, it would seem to me to be better to find the places where we can take effective action, and hope that those who can take effective action in this context will do so.
The mitzvah of Pidyon Shevuyim, redeeming captives, is a very weighty obligation according to Halaha (Jewish Law).It is important to understand the context in which the mitzvah was construed because it informs our ability to assess our contemporary obligations.
During the time of the Talmud, Jews were regularly kidnapped because Gentiles believed that the Jewish community would pay the kidnappers the ransom money.They were correct.The Talmud obliges us to pay the ransom money. The mitzvah was so important that Maimonides wrote that it is the highest form of charity, superseding all others.At the same time, it is important to state that the Mishnah itself limits the monetary value that it is appropriate to pay for a captive when it says, “Captives should not be ransomed for more than their value as a precaution for their general good” (Gittin 4:6).The rabbis had to consider the fact that the Jewish community would not flourish if costly levels extortion became a regular communal occurrence.At times in Jewish history, the balance between redeeming captives while doing so “within economic reason” has been difficult to achieve.One of the most well known examples of this tension is when the great 13th Century scholar Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg refused to allow himself to be ransomed for 20,000 marks, which German Jews were willing to pay, because he felt it would encourage more kidnappings.As a result, he died in prison.
The situation with Gilad Shalit is very complicated.He is not being held for financial ransom.He is being held as a political pawn as Hamas attempts to extort the Israeli government to release Palestinian prisoners within the Israeli prison system.Many of these prisoners are terrorists who are directly responsible for the murder of innocent Israeli citizens.The government has to assess the likelihood that these terrorists would return to killing Israelis should they be released.As a result, the government must perform a gut wrenching moral calculus in order to determine how to proceed.The questions are complex: “What is the value of a human life?”“Is it morally justified to save one life if it is likely to put the lives of other people in jeopardy?”“Is it morally acceptable to reduce the punishment of people who have committed egregious crimes in order to save another person’s life?”These are just a few of the questions Israelis must struggle to answer.As a result, I don’t think that the situation with Gilad Shalit fits into the classical framework Pidyon Shevuyim, though the textual tradition that deals with the topic can surely guide us through some of these questions.
Your query, it seems to me, touches on a larger question: “To what degree should Diaspora Jews stay connected to what happens in the State of Israel?”I believe that the future of the Jewish people largely depends on the ways in which Israeli and Diaspora Jews mediate their often fragile relationship.As the gulf between these two great Jewish communities widens, our responsibility to bridge this gap is ever more pressing.It is important to stay connected to the situation with Gilad Shalit not only for the sake of effective advocacy and pressure, but because we must understand the ways in which Israelis struggle with the above questions.For example, this summer Israelis expressed their support for Gilad’s family through solidarity marches across Israel.For many, these marches were meant as a signal to the government that the Israeli public was ready to give up a great deal in order to secure Gilad’s return home.Why?In some way, the answer must be connected to the fact that every Israeli parent knows that Gilad could easily have been or be their son.At the same time, there were counter protests by Israelis saying that releasing terrorists to save Gilad’s life is unethical since it will lead to the future loss of life.
Perhaps the most important thing that Diaspora Jews can do is educate one another about the extreme difficulty of life in Israel.This is what seems to be off our radar screen.Advocacy seems to be futile since we are dealing with Hamas.But, reminding American Jews that this situation is aggrieving the hearts and souls of Israelis is very important, and demonstrating to Israelis that we too are distressed by Gilad’s dreadful captivity is equally important for the sake of our relationship.
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