The Israeli-Hezbollah "Prisoner Exchange"--Was It Sanctioned by the Torah?
A little over a week has passed since the funerals of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, may their blood be avenged. They were the kidnapped Israeli soldiers whose bodies were returned by Hezbollah in exchange for the release of five living Arab terrorists from Israeli prisons, and the return of the bodies of hundreds of Hezbollah fighters who had been killed in action by Israel. Although Hezbollah cruelly withheld all information as to the fate of the kidnapped soldiers, and although their families therefore retained hope until the day of the exchange that they would return alive, their hopes were dashed when Hezbollah returned only their corpses. The bodies were positively identified to be Goldwasser and Regev, the nation of Israel was plunged into mourning, and they were buried.
Much has been written about the exchange since it occurred. One commentator, Phil Chernofsky, head of the Orthodox Union's Israel Center, noted that some people were totally in favor of the exchange, others were totally against it, and still others were ambivalent, but in an usual way. It was not that the ambivalent ones were lukewarm as to both the merits and the flaws of the exchange; rather their ambivilence arose from being both strongly for and strongly against the exchange at the same time.
Although a number of posts on the Hedgehog Blog protested the prospective deal with Hezbollah before it took place, I have not written about it since. I do so now primarily to illustrate how our holy Torah is relevant to current issues facing Israel and the Jewish people, and how we err when we fail to follow its guidance.
Sadly, the ransom of the bodies of the two soldiers did not present a new or novel question of halachah, Jewish law. The history of the Jewish people is such that questions concerning the ransom of Jews being held as hostages have risen frequently over the centuries. Those common situations were particularly poignant when the Jewish people lived as persecuted, relatively helpless minority communities in Christian Europe and Moslem lands.
There is no question but that the contribution of money to redeem a Jewish hostage is a positive mitzvah, a commandment and a meritorious deed. Rabbi Berel Wein has written (posted at Torah.org):
The issue of the redemption of Jewish hostages and captives from enemy hands is unfortunately a very old and painful one. The mishna in Gittin already recorded for us that even though the commandment of redeeming captured Jews is one of top priority in Jewish life, demanding that even holy artifacts be sold to raise funds for such a purpose, nevertheless we are forbidden to pay an exorbitant price to secure the freedom of such a captive.
The reasons for the prohibition against exorbitant ransom are straitforward. Not only would the payment of exorbitant ransoms impoverish the Jewish community; it would encourage future kidnappings for ransom.
I believe that one famous application of this prohibition bears particular relevance to current events. In the 13th century, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg was one of the leaders of the Jewish people. He was the leading Talmudic scholar and decisor of halachah of his day, one of only three figures in Jewish history to have earned the title Me'or haGolah, "Light of the Exile," from his people. Universally acknowldged as the leading Ashkenazi authority on Talmud and Jewish law, many communities in France, Italy, and Germany frequently turned to him for instruction and guidance in all religious matters and on various points of law. In 1286, King Rudolf I, the "Holy Roman Emperor" (although he was neither holy, nor Roman) instituted a new persecution of the Jews, declaring them servi camerae ("serfs of the treasury"), which had the effect of negating their political freedoms. Along with many others, Meir left Germany with family and followers, but was captured in Lombardy and imprisoned by his captor, an Alsatian duke, in a fortress in Alsace. (Some historians believe that the duke was acting on behalf of and in connivance with Rudolf I.) Again turning to Rabbi Wein:
The duke demanded a great ransom for the release of Rabbi Meir. The Jewish communities of the area, out of their great love and respect for Rabbi Meir and their loyalty and honor to Torah scholars, were prepared to pay this exorbitant ransom. However, Rabbi Meir himself forbade the Jews from so doing [emphasis added], arguing, undoubtedly correctly, that payment of the ransom would only encourage the duke to repeat his evil deed with even Rabbi Meir himself becoming the victim a second time.
The duke did not relent on his extortionist demands and eventually Rabbi Meir passed away in the prison of the castle of the duke. The duke then demanded the very same exorbitant ransom for the release of the body of Rabbi Meir for Jewish burial, also a cardinal principle and commandment in Jewish life and law. Again, according to the wishes of Rabbi Meir as he expressed them during his last years of life, the ransom was not paid.
The duke held the body for ransom for thirteen years. Eventually, a very wealthy Jew from Mainz came to a settlement with the duke and Rabbi Meir was buried. ... Next to his grave lies the body of the wealthy Jew who obtained the release of Rabbi Meir’s remains. These two graves in the Jewish cemetery remained a place of Jewish visitation and veneration even until our very day.
The name of the Jew who ransomed the body of Rabbi Meir was Alexander ben Shlomo (Susskind) Wimpfen. A photograph of the headstones of Rabbi Meir and Reb Shlomo in the ancient Jewish cemetery of Worms, Germany appears above. The graves are Jewish pilgrimage sites, as shown by the kvitelach (prayer notes containing requests for divine assistance) on the tombstones.
It is far from me, a person of no significant Jewish learning, to venture a halachic opinion on such a difficult issue as whether the ransom paid for the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev was so exorbitant as to be prohibited. One factor favoring the exchange is that had the death of Ehud Goldwasser not been confirmed, under halachah his wife Karnit would have been unable to remarry and start a new life. I will say, however, that in light of the release of five terrorists, who have vowed to continue their fight to destroy Israel, the celebrations of Israel's enemies, the subsequent declaration by the head of Hamas that the ransom price for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit has now gone up, and the likelihood that the exchange will encourage more hostage taking, with no particular care to safeguard the lives and well-being of the Jewish hostages, the cost of this exchange seems very high indeed.
More important is that Israel's leaders, who were charged with the responsibility for making such a fateful decision, did not see fit to speak with the Torah authorities of our day.