The following piece was written shortly after the release of Gilad Shalit in 2011.
Many people found themselves asking whether Gilad’s release was worth the cost of freeing of over one thousand terrorists. Many newspaper articles and opinion pieces were written on this topic as well, with the large majority of them coming down in favor of this decision.
This topic – how high of a price to pay for securing the freedom of a captive – is actually a topic that arises in the Gemara. The mishna in Gittin presents a ruling that would seem to disallow paying such a high price:
One does not redeem captives more than their worth for the sake of tikkun ‘olam (establishing the world). (Gittin 45a)
The Gemara states two reasons for this: one, because it creates an undue burden on the community (here, a financial burden) and two, because it encourages more captive taking in the future. Both of these reasons seem precisely apposite to this situation. The freeing of a thousand terrorists creates an enormous burden on the community in terms of future endangerment, and – as we know from reports from Hamas when this deal took place – may motivate more such captive taking in the future.
And yet… it seems that more is at stake and more factors have to be considered. First, some qualifications to this ruling (see the Hebrew Wikipedia article for a nice summary of some of these points). A number of poskim rule that this limit does not apply when a life is at stake. Under such circumstances, any price needs to be paid. As to the other lives that may be endangered in the future- that is a future, non-defined danger, which does not outweigh the immediate, present danger. Another important qualification is that of family. Basing himself on another Gemara, Tosafot states that when it is one’s spouse who is endangered, one can pay any price, just as one can do so for him- or herself. A number of contemporary poskim rule that Israel’s relationship to its soldiers is the same as that of husband and wife, all the more so when there is a prior commitment that it will leave no one behind.
I would like to focus on a different factor from those two. The whole issue at stake here in the mishna, embodied in the phrase tikkun ‘olam, is the weighing of the community’s needs, the betterment of society, against the present needs and rights of, and our obligations to, the individual. Can one do wrong by an individual for the sake of society, for the greater good? Our mishna teaches that sometimes this is justified, sometimes we must make rulings for the sake of tikkun olam. But this is the exception, never the rule. Halakha, in its very focus on the details of each action, their particulars and their rightness, consistently trains us to make sure of the rightness of how we are acting in the present. Some bemoan the fact that there is not more discussion in halakha and the Gemara about values. But too much discussion of values can be dangerous, because it can be a license for doing wrong acts to achieve an abstract value – the ends justify the means. Halakha tells us that the means – our day to day actions, each act that we do – are the ends, and must be right in themselves. If there is a sugya in the Gemara about aveira li’shma, sinning for the sake of higher religious goal (Horiyot 10b), this is never incorporated in halakha and is used more for rhetoric purposes. Halakha teaches us that the means are the ends, and we cannot do wrong for the sake of a greater good.
So the mishna’s teaching runs against the grain of the halakhic system. It is thus not surprising that we find throughout history that captives were often redeemed even when the price was high, despite the mishna’s teaching. Sometimes justifications were given, ways of qualifying the mishna’s ruling, and sometimes not. But it was the present need that created an obligation that could not be ignored.
The freeing of Gilad Shalit occurred on the cusp of Shmini Atzeret. One of the central themes of Shmini Atzeret is moving out of the universalism of Sukkot, and having a chag that allows us to have intimate, face-to-face time, as it were, with God. It is about moving from abstractions to the concrete. It is about valuing the direct connection and seeing the face of the other. According to Levinas, it is in this way that Judaism differs from Greek philosophy. Judaism worries about the details, Greek philosophy worries about the abstractions. Greek philosophy is about the collective, Judaism is about the individual, is about seeing the face of the other, and the moral responsibility that this face-to-face encounter creates.
Much violence has and can be done in the name of the “greater good.” Serving the “greater good” can be a license for totalitarianism. The encounter with the other, however, creates obligations and demands behavior that cannot be argued away. It is the face of the other that demands the rightness of the action in the here and now.
And this brings us to our final point. One well accepted exception to the mishna’s ruling is the case of a Torah sage. When a Torah sage is taken captive, even a very high price can be paid. What is the reason for this exception? Perhaps it is because of the way the community will benefit from his Torah teaching once he is freed. But if so, this would be limited to cases of a Torah scholar who is also a teacher. It seems, rather, that one redeems a Torah scholar because of what it says of the community and of its values. What would it mean not to redeem a Torah sage? What type of community would that be? Certainly not one that valued Torah, or at least that would be the statement that it would be making. To not redeem such a stage would endanger the health of the community in a profoundly different way – it would endanger its values, and what it stands for. In such a case, the community’s needs are served by paying a high price to redeem the captive. It is a statement and reaffirmation of everything the community stands for.
In the case of Gilad Shalit we have a different, contemporary version of the Torah sage. Gilad Shalit represents two profound values, values that are central to Torah and to Israel. First, because of the images and the media, we have all seen the face of Gilad Shalit. Gilad Shalit is everyone’s son. To not redeem him, to turn away from his face, would be a rejection of one of the most basic values of Judaism and the Torah – the face of the other, the rightness of the action in front of you, the refusal to justify a shirking of responsibility for the sake of the greater good. And second, because Gilad Shalit is a soldier who was sent by Israel to defend the country, and who put his life on the line to do so. What would it say about the values of the State of Israel if it could turn its back on the people who risk their lives to defend it? To redeem Gilad Shalit is to reaffirm the values that are critical to our survival – not our physical survival, but our survival as the People and the State of Israel.