November 3, 2023 by Jeremy Rosen
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We are in the midst of a horrendous hostage crisis. Kidnapping is such a fundamental crime that it is one of the Ten Commandments.

Jeremy Rosen

Hostage-taking, which is kidnapping, is forbidden by International Law. But, as we know, the international community picks and chooses when to call anything a crime. And if Hamas does it many students around the world regard it as legitimate. The situation in Gaza is too painful to discuss. But the nature of the crime and how we should respond morally to it is worthy of discussion.

The Bible has many examples of hostage-taking as a means of ensuring that parties adhere to treaties. Sometimes, hostages were treated well. But in warfare, captives were a prize to be sold and used as the victors saw fit. Jewish law always forbade cruelty and laid down laws protecting captured slaves. In the ancient world, captives in general were forced into prostitution and treated as sub-human. Although on occasion a talented slave could rise to the very highest levels of society.  The Talmud is replete with stories of communities and rabbis paying huge ransoms and rescuing Jewish slaves who were sold into prostitution or abused. Slavery and hostages dominated human life for thousands of years. And still do in many parts of the world. A huge volume of Jewish legal writing over the centuries has been devoted to the obligations and challenges of rescuing hostages and indeed how to support women who were raped and deal with the consequences.

The moral challenges and calculations that have to be made, whether secularly or religiously, are enormous and awesome. And Judaism as a general rule, while laying down broad guidelines, in general, prefers to treat each case individually, depending always on the specific circumstances.

Broad moral guidelines begin in the Torah with a series of general laws about taking responsibility for others and steps to protect them.
“Do not stand by when someone’s blood (life) is at stake”( Leviticus 19:16 ).
“Love your neighbour as yourself” ( Leviticus 19:18).
“ You must allow your brother to live safely with you” ( Leviticus 25:36).
“You must not turn away (or hide) from your neighbour in distress” (Deuteronomy 22:3).

The Mishna and Gemara ( Sanhedrin 72a) go much further and say that you may actually kill someone to prevent them from killing or raping another person. And over the page
“From where is it derived that with regard to one who pursues another in order to kill him, the pursued party may be saved at the cost of the pursuer’s life? The verse states: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of another” (Leviticus 19:16); rather, you must save him from possible death.”

Then there is the issue of whether some hostage victims should have priority over others. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 62a) looks to the relative value of human beings. “How does Rabbi Yohanan, understand the verse “And your brother should live with you” (Leviticus 25:36)? He taught that if two people were walking in a desert and there was just one jug of water in the possession of one of them, if both drink, both will die,  but if only one of them drinks, he will reach a settled area.  Ben Petora taught that it is preferable that both of them drink even if this means they both die, rather than either see the death of the other.  Until Rabbi Akiva came and taught that the verse states “And your brother shall live with you,” no life takes priority over the other, and whoever possesses the water should drink it.” We should not say that one life is more deserving than the other.

During the Crusades King Richard the Lion Heart of England was held hostage by Duke Leopold of Austria until the Jews of England paid for his release. Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, the Maharam of Rothenburg (1220-1293), the leader of Ashkenazic Jewry was kidnapped on his way to Israel and sold to the Emperor of Austria who held him for ransom. Maharam of Rothenburg refused to allow the Jews to ransom him saying that it would only encourage more hostage-taking. He died in 1293 in prison.

One cannot compare his situation to the hostages in Gaza. He lived in prison it is true. But he was not sexually abused, tortured to death, or suffering horrific conditions living in constant fear of what unthinkable fate would befall him. During the War of Independence,  the State of Israel resolved not to free any imprisoned terrorists in exchange for hostages. Acceding to the demands of the terrorists would establish a dangerous precedent and could at any time lead to further hijackings. Although the release of the captured guerillas might save the lives of the hostages, the released terrorists would once more be free to return to their terror and endanger more lives. Many legal opinions both religious and secular debated the issue with varying conclusions. Since then, Israel has indeed several times exchanged terrorists for hostages.

I would not like to be in the position of those who have to make the decisions. We can only pray that their lives are saved. But equally important is the safety and security of the State for the greater good must be secured by whatever means it takes ( of course within the constraints of our religious and moral system). Unlike our enemies, Israel does adhere to Jewish and International Law. Israel does not intentionally bomb civilian targets and does give warning and advise evacuation even if the civilians are ordered to stay. Israel does not use its own people as human shields in which case the other side bears moral culpability although you would not think so if you listened to what our enemies think.

We are far from perfect, and we have our extremists who let the side down. But the near-universal hatred of Jews allowed to be expressed only in the streets of the Western world, can only reinforce our determination as Israelis and Jews not to capitulate because we know that when people say they want to exterminate Jews they usually mean it. We have just seen it again before our very eyes. And we all pray for the safe return of our martyrs.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.

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