Friday, June 20, 2014

Redeeming Captives (Article for July 5 Idaho Statesman)

As I made my way through the supermarket check out line a couple days ago, I was shocked and disgusted to see the cover of Time magazine, which featured a picture of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and, in large bold print, the question: “Was he worth it?”  Just imagine how you would feel if this were your own son or daughter!  Whatever one thinks about the deal that brought Sgt. Bergdahl home, or even the still unknown circumstances around his service and capture, the lack of basic human empathy behind this headline is appalling.  And the public’s rush to negative judgment in this case, without any significant knowledge of the facts, is most lamentable.
Was he worth it?  My own tradition would overwhelmingly answer: “Yes.”  While Jewish law recognizes that there are real dangers and limitations in ransoming captives—namely, rewarding the captors and thereby unintentionally making future kidnappings more likely—our sacred texts come down strongly on the side of what is known as pidyon shvuyim, our obligation to secure the release of prisoners.  The leading medieval Jewish scholar, Moses Maimonides, wrote: “There is no greater mitzvah (commandment) than redeeming captives, for the problems of the captive include being hungry, thirsty, unclothed, and they are in danger of their lives too. Ignoring the need to redeem captives goes against the Torah’s teaching: ‘Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s bleeds.’”  To which the authoritative Jewish legal code, the Shulchan Aruch, adds: “Every moment that one delays in freeing captives, in cases where it is possible to expedite their freedom, is considered to be tantamount to murder.”
This is not a theoretical matter.  In the book of Genesis, when invaders take the patriarch Abraham’s nephew, Lot, as a captive, Abraham raises an entire army to free him.  More recently, over the last half century, Israel has released over 13,000 Arab prisoners in exchanges that brought home just 16 Israeli prisoners of war—a ratio of roughly 800 to 1.  As Israeli philosophy professor Moshe Halbertal notes: “These things are in the DNA of our culture.”
One of the Talmud’s most famous teachings—thanks, in part, to the film “Schindler’s List”—is this: “Whosoever saves a single life, saves the world entire.”  Indeed.  Given this Jewish reality, can there be any doubt about the answer to the question so insensitively posed by Time magazine?  Our nation’s commitment to him speaks to the best in our culture.   Should we sink to the point where we fail consider his life to be “worth it”, then we will know ourselves to be morally bankrupt.