October 12th, 2011
09:23 AM ET

Shalit swap based on 'ultimate value of human life,' rabbis say

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN

Israel's government approved an extraordinary deal Tuesday night - agreeing to release more than 1,000 Palestinians from prison, including hundreds serving life sentences for attacks on Israelis, in exchange for a single slender young Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.

But the exchange of 1,027 inmates for a single captive does make sense in a Jewish context, Rabbi Arik Ascherman explained Wednesday.

"Judaism places ultimate value on human life. Therefore in the Jewish tradition, in Jewish law, redeeming captives trumps just about everything else," said Ascherman, of Rabbis for Human Rights. "It takes priority over anything else you can possibly do."

Jews around the world greeted the news that Shalit would be released after spending more than a fifth of his life in captivity with overwhelming joy, said William Daroff of the Jewish Federations of North America.

"We have prayed for his release. We have met with his parents, we have sat with his family in their tent outside the prime minister's residence, we have marched for Gilad's release," he said.

"When I announced the news of Gilad's forthcoming release at a reception with Jewish leaders on Capitol Hill this afternoon, it was met by tears, applause, and a spontaneous prayer of thanks," he told CNN late Tuesday.

"Jews across the world have been pining for Gilad Shalit's release for over five years," he added.

Many have left an empty chair in honor of him at their seders, the family meal marking the beginning of Passover, Daroff said.

"We are indeed thankful that Gilad Shalit will soon return to his family and to the Jewish people. It is long overdue," he said.

But the exchange is not without controversy, said Ascherman.

"There has been a very, very difficult debate about this and similar cases over the years," he said.

There is a question in Jewish law about whether it's moral to free a captive in a deal that could potentially endanger other lives - as many Israelis fear will happen when Palestinians who have killed Israelis are released.

Ascherman sees the benefit of the deal.

"On the one hand, we have somebody who - if he isn't redeemed - faces death or danger or captivity, versus a theoretical possibility that someone could be harmed if these people go back to terror," he said.

"I would say it is possible to redeem the prisoner you definitely know," he argued. "But it's certainly a terrible dilemma and Israelis are coming down on both sides."

The spiritual leader of Hezbollah praised Israel for its dedication to repatriating its citizens, dead or alive, during a previous exchange, in 2004.

"We have a fierce enemy in Israel, but I stand here in respect for the enemy that is concerned about his captives and bodies of his soldiers and works diligently day and night addressing those concerns," Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said as Israel handed over hundreds of prisoners for a kidnapped businessman and three bodies.

"We should acknowledge positives in our enemy when it exists. Whatever their motive is, the fact that they are concerned about their captives, their dead or the bodies of their dead is something to be respected," the Hezbollah leader said.

Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum is not certain the swap for Shalit is wise.

He too cites Jewish law, or halacha, and says the literature is so vast that there's no clear answer.

"Unfortunately there is an abundance of halachic literature about the redemption of captives," he said.

He cited the example of the 13th-century German Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, known as the Maharam of Rothenburg, who refused to allow the Jewish community to pay a ransom for him when he was held by the Emperor Rudolph.

"He feared that his ransom would encourage any cash-strapped person to grab a hostage. You can't create an incentive for kidnapping," the rabbi said.

"He did not allow the community to redeem him. He died in jail," said Rosenberg, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and writer. "The idea is that you shouldn't encourage further kidnappings."

The precedent still applies, he argued.

"You see in any Latin American country in which captives are ransomed, it becomes a major criminal activity," he said.

But he, too, circled back to the value Judiasm places on human life.

"However one arrives at the balance in this case, the redemption of captives is a tremendous value," he said.

He said one of Israel's most important rabbis, Shas party spiritual mentor Ovadiah Yosef, had backed the Shalit exchange, and that government ministers must have discussed it with him before it was announced.

"The Shas party would not have voted for it otherwise," he said.

"A friend of mine in the gym the other day asked me why so many government ministers have been going to see Rabbi Yosef," he said. "This has obviously been in the works for some time."

CNN's Paul Colsey and Michael Schwartz contributed to this report.

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: Ethics • Israel • Judaism

soundoff (598 Responses)
  1. Kingk

    What a big deal! When Israel can kill thousands of innocent palestinians for 1 dead Isreali, then whats wrong in releasing same amount for realease swap. I think Isrealis should be thankful that they got him back. Its about time Isrealis should start the Peace and stop killing the innocent people in Palestine.

    October 12, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  2. Anomic Office Drone

    I don't know if the media does it on purpose or not, but stories like this aren't helping anyone. All they do is serve to further link Israel and Judaism, making it even more difficult to have a reasonable discussion about Israel's policies without criticism being labeled as antisemitism.

    October 12, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • hippypoet

      if your labeled as such its not the fault of the article but the one whom you are discussing it with... the article serves only to inform and speak to us of the authors point of view.

      October 12, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Anomic Office Drone

      Conceptually, you're right. In practice, everywhere you look in the media, they can't separate Judaism from the policies of Israel, even in actual news articles and not opinion pieces.

      October 12, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  3. hippypoet

    @chuckles... your last post to someone spoke of the islamic sariface of Abraham's other son... you meanie head... i was gunna test peoples knowledge of such things but you clearly know as much if not more then I... that is also the very first time the sects of Abrahamic belief starts to differ.

    October 12, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • Chuckles


      Sorry to steal your spotLIGHT but that's praise from RA indeed if you think I know even more than you haha. What can I say, I paid attention in sunday school every so often.

      October 12, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • hippypoet

      now the real question is how many sons did Abraham have in total?

      October 12, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • Chuckles

      Honestly, I want to say 2, Issac and the other one that starts with an I, Haggars son (WHY CAN'T I REMEMBER HIS NAME?!) Then again, I feel like he was probably a bit of a womanizer so maybe more, I can only think of the two

      October 12, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain


      October 12, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • hippypoet

      the important sons are Isaac and Ishmael, but he had 6 more with the wife named , Keturah.. so a total of 8

      October 12, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • Chuckles


      THANK YOU! That was driving me insane!

      October 12, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain


      October 12, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  4. morris2196

    Were I the Israeli government, I would have considered going the opposite direction. That is, kill the 1,027 inmates one by one until the Israeli soldier was released.

    October 12, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  5. Besalel

    Next time there is a war. god forbid, and the Arabs complain that Israel had killed thousands of them but they only managed to kill a few Israelis, know that it is the Arabs themselves who have decreed that one Jewish life is worth 1,000 worthless terrorists. In the future, Israel should impose capital punishment on terrorists captured in order to eliminate the temptation to kidnap Israelis.

    October 12, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  6. Tim

    I see no discrepancy here whatsoever. Isn't every Jew worth at least 1000 of 'dem guys?

    October 12, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  7. agarron

    I'm into WHOLESALE- I give my prayers to G-d, He decides where it all goes. Lowers my 'over' head 1 delivery, i showed respect, appreciation, i did my job. 1 Jew for 1000 Palestinians....it's a very good deal.

    October 12, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  8. pierce

    Also, it would be so nice if terrorists would not murder innocent civilians, be they Jewish or Arabs.

    October 12, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  9. pierce

    Oh, if only the Jewish state did place value on human life it would not block aid to Palestineans, would not kill protestors, would not bomb villages, not destroy homes of palestinians and not conduct strikes on "military" targets - people in their native land.

    October 12, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  10. AndyTheGameInventor

    I think it's a little simplistic to look at this in terms of straight math. Many countries, including Israel, routinely release prisoners as shows of good faith, or because it's costly to house and feed them, or for any of a number of reasons. At the end of a war, POW are typically repatriated regardless of numbers.

    Still, it's interesting to read the various takes on this exchange. Some are arguing that t shows Israel is arrogant in suggesting that one Jew is worth a thousand Arabs, but of course Hamas would have gladly taken 2,000 and Israel would have gladly given only 500, so I thing this argument doesn't hold water.

    A more interesting question is if Shalit will feel guilt that his freedom "cost" Israel 1000 prisoners, and how the Arab prisoners will feel toward Hamas that their own freedom was "worth" only 1/1000 of Shalit's to Hamas.

    The strange irony of the situation is that while Hamas may feel they have made a mathematical "victory" (and the numbers make it hard to deny) it is Hamas that, by demanding so much, established the "value" of the freedom of a Palestenian. In other words, a returning prisoner could hypothetically ask his government "why didn't you trade me and my friends for Shalit five years ago? We could have been home already!" the unspoken answer is: "Shalit was too valuable to trade for just 1, oir just 5, or just 100 of you."

    October 12, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  11. agarron

    I say it again.................Blessed are you G-d, Creator of all worlds.

    October 12, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  12. agarron

    Blessed are you G-d, Creator of all worlds. Thank you G-d!

    October 12, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • hippypoet


      October 12, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • richunix

      What was his name again, since the word "god" is of germanic orgins?

      October 12, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  13. TXJack

    First clear use of the term Palestine to refer to the region synonymous with that defined in modern times was in 5th century BC.

    The Israelis and the Palestines are both from the same father Abraham. The 1st son of Abraham was by a slave woman and then when Sarah had her own son, the 1st son was banned to the desert. That is where Palestines came from.

    So from the beginning of time until the end of time there will be unrest there

    They just need to get along with one another and share the land.

    October 12, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • Chuckles

      You're getting your mythologies mixed up.

      ISLAM comes from Haggar and her exhiled son, not the palestinains.

      October 12, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  14. Grigory Dashevsky

    Who write the Jewish Low????!!!! You are CRAZY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    October 12, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  15. Alex

    1027 Palestinians and some baklava did the trick

    October 12, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  16. Muddy

    I still wonder that the Hamas would so publicly endorse at deal that says one Israeli soldier is worth over a thousand of their people. The Israeli soldier is a no body who has never been accused of personnel wrong doing, so why is not demanding a thousand to one ratio an insult to the Palestinian people?

    October 12, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • Chuckles

      because now they have 1000+ new people to engage in more nefarious activities against the israelis. Because the Palestinians don't see it as an insult at all. but actually a victory and good negotiating skills......

      October 12, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • BigSir

      maybe the Israelis, have been saving up Palestinians for just such a deal. 1000 bad guys for a good guy; only the Israelis could present a deal that way with a straight face.

      October 12, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  17. Joe M.

    Now that Hamas sees the value in holding prisoners, how long until the next cross-border raid to kidnap another one? It's the whole reason America doesn't negotiate with terrorists. Look at the pirate situation as well – the payment of ransom hasn't slowed down piracy. In fact, there are more pirates than ever. This was a misguided deal.

    October 12, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Guest

      Of course, if it is not your son/brother/father being exchanged it is a misguided deal. Armchair tough guys.These whose jobs it is to stop attack should do their job, that simple.

      October 12, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • Busted

      OK this is the type of retarded comments that should be reserved for the chicken hawks at Fox News. This deal does not in anyway change the opinion of holding a hostage by Palestinians. Before today, Palestinians knew there was value in having hostages. Honestly, how, not why, how does someone become as dumb as you?

      October 12, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • Joe M.

      Busted – And how did they formulate that opinion? Oh, that's right, because they've agreed to prisoner exchanges in the past you moron! If they had never negotiated, Hamas would have no motivation to kidnap Israeli soldiers. Leave the thinking to rational adults. Go back to your tent in the park, your friends probably have some pretty good drugs in there that are calling your name.

      October 12, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  18. dike

    "Judaism places ultimate value on human life." lol should say Jewish life more like 1Jewish life = to 1027 Palestinian lives

    October 12, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • hippypoet

      your missing the point, its the princible... they can't ask for a single dude back if they weren't willing to release any, and if your willing to release 1 then why not all.. princible, and jewish folks are people whom base lives on princible ...so move on past the numbers and read between the lines

      October 12, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • Grigory Dashevsky

      dike,you are an IDIOT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      October 12, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  19. Uncouth Swain

    " in exchange for a single slender young Israeli soldier"

    Would it have been better if he was fat?

    October 12, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  20. hippypoet

    Come on folks.. can't we just be happy that everyone is going home, and it was a peaceful agreement made by two groups that normally can't even talk to one another without a death theat. be happy, don't worry, be happy now, then the whisle noise... yay!

    October 12, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • eldono

      So, what about the other side's point of view? What about the Palestinians?

      October 12, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • hippypoet

      what do you mean, i said all folks are going home... the pal, the isr.... they get to see there families again, which is great being they are both a very very family centered group of peoples

      October 12, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
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