When the State of Israel recently traded several Hizbollah prisoners for the bodies of two soldiers who were abducted and killed in 2006, a debate erupted in Israel with people on both sides if the argument asking “Is it worth it?”
Some say yes, when soldiers know that Israel will go to any lengths to retrieve there fallen comrades it keeps morale high. Some say no, returning prisoners who committed atrocities against their neighbors should never be let go. Without a doubt, this a difficult and heartbreaking decision.
Jeremy Rosen, writing in Haaretz, asks “The policy of doing almost anything to get one’s men back, even if dead, is in fact not an obvious [Jewish] religious idea. So what is Israel’s noble policy based on?”
Prof. Israel Yuval has argued in his book “Two Nations in Your Womb” (2006) that historically, Jews have often acted in response to non-Jewish custom. Neither martyrdom nor suicide, for example, is approved by halakha. Even Maimonides, who emphasizes the principle that one may have to die for one’s faith under certain conditions, famously declared in his “Letter to Yemen” that no one blames the person who chooses to live, outwardly confesses to another religion and returns to Judaism later on, as did so many in Spain under Berber rule and again during the reign of Christians Ferdinand and Isabella.
So why did some Jews of York and the Rhineland kill their families and themselves, as the Crusading mobs closed in, when conversion might have saved them? The poetry composed to commemorate these events does not focus on the taking of life to avoid pain, but rather of an act of sacrifice to God, like the binding of Isaac. This sacrificial motif is constantly repeated – a clear response to Christianity.
That is why Israel Yuval thinks these deaths were an example of Jews responding to a wave of non-Jewish piety. The motivation was less loyalty to one’s own traditions than a matter of asserting one’s moral superiority over the enemy. And so it is today.
Israel, in acceding to unreasonable demands, is asserting that it is of a higher moral order than its enemies, for whom human life seems to be dispensable.
While I am certainly for asserting one’s moral superiority over the enemy, I am not convinced that this is somehow a Christian idea. In fact, the opposite comes to mind.
[Luke 18:10-14] Two men went up into the temple to pray: the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. 11 The Pharisee standing, prayed thus with himself: O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican. 12 I fast twice in a week: I give tithes of all that I possess. 13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes towards heaven; but struck his breast, saying: O god, be merciful to me a sinner. 14 I say to you, this man went down into his house justified rather that the other: because every one that exalteth himself, shall be humbled: and he that humbleth himself, shall be exalted.
While being morally superior to an enemy is clearly more desirable than the alternative, the true Christian knows he is a wretched sinner who could do nothing on his own to merit salvation.
And so I think that Prof. Yuval misses the mark on this point but his poor aim is not limited to that point. The idea that a Christian willingness for self sacrifice in imitation of the savior can somehow be construed to support a willingness to sacrifice all for the return of fallen soldiers seems a non sequitur. Why would it follow that a willingness to die for one’s faith or one’s brethren would justify releasing enemies that might kill more of your brethren for the return of some bodies?
I am not saying what Israel did was wrong, perhaps the morale of their soldiers outweighs the future risk to them. I don’t know. What I do know is that the Christians didn’t make them do it.