The Lesson of Maharam of Rothenburg

The risk to the security of the state in the Tannenbaum deal is enormous. If implemented, it will lead to more kidnappings of Israelis and to the execution of unreasonable deals with terrorist organizations.

Last week, the Supreme Court permitted the publication of the circumstances under which Elhanan Tannenbaum was taken captive in Lebanon. In any event, it is clear, pending the publication of all the facts in the case, that Tannenbaum was not taken captive while on a state mission. There are many shortcomings in the cognitive process of the public and the country's decision makers, stemming from the ancient ethos of redemption of captives, which in Israeli society has taken on a special coloring.

Would we, for example, be ready to release imprisoned terrorists as part of a deal with the Colombians who kidnapped Israeli backpackers? Would we be ready to release Sheikh Obeid - whom Israel has been holding as a "bargaining chip" in connection with the missing air force navigator Ron Arad - as part of such a deal?

The answer is clear: no Israeli government would be willing to release terrorists within that framework. How is the Tannenbaum case different? On the face of it, the Tannenbaum episode has two distinctive characteristics: the harsh prison conditions and the possibility that Tannenbaum will reveal state secrets that he may have acquired as a senior officer in the reserves.

However, would any government release terrorists for Israeli prisoners who are languishing in the harshest conditions in Thailand or any other country? It's also hard to believe that after three years in custody, Tannenbaum still has secrets he didn't reveal. And if there are, the probability is that what remained a secret during three years of interrogation will remain a secret.

On the other hand, just as we would not be ready to give Hezbollah fighter planes and ammunition in return for Tannenbaum, they must not be given human bombs, either. The conclusion is clear: the Tannenbaum deal should not be implemented.

What, then, is making us hesitate and perhaps even agree to the deal? The answer lies in a unique cocktail consisting of an ancient Jewish ethos and a contemporary Israeli one. Down through the centuries, Jewish society has had a special attitude toward the redemption of captives. The Jewish people, whose constituent experience entailed the redemption of captives (when the Creator took the Israelites out of Egypt), made that experience a formative element in the Jewish ethos. According to Rambam (Maimonides), "There is no greater commandment than the redemption of captives," and the Shulhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law) states categorically, "Every moment that one delays in redeeming captives, where it is possible to be speedy, is like shedding blood."

It was on the basis of the ancient Jewish ethos that the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces formed a modern-day ethos of redeeming captives. The state and the IDF made prodigious efforts and undertook great risks to free prisoners of war and captives, whether civilians or soldiers. At some stage, the proportions were lost. Probably the watershed in this regard was the "Jibril deal" in 1985, when Israel released 1,150 security prisoners in return for three soldiers who were taken captive in the Lebanon War.

It is this ethos that today hovers, whether consciously or subconsciously, over the decision makers. To this has been added the ethos of Ron Arad, who was taken captive 17 years ago and has not been heard from since.

Our forebears were already aware of the weakness of the heart our people showed when any of our brethren fell into captivity. The Mishna states, "We must not redeem captives for more than their value, this is a measure of public benefit" (Jastrow translation). The reason for this, Rambam explains, is "so our enemies will not pursue people to capture them."

The heroic story of Maharam (our teacher Rabbi Meir) of Rothenburg, the greatest Gemara sage of the 13th century, illustrates the correct and intelligent application of this insight. Maharam was imprisoned by the authorities, who understood his "price" and therefore demanded a huge amount of money from the Jewish community for his release. The community duly collected the ransom. When Maharam heard of this, he forbade the payment and he remained in custody under brutal conditions until his death. Maharam understood that raising the price of a captive would motivate others to capture more people, for whom they would demand an even larger ransom, and so on and so forth.

This is all the more true when the kidnappers are demanding a higher payment: the release of terrorists who are liable to perpetrate new acts of terrorism once set free.

My heart is with Tannenbaum. Every Shabbat, I recite a special prayer, along with my congregation, for the well-being and return form of those who are in captivity or are missing in action. At the same time, I feel it is my moral duty to write this article, weeping. The risk to the security of the state in the Tannenbaum deal is enormous. If implemented, it will lead to more kidnappings of Israelis and to the execution of unreasonable deals with terrorist organizations.

Attorney Solberg is an economist who holds an MBA and is an ordained rabbi.