Ethan Tucker on the Jewish Duty to Recover Hostages

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Pidyon shvuyim, the redemption and release of captives, is an old and urgent task that Jewish communities are obliged to meet. It is an obligation derived from the Hebrew Bible, developed in the writings and reflection of the rabbinic sages, and deepened and explicated in the work of Jewish medieval thinkers whose communities were situated inside Christian and Muslim host cultures.

At the moment when these laws were conceived, the buying and selling of human lives was common; thankfully, slavery of that kind is rare today. Then, since persons had a market value, the Jewish community often had to raise the funds necessary to purchase the freedom of their hostages. This led to much debate about the practice. Did meeting the demands of the captors incentivize further hostage-taking? If the hostage’s family was wealthy and eager to pay any price for release, did they nevertheless have an obligation not to, lest they increase the price for the rest of the community?

These questions are not merely historical any longer. There are 203 Israelis captive and bound in Gaza. Some of them are young children. Some of them are elderly. Some of them have disabilities and handicaps.

The current situation introduces new questions, too. In the times before the modern state of Israel, Jewish communities did not have a sovereign state to act on their behalf, nor did they have a military. And today’s captors do not seem to want money, as their predecessors did. They aim instead at a different sort of currency: leverage, shame, and power.

What can and should be done to secure the freedom of Israel’s hostages?

This week, the rabbi Ethan Tucker, president and rosh yeshiva of Hadar, joins Mosaic’s editor Jonathan Silver to discuss the history and development of pidyon shvuyim. Together, they try to uncover the roots, the extent, and the limits of the obligation at a moment that presents a difficult set of moral tradeoffs.

Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.

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