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Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
October 2

HEADLINE: The price must be right


From time immemorial, man has dealt with difficult questions and moral dilemmas. These gave birth to ethical philosophies that differ from each other in principle, in content and even in the methods by which they propose to solve problems.

Such distinctions are not absolute but are useful. There are two basic competing approaches in ethics. One, known as the "deontological" approach, propagated by Emmanuel Kant, for instance, defines ethical behavior itself. Lying is forbidden because a lie is in itself bad. The other approach, the "consequentialist" approach, such as utilitarianism, for example, determines the morality of the actions by their consequences to human society. I believe this dispute is one of the issues that separated the house of Hillel from the house of Shamai.

The classic example that is always discussed is the attitude towards lying. The Talmud asks: "How does one dance" or to be more accurate, "how does one sing" in front of a bride? May she be hailed as "a beautiful and chaste bride" in any case, even if it means praising her with attributes she does not deserve?

This Jewish example may look trivial, but we can change it to adapt it to other cultures. May a person lie in order to prevent another person from having access to a weapon with which he is going to commit a crime? The house of Shamai says that when the Torah commands "keep thee far from a false matter" (Exodus 23:7), it absolutely forbids lying, even if that means causing insult and injury. A duty is a duty is a duty, regardless of the consequences.

The house of Hillel, on the other hand, modifies the duty according to the consequences of the action about to be taken. If the truth might cause sorrow or disaster, it may sometimes be ignored, by half truths, or maybe even by actual lies.

So much for the small and trivial questions. Reality has presented us with more complicated and dramatic situations. The redemption of prisoners is one of the most salient of such questions.

It is well known that the redemption of prisoners is a central precept in Jewish tradition. The Shulchan Aruch indeed rules: "Every moment of delay in redeeming prisoners is like spilling blood" (Yoreh Dea, 252:3). Yet still the Mishna establishes (Gittin, 4:6): "Prisoners must not be redeemed at more than their price, for the sake of tikkun haolam" - an untranslatable expression meaning mending or perfecting the world. The price in the Mishna is probably the price attainable at the slave market. But this "price" is an example for any payment for release: The price must not be too high, and the payment must not encourage further abductions.

That was the teaching and the practice of the Maharam, Rabbi Meir Ben Baruch of Rottenburg, the greatest Jewish scholar in 13th-century Germany, who was arrested following a malicious denunciation. The authorities demanded an exorbitant price for his release, and even though the communities were willing to pay the ransom, the Maharam refused to be released under such conditions, and died in jail after seven years of captivity! And all that was because of the principle of "for the sake of tikkun haolam."

WHAT DOES this principle mean? If there were only two people in the world, maybe (and I stress maybe) we could choose the first, strict way, and in the name of ethics, ignore the consequences. So much for micro-ethics. But when there are at least three people, the result can be serious ethical injury to others. And in society there are a lot more than three people!

"Tikkun haolam" expresses the need for macro-ethics, fundamentally different from micro-ethics, the duty to take the common good into consideration, for the good of all individuals. Ethics have to be based on a sort of "macro-ethical economics," that tries to weigh all ethical duties and reach a general conclusion. This involves weighing the sorrow of the abducted against the danger to innocent travelers; the lives of the innocent against the lives of our fellow soldiers who endanger themselves in necessary actions to prevent even more innocents from being hurt.

The State of Israel is, unfortunately, replete with moral dilemmas. Certain dilemmas are notorious, such as the question of the use of "moderate physical force" in the case of a ticking bomb, targeted assassinations, and so on. Those are situations in which we, supposedly, ignore the enemy's human rights.

On the other hand, in the question of redeeming prisoners we are facing an opposite situation. May we ignore the pain of our brothers? The Mishna teaches us that, unfortunately, we must sometimes do so, out of broader considerations for the sake of "repairing the world."

Intuitive morality lays a trap before us. There are actions that are apparently right to take. But in some situations they become foolish and cause terrible injustices. The 1985 Jibril prisoner swap is a classic example of such an act of foolishness.

The Odyssey tells the story of Ulysses who, on his long maritime journey, reached the place of the Sirens. Their wonderful singing always enchanted the sailors who were drawn to it and drowned in the depths of the sea. Ulysses plugged the sailors' ears with wax. He ordered himself to be tied to the mast and not to be released until they left the danger area.

This tale is a wonderful allegory for our own situation - the Siren song of our moralists, and, cruelly, the cries of those who suffer. The ears of our military people must be plugged. Our captains have to hear the Sirens' song, weigh it, but also be tied to the mast, to the totality of the more important and general macro-decisions. What seems like a moral song is nothing but an invitation to disaster. We must look for the more complete and truer song.

We must not, God forbid, ignore the black flag waving over certain orders. But, on the other hand, we must be aware that there are decisions and even rulings over which a white flag of surrender and patently dangerous lack of wisdom flies. Both flags, the black and the white, are dangerous.

The writer is professor emeritus of philosophy and Jewish thought at the Hebrew University.

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