computer simulation of the vent
computer simulation of the ventHostages and Missing Persons Families Forum

Dr. Chaim C. Cohen,whose PhD. is from Hebrew U., is a social worker and teacher at the Hebrew Univ. School of Social Work, and Efrata College. He lives in Psagot, Binyamin.

Since Oct. 7th, the Israeli Jewish public has succeeded in maintaining a semi miraculous degree of core national unity, dedication and sacrifice with regard to decisively militarily defeating the Hamas, disregarding the sound bites of politicians and the ritual of Saturday night Tel Aviv demonstrations. There is a strong, undercurrent commitment to succeeding in our military offensive.

However recently there has emerged a national moral dilemma of whether to give precedence to freeing hostages ( a Torah mitzvah in itself) or to rigorously pursuing our holy offensive war of self defense ( also a mitzvah termed ‘milchemat mitzvah’ ) given that the IDF has built momentum and there is a true sense that ‘Hamas is on the run’.

We all want to succeed in both.

The IDF argues that military pressure is the only way to free the hostages and polls show that a clear majority of Israelis agree. But there is also a body of opinion ( partially manipulated by the media) that feels that precedence should be given to freeing the hostages, even it means ending the military offensive, or significantly limiting it. To a great extent, these divisions of opinion reflect the social cultural self identity divisions that earlier tore the country apart on the question of judicial reform.

In order to learn what two thousand years of Rabbinic wisdom teaches concerning this critical, national moral dilemma, I interviewed a dear friend, the co-author of the book ‘Jewish Military Ethics’, Rav Ido Rechnitz.

This article will focus on

a) summarizing Rabbinic wisdom on the subject,

b) briefly pointing out how it differs from the post modern liberal perspective on morality and ethics, and

c) suggesting how to publicly discuss the issue without returning the Israeli public to the national rift that accompanied the question of judicial reform.

1. A summary of the Rabbinic answer to this national moral dilemma

Rav Rechnitz summarizes that the Rabbinic definition of military ethics in time of war is based on two principles:

Moral principle one: a war of self defense (in Hebrew, milchemat mitzvah), like our present war with the Hamas, must be understood as a war between two national collectives ( the Jewish people and the Palestinian Arabs-Hamas). Thus in time of a war of self defense , the individual Jew is considered a integral part of an ‘organic’ collective whole-the Jewish people- and thus Jewish morality requires that the personal interest of the individual be subordinated to the self interest of the Jewish collective.

This principle is the moral basis for requiring the individual to serve in the army and literally risk/ and sometimes sacrifice, their lives for the good of the Jewish collective.

Moral principle two: Rabbinic morality, particularly in the context of a war of self defense, requires that the collective self interest be determined by evaluating longterm gains and losses, dangers and benefits.

In peacetime the halakha encourages paying attention to the particular interests relevant to the particular problem of the particular individual at that moment. In contrast, during a war of self defense, the collective must give priority to a strategic perspective concerning the overall, historical past and future, relevant interests of the collective concerning the collective’s past defeats and victories, historical memory and resources, generational social trends, and future goals.

More specifically, Jewish military ethics demand that we must have in front of us the question, “From whence the Jewish State came, and to where our Jewish State is going”.

Based on these principles ethics, Rav Rechnitz concludes that , at this point in the war, Rabbinic military ethics would want to give priority (but not exclusively) to continuing the military offensive in preference to immediately ending the war in order to achieve an immediate release of all the hostages

2. Further elaboration of the importance given the collective perspective in Rabbinic wisdom:

To fully engage this national moral dilemma, Rav Rachnitz insists that we must put it into the perspective of 2000 years of Jewish history; we are obligated to clearly distinguish between two very different historical contexts in our history.

This means that we must distinguish between two types of hostage taking.

One type is kidnapping by a few criminals for the sake of ransom.

The second type is ‘hostages taken in the acts of military conflict between two hostile collectives, where the object is not money, but the attaining of a important tactical military advantage.

Throughout Jewish history, all Jewish communities, in all lands, had to deal only with the first type of hostage taking, kidnapping for ransom. Jews were extremely popular targets for ransom kidnapping for three reasons. First, Many Jews were traveling merchants, easily exposed to kidnapping on land and on the sea. Second their communities were known to have available financial resources, and at least a few wealthy individuals. And, three, Jews communities were known to have a high degree of collective solidarity and thus feel a strong responsibility to ‘take care of their own’.

And throughout Jewish history, Rav Rechnitz points out the Jewish communal leadership gave priority to the historical interests of the collective also in cases of ‘kidnapping for ransom’. For example, the rabbis prohibited paying excessively high ransoms in order not to encourage further kidnapping, and also prohibited offensive actions to liberate hostages because of fear of a critical worsening of the hostages daily living conditions. The rabbis thus gave priority to the long term interest of the collective in devising strategies for freeing kidnapped Jews.

Rav Rechnitz now points out that the current war in Gaza brings upon us a revolutionary change in the halakha of freeing hostages. We are no longer dealing with cases of ‘kidnapping for ransom’, but rather, for the first time in Jewish history, we are dealing with case of a large number of hostages taken in the context of a self defensive war conducted by a sovereign Jewish state against an enemy collective, the Hamas.

For Rav Rechnitz it is clear that, according to Rabbinic precedents, decisions regarding the freeing of the hostages must be made primarily on the following:

Question: How will agreements on freeing hostages affect the possibility of decisively defeating our enemy collective - the Hamas?

Answer: Our concern for the welfare of the hostages must be similar to our concern for the well being of our combat soldiers. Basically, the Jewish collective, in this case the State of Israel , can according to Jewish law, demand of the hostage what it demands of its soldiers.

3. A comparison between rabbinic wisdom and liberal social values with regard hostage release

In the past month a sizeable, vociferous minority (with the help of the media) has been protesting that social justice demands that freeing the hostages takes precedence over achieving military victory.

They argue that the modern liberal state is based on a social contract between the individual citizen and the state. The individual citizen is primarily autonomous and is obligated to compromise and contribute his self interest to the state only according to the dictums of his social contract with the state. Thus, on Oct 7th, when the state terribly failed to provide adequate security to the hostages, many of whose families were also slain, the state violated its contract with the autonomous, individual citizen.

The state is thus ‘obligated’ to rectify this ‘abridgement of contract’ (‘pay its dues’ to the victims of its negligence) and ‘make a deal with the Hamas for freeing the hostages, even it means allowing the Hamas to maintain in place much of its current military structure. The terrible suffering, and severe possibility of loss of life, of the individual hostage ‘out weighs’ the state’s interest in a military destruction of the Hamas.

This argument for the precedence of freeing the hostages over military victory of the collective (our Jewish state) is fairly well aligned with the basic principles of liberal social/political philosophy that prioritizes the civil rights of the autonomous individual.

This stands in sharp contrast to the social philosophy of Jewish law which determines the rights and obligations of the individual Jew on the basis of the understanding that the individual Jew existentially lives as an organic part of the divine, historical collective of the Jewish People.

4. Imperative that these differences on how to ‘balance freeing hostages versus military victory’ do not return us to the pre October seventh social rift

I asked Rav Rechnitz if there is a principle in rabbinic law that could help us lessen a serious social rift on this national dilemma of ‘freeing hostages versus military victory”. Rav Rechnitz responded positively and said that the Rabbis factored the question ofnational-collective morale’ when determining what policy would reflect the best long term diplomatic-military interest of our national collective (the State of Israel).

An army can best fight when it feels it has the overwhelming support of the nation behind it. If a very substantial part of the country disagrees with the government’s strategic view, this must be taken into account in determining what is in the collective’s/nations self interest when defining long range military policy in pursuit of military goals.

The government does not have to immediately respond to the latest national opinion survey, nor neither to the media’s exaggerated presentation of street protests, Rabbinic wisdom however does compel the government to listen intelligently and carefully to the factor of ‘national morale’, ‘the pulse of the nation’.

Rabbinic understanding of the importance of the factor of national morale in determining the long term interest of the collective should help both sides of this debate to moderate and tone down their public argument.

Rav Rechnitz concludes by saying that the Rabbinic principle of ‘national morale’ should thus encourage both sides in the debate to take the responsibility of moderating their expectations and their tone.

If both sides debate the issue in a way that causes a serious rift in the nation, Both sides will definitely lose. Those giving priority to military victory will lose because an army can only fight well and professionally when it feels the whole nation is giving it unconditional support. And those giving priority to freeing the hostages will lose because when the enemy sees that the nation is fatefully divided this will raise the price of freeing the hostages to an unacceptable level that will endanger our immediate and long term military security and degree of deterrence.


Rav Rechnitz thus teaches us that Rabbinic wisdom clearly determines that priority must be given to the nation’s collective need to attain long term military victory. However, rabbinic wisdom also teaches that the goal of achieving military victory should not be pursued in a way that seriously and negatively impacts notional morale.