Religion & Beliefs

Relevant Redemption

Jewish liturgy is all about redemption. The number of times we ask to be redeemed in shachrit alone is overwhelming enough that I have a hard time conjuring up what redemption would entail on any practical level. My only real … Read More

By / July 5, 2007

Jewish liturgy is all about redemption. The number of times we ask to be redeemed in shachrit alone is overwhelming enough that I have a hard time conjuring up what redemption would entail on any practical level. My only real indicator in terms of the realities of redemption comes from an oft-forgotten mitzvah, pidyon shvuyim, ransoming/redeeming the captive. For information about the basis and complexities of pidyon shvuyim I direct you to a great discussion of this positive commandment over at MyJewishLearning. Here’s a brief rundown: Jews are commanded to pay the ransom necessary to free any and all Jewish slaves or prisoners. There doesn’t seem to be many loopholes available, but the Talmud (Gittin 45a) comes in and makes two possible restrictions. We’re not supposed to redeem captives for more than they’re worth, or help them escape, because of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). The explanations given are that

1) we don’t want to put a financial burden on the community, and

2) we also don’t want to encourage the captors to take more captives in order to get more money. All of this has incredibly frustrating and fascinating implications in a world where Israeli soldiers have been captured and held for more than a year by Palestinian groups. The struggle to compromise halacha, the safety of the soldiers, and the safety of Israel is extremely difficult, and rabbis have been grappling with it for decades. The level of frustration, rises, of course, during a week when captives seem tantalizingly close to redemption. I can’t help picturing Gilad Shalit doing the interview circuit the way that Alan Johnston did yesterday. And what about the other two soldiers captured in Lebanon? How much are they worth, and what can we do to free them? It’s nice to think of redeeming captives as a warm fuzzy mitzvah that everyone can get next to, but as we saw this week, sometimes freeing people isn’t helpful or good—it’s corrupt. I’m speaking, of course, of Scooter Libby’s commuted prison sentence.  The questions that this kind of situation brings up are important. Are we obligated to free Jewish captives even if they’re imprisoned for really good reason? What if we think they did something wrong, but the punishment is too harsh? That, of course, was Bush’s argument. Where do our loyalties lie, and where SHOULD they lie? Am I supposed to sneak Jack Abramoff out of prison, but leave the West Memphis 3 and Kevin Cooper to rot in jail since they’re not Jewish? What about the millions of actual slaves all around the world? Do I have an obligation to them? Actually, that last question is the only one I don’t struggle with much. I think I do have an obligation to redeem today’s slaves. (And yes, I know that people like to talk about how those of us with cushy lives in the Western hemisphere are slaves to technology and capitalism, but I’m talking about a more literal slavery here. Like, with chains and actual prices on peoples’ heads.) If you want to help, I recommend heading over to the Not For Sale website, where you can donate money, get educated on the problem and how widespread it is, and join the movement of others dedicated to ending human slavery in this generation. In the face of all of the craziness surrounding Shalit, Johnston, Bush, Libby, and everyone else struggling with justice and captivity, it’s nice to have something I can do that will definitely make a difference. Redemption is suddenly real.