Every child with a decent Jewish education knows about the "big three" sins, the only three for which we are required to give our lives rather than transgress. In the words of the Talmud:
R' Yochanan said in the name of R' Shimon ben Yehotzadak: "It was decided by a vote in the loft of the house of Nitezeh in Lod: For all the transgressions in the Torah, if a man is told, 'Transgress and you will not be killed,' he should transgress and not be killed, except for idol worship and sexual relations and bloodshed." (Sanhedrin 74a)
By extension, many modern rabbinical authorities have ruled that this applies to the question of whether the State of Israel may relinquish land for strategic reasons, even though settling the Land of Israel is a commandment and relinquishing land to the gentiles is a violation of it.
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef shlit"a is well known for arguing that land may - indeed must - be relinquished if the objective is to save lives. It is less well known that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe essentially shared this analysis of the halacha, though he believed that relinquishing land would only endanger Jewish lives, not save them. R' Soloveitchik zt"l apparently shared this approach as well, though there may be some subtle distinctions among halachists regarding whether one would be required to trade land for peace or merely permitted to, and regarding who one consults in assessing whether or not lives would actually be saved.
Speaking in 1967, Rav Soloveitchik argued that such decisions are ultimately not for rabbis to make but for military and political experts. Regarding the specific point of pikuach nefesh, the saving of lives, he said:
If pikuach nefesh supersedes all other mitzvos, it supersedes all prohibitions of the Torah, especially pikuach nefesh of the yishuv in Eretz Yisrael.(Hat tip: My Obiter Dicta)
I would never presume to compare myself with Rav Soloveitchik, or indeed any of the rabbinic giants who have made this argument. I'm not a rabbi, nor anywhere close to being one. But as simple and compelling this logic may sound, it strikes me as seriously flawed.
The Talmud indeed prioritizes the saving of lives over all the prohibitions of the Torah (except three). But then it proceeds to qualify this ruling in crucial ways:
When R' Dimi arrived, he taught: R' Yochanan said, "This [that one should transgress rather than be killed] was only taught when not in a time of royal decrees [against the Jews], but in a time of royal decrees even for a minor commandment one should be killed rather than transgress."
When Rabin arrived, he taught: R' Yochanan said, "Even when not in a time of royal decrees, they only said this regarding actions in private, but in public, even for a minor commandment one should be killed rather than transgress."
What is a "minor commandment"? Rava bar R' Yitzhak said in the name of Rav: Even to change the lace of one's shoe.
And how many is "in public"? R' Yaakov said: R' Yochanan said, "'In public' requires at least ten people." (Sanhedrin 74a-b)
The Talmud goes on to debate finer distinctions between the possible circumstances in which one might be called to decide between saving lives and violating commandments. But this much is clear: The original ruling that saving lives takes priority applies to individuals in private.
Should a thug threaten to kill you unless you cook on Shabbat, you should cook. But if an oppressive regime demands that the Jews cook on Shabbat or be killed, you must lay down your life rather than violate Shabbat. Similarly, if the same thug threatens you in front of a crowd of Jews, you must lay down your life rather than submit. In either of these cases, violating the Torah would constitute a chillul Hashem, a desecration of God's name, and is forbidden.
When terrorists threaten to kill Jews unless the Jewish state hands over parts of the Land of Israel, how can this possibly be viewed as a case where the saving of life supersedes the Torah? When the nations of the world deny our very right to our land, is it not a chillul Hashem to surrender to their demands?
One could certainly argue that none of these categories are relevant. All these cases deal with individuals who must either transgress or die. They may be acting in private or in public, in a time of oppression or a time of liberty, but they are acting as individuals.
I would argue that the question of "land for peace" is of a different nature, as it falls upon the government of the Jewish people, which much decide which course of policy is best for our current and future security needs. Sometimes, the nation must make a tactical retreat in order to preserve more vital national goals. The most recent example - disengagement from Gaza - may be one of them, though I do not believe that it is.
Regardless, I fail to understand how the question of "land for peace" can be classified among the cases of "transgress rather than be killed", which applies only to individuals acting privately. Since several rabbinic giants have indeed viewed it that way, there must be something I'm missing. Can anyone offer an explanation?
Hat tip: I came across some of the above insights about pikuach nefesh in an article by Prof. David Rokeach, emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.