Searching for Gedaliah

The last Rosh Hashanah before the millennium will no doubt be the occasion for passionate exhortations in synagogues around the world. Rabbis will in all likelihood circumvent the difficult linkage between a Jewish festival and a Christian happening and appeal to their congregants to reflect on the passage of Jews and Judaism through 1,800 years of exile. Indeed, the fate of the Jews from the destruction of the Temple in 70 until the re-establishment of a Jewish state in 1948 would be fitting contemplation for the yomim noraim between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Underpinning all this will be the notion that throughout the centuries of wandering and persecution, the Jews relied on their rabbinical leadership to guide them through difficult times. Judaism provided spiritual protection against an often hostile external reality and maintained the nation as a separate entity. Survival in one sense therefore depended on a certain degree of conformity to accepted beliefs. Today, survival is predicated on the struggle against assimilation rather than against antisemitism—a spiritual and cultural battle rather than a physical one. Do we therefore teach our children the traditions because we accept everything without question, or because we wish to utilise Judaism as a bulwark against assimilation? This desire to ensure Jewish commitment actually militates against asking questions in an intellectual quest for an intelligent Judaism. This is particularly true of modern orthodoxy, which finds itself sandwiched between ultra-orthodoxy on one side and Masorti, Reform and Liberals on the other—a consequence of the difficult balancing act of being both modem and orthodox.

Consider the case of Gedaliah ben Ahikam. Submerged within this period of introspection is the fast of Gedaliah, which immediately follows Rosh Hashanah. Most Jews prefer to ignore its very existence amidst a plethora of yomtovim, while others fast through its totality even though they may not know who Gedaliah was. Indeed, we fast because Gedaliah ben Ahikam, appointed by Nebuchadnezzar to govern Judea after the destruction of the Temple, was murdered by Ishmael ben Nethaniah and his friends.

The fast of Gedaliah is considered to be the last of the four minor fasts associated with the destruction of the first Temple. Yet while there is a succession of events commencing with the 10 Tevet and 17 Tammuz and culminating in the 9 Av which seem to fit together sequentially, 3 Tishri—the fast of Gedaliah—seems to be floating ahistorically without any perceived anchorage. Yet many Jews fast because this is Jewish tradition. This is what is expected of them. This is what their fathers and grandfathers did. However, the prophet Zechariah, who lived at the time of the dispersion, states that the minor fasts are in the order of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months. Over 700 years later, Rabbi Akiva decreed that the fasts should be observed in the order of months of the year. Akiva made the decision and we have inherited that decision. Yet in a commentary, Rabbi Shimon states that he disagrees with Akiva and points out that the fasts should be determined in the chronological order in which the catastrophes actually occurred: `My view (Shimon) is more probable than his (Akiva), because I make the first (mentioned by Zechariah) first and the last last whereas he makes the first last and the last first’ (Rosh Hashanah 18b).

The 5 Tevet—rather than the 10 Tevet—is quoted by Rabbi Shimon and this actually commemorates the day when the news reached the prophet Ezekiel and the exiles in Babylon that Nebuchadnezzar’s army had over-run Jerusalem and desolated the Land in revenge for Gedaliah’s killing. Shimon’s explanation makes far better sense than that of Akiva—we should finish with the 5 Tevet and not start with the 10 Tevet. It does not manipulate history to fit an interpretation and renders the fast of Gedaliah intelligible.

Why not then look once again at Akiva’s opinion? Especially in the light of contemporary knowledge about these events. Is retrospective analysis feared because it would challenge the religious stability of Judaism? Is communal cohesion placed before intellectual endeavour? If orthodoxy is understood as the manifestation of a cumulative wisdom, does this mean that there can be no questioning of past rulings? Does it mean waiting until there is a welling up of interest in Gedaliah? Does it mean waiting until the collective will of the Jewish people’ promotes an evaluation?

Rabbis were not only deciders and interpreters of the law but also its enforcers and the arbiters of conformity. Later generations of rabbis considered some past giants of the Torah to be divinely inspired because of their insight. This restricts different views emerging even in the light of recent knowledge. The conferring of ‘divine inspiration’ by rabbis on their eminent predecessors endowed them with a spiritual lineage stretching back to Mount Sinai and Moses. Thus if any sort of lay leadership emerged, it was subservient to, and not parallel with, the rabbinical leadership. Although there has been a separation between the spiritual and the temporal since the time of Moses and Aaron, the impact of the Enlightenment resulted in an attempt to remove political power from the rabbis. This control, in itself, had always been deemed a temporary arrangement due to the loss of sovereignty in Roman Palestine. The increasing prominence of lay leaders within Jewish communities provided an alternative to rabbinical authority. Since Jews were now allowed to participate in the wider society, they developed contacts in the power structure in the countries in which they lived. In Britain, a structure evolved based on philanthropic governance, semi-representative organisations and a spiritual leadership. Unlike the past, when rabbis were often called on to make life-and-death decisions for their communities, power was now devolved. Thus, the political and spiritual roles of the rabbi were separated. Indeed, even chief rabbis could be bitterly criticised if they strayed too far from the pulpit.

In haredi circles, the primacy of rabbinical leadership was left unchallenged. Rabbis were considered to be receptacles of political wisdom as well as interpreters of Talmud and Torah. In pre-war Poland, it was not the political representatives of Agudat Yisrael who made the ultimate decision, but the gedolim. In present-day Israel, it is not the seventeen members of the Knesset who represent the tens of thousands who voted for Shas who have the final word, but Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

Today’s modern orthodox rabbi has a plethora of roles—from Jewish educator to Talmudic therapist. Each rabbi plays an important role in revitalising the community judaically and in ensuring its social cohesion. But do they look at the problems of our times that are characterised by the march of history? They have—by definition—the most difficult and ambivalent of positions: controversial questions such as conversion, aguna, the relationship between orthodox and non-orthodox, the centrality of science, even the relatively minor question of two-day yomtovim in the Diaspora—all are placed in abeyance. Difficult questions are marginalised to await the greater wisdom of future generations. Judaism would never have survived without their strength of rabbinical conviction. But should the traditionalism of the past prevent them from facing the problems of the present?

In addition, there is the burden of factionalism—orthodox against non-orthodox; mitnaged against Hasid; religious Zionist against anti-Zionist haredi—no wonder too many rabbis balk at the prospect of setting out their stall in the intellectual market place for fear of rebuke and reprisal.

Despite the expansion of the world of learning, we live in difficult times, when such educational efforts may enhance conformity and neo-conservatism rather than intellectual exploration. The modern orthodox rabbi as educator is very much in evidence, but the modern orthodox rabbi, as judge, is virtually invisible. So will there be a real change in the future? The answer is almost certainly no because, in one sense, there will be no incentive for rabbis to act as judges rather than as educators. Given the need for guidance and authoritative figures in a time of uncertainty, it is likely that we will witness a communal desire to follow and not to question in the new millennium. And those who are simply unable to avoid a passion to argue for the sake of heaven rather than for the sake of victory will in all likelihood be shunted into the sidings of non-orthodox movements, secularism and academe. The search for Gedaliah is a metaphor for the search for an intelligent Judaism.

Judaism Today Autumn 1999


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