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High Holidays Feature (5): Fast of Gedaliah Reminds Jews to Embrace Pluralism

To condemn assassination, the rabbis of the Talmud ordained the day after Rosh Hashanah as the Fast of Gedaliah.

At the very beginning of the New Year, this is a profound, unequivocal statement on the sanctity of life. It also reminds us that political murder and fanaticism only result in upheaval, pain and, ultimately, self-destruction.

The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was far from the first political assassination in Jewish history. In biblical times, two Davidic monarchs of the Kingdom of Judah, as well as two chiefs of staff, were assassinated by fellow Jews.

In the northern Kingdom of Israel, moreover, political assassination occurred regularly. The Hasmonean regime was a bloody period.

In more recent times, the Haganah ordered the assassination of Jacob Deltaan. Israeli artillery shelled the ship Altalena, which was staffed by the Irgun.

These evil events were done in the name of religion or political nationalism. Fanaticism anywhere breeds violence and murder, even among Jews.

Arguably, the most significant assassination in Jewish history was that of Gedaliah ben AhiKam. The sources are clear in Jeremiah.

The Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzar, had put down a Jewish revolt in Judea in 586 B.C.E., during which Jerusalem and the First Temple were destroyed.

In recognition of the prophet Jeremiah’s opposition to the revolt, the Babylonians freed the imprisoned prophet and appointed his ally, Gedaliah, as governor of Judea. Gedaliah’s family had long been associated with Jeremiah in seeking religious honesty and reforms.

As governor, Gedaliah pursued Jeremiah’s vision of accommodating the Jews to Babylonian rule.

Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon articulated his belief, which has become the political theme of Jews living outside Israel: "Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper (Jeremiah 29:7)."

The message was clear: Rebellion was futile at best and destructive at worst.

Meanwhile, in Palestine, Gedaliah urged those remaining to respect Babylonian authority, advising them, "It will be good for you (Jeremiah 40:9)."

His policies did bring marked economic improvement. As recorded in Jeremiah 40: 12, "They gathered large quantities of wine and figs."

The policy of accommodation with the Babylonians was not popular in all quarters. There were some who wanted to shake off the rule of Babylonians by igniting a rebellion. Gedaliah’s aides warned him that the Ammonites were trying to incite this group.

They were united in conspiracy by the view that Gedaliah was an obstacle.

Gedaliah’s aides also warned him that he could be assassinated, but he dismissed these rumors.

Gedaliah invited Ishmael ben Methaniah, a descendant of the royal line of King David, and 10 associates to dinner in a move toward reconciliation and goodwill.

At the dinner, Gedaliah and his aides were assassinated by the rebels. Gedaliah’s remaining allies pursued Ishmael, who escaped, returning to the kingdom of the Ammonites.

After the assassination, Jeremiah continued to advocate maintaining Gedaliah’s policies. Others, fearing Babylonian reprisals, compelled Jeremiah to join them in fleeing to Egypt. Their flight only widened the exile and truly marked the end of the First Jewish Commonwealth.

Hundreds of years later, the rabbis of the Talmud studied the tragedy. They condemned the assassination.

First, a righteous man was murdered. The rabbis equated his death with the destruction of the Temple. Their equation of the murder of one person with destruction of the entire Temple speaks volumes on the sanctity and preciousness of a single human being.

Second, Gedaliah’s policies were politically and practically sound. They were designed for Jewish survival and improvement. Although his political plans did not satisfy the rebels who were ardent nationalists, he did preserve Jewish interests, religion and culture.

The rabbis then used this historical event to parallel their own response to Rome after the Bar Kochba rebellion in 135 B.C.E. They, too, turned away from rebellion against Roman power and favored accommodation.

Their view turned out to be correct, because the Romans stamped out Bar Kochba with horrific persecutions, ending any hope of restoring Jewish political power.

In thoughtfully considering all these events, the rabbis came to the conclusion that Gedaliah’s assassination, Jewish disunity and internal conflict led to the destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth.

For this reason, the rabbis chose to commemorate the assassination with a fast day immediately after Rosh Hashanah, saying that the first items on the agenda of the new year are respect and tolerance for differing views on the path of Judaism.

It is tempting to draw immediate and relevant conclusions; however, one must be cautious in historical analogies.

It is clear that we must study Jewish history, for as the philosopher Santayana pointed out, "Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it." Hatred only breeds more hatred. Violence surely provokes counterviolence.

One can interpret texts and history many ways. However, as Ecclesiastes cautions, "Do not be overrighteous (7:16)." Extremes are extremely distasteful. Tolerance, respect, cooperation and avoidance of violence are the Jewish way.

The Fast of Gedaliah is a reminder to Jews to reject extremism and violence and to embrace pluralism and respect for difference. Peace is not a slogan, it is a way of life.

Rabbi Bernard S. Raskas is Rabbi Emeritus of the Temple of Aaron, St. Paul, and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Religious Studies at Macalester College. He is author of the trilogy, "Heart of Wisdom."

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