Gedaliah Ben Ahikam: Realist or Defeatist?

 Only a few days ago, we observed the Fast of Gedaliah the day after Rosh Hashannah. The assassination of Gedaliah ben Ahikam by his political enemies signaled the end of any form of Jewish autonomy in the Land of Israel after the destruction of the First Temple 2500 years ago. But the question remains: Was Gedaliah a political realist who believed the only way to go on after the trauma of disaster was to cooperate with the Babylonian enemy or was Gedaliah’s cooperation that of a defeatist who had given up on any chance of the last Jewish remnant rebelling against the Babylonian Empire?

Gedaliah’s short time as governor of the remnant of the Southern Kingdom of Judah was marked by important land reforms that protected the poor Jewish farmer who had remained in the Land of Israel and had not been exiled to Babylonia with Jerusalem’s elite years earlier. But the recent memory of Davidic monarchy before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was still foremost in the mind of many Jews. A member of the royal family, Ishmael ben Nethaniah, considered Gedaliah a traitor because the governor cooperated with the Babylonian enemy. Ishmael had the support of the king of Ammon, who wanted to occupy parts of Judah and was likely the force behind the assassination.

Why the rabbis considered the assassination of Gedaliah to be so important an event that merited mourning and a fast day likely has much to do with the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in their own time. In 68 CE, with Roman troops besieging Jerusalem, Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai surrendered to Roman general Vespasian and guaranteed the continuation of Judaism in internal exile in the coastal town of Yavneh despite the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70. In the post-Holocaust epoch and the rise of a Jewish sovereign state in the Land of Israel—at a time when Jews could not cooperate with enemies but had to defy them—Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai has often been branded a defeatist. This is an unfair assessment. The rabbi realized the rebelling Zealots had no chance to defeat the Roman Empire, he foresaw the destruction of the Temple, and his surrender allowed the Jews to regroup and insure continuity. Negotiation and intercession with non-Jewish authority played a major role in the history of the Diaspora and the Land of Israel for 1700 years. It was only with the rise of racial-antisemitism in Germany, Czarist pogroms in Russia, and the breakdown of rabbinic authority in the modern epoch that Yohanan Ben Zakkai’s strategy proved a terrible and tragic failure. But it should be recognized that this rabbi’s political realism saved Judaism and the Jewish people. Simply to condemn it for failing after centuries of success is shortsighted.

So with Gedaliah Ben Ahikam as well. After the destruction of the Temple of Solomon there was simply no way to revive Davidic monarchy and to stage a rebellion. As governor appointed by the Babylonians, Gedaliah would have brought further terror down on Jerusalem and the rebellion would have failed. While there is little that is romantic about cooperating with the enemy and not defying the enemy, Gedaliah was just being realistic. The monarchy continued among the exiles who were in Babylonia but the dream of restoring monarchy in Israel was a dead ideal. The assassination of Gedaliah marked the defeat of a leader who realized, that under the circumstances, rebellion would have meant the end of the Jews remaining in their homeland. There is a time for defiance and the call to arms. There are times to negotiate. We must learn which stance is correct for its time and thrive as a people based on that decision.