11. Breakdown in the Traditional Leadership Pattern
As the generations passed in Eretz Yisrael and the centre of Jewish life shifted to Babylon with the First Exile, two types of leadership emerged:
- The secular leader, known as the Resh Galuta [Exilarch], was usually appointed by the king and possessed all the trappings of royalty, including the power of appointing judges and collecting taxes from the Jewish community.
- Co-existing with the Exilarch was the Gaon [exalted one], the spiritual leader of the Jews, and head of the Talmudic Academy. His hegemony was often recognized not only in Babylon, but also throughout the Jewish world.
Did this system of divided or shared leadership work?
In general, yes, but there were conflicts between the leaders that left them believing that the other had encroached on his domain. In the eighth century, one such incident concerned the renowned philosopher Saadiah Gaon, known to have quarreled with the exilarch David Ben Zakkai, and causing a great scandal that was only resolved after Saadia had been exiled for eight years.
As Jewish life in Babylon faded and the golden era of Spain emerged, secular and spiritual leadership roles were reunited under the leadership of Hasdai ibn Shaprut (917-970). His tasks included serving as Foreign Minister to the Caliph and defending the situation of the Jews - a role that was to become increasingly focal in later years. He was also a distinguished patron of learning, a person who made scholarship the hallmark of the Jewish community in Spain.
There were exceptions to this model that do not break the rule of "separate but shared powers":
Leaders such as: Hasdai Ibn Shaprut ; Shmuel Hanaggid of Grenada, ; the shtadlan (Court Jew) Joseph of Rosheim in Alsace; and the Rambam [Moses Maimonides] in Alexandria, are often considered the ideal Jewish leaders.
- They were both civil and political leaders of the Jewish community, as well as being recognized by the wider public.
- At the same time, they were steeped in Jewish learning and dedicated to Jewish values and scholarship.
Generally speaking, however, leadership of the Jewish People continued to be bifurcated:
- The Rabbi-scholar inherited the role of the religious spiritual head;
- The role of the secular leader was taken over by the Hofjude in Germany and the Shtadlan, or court Jew, in Eastern Europe. By comparison with the spiritual leader, he was usually less learned - more a man of wealth and influence.
Conclusion to Part One
There are many more examples of traditional Jewish leadership patterns in the Biblical, Talmudic, Mediaeval and pre-Modern eras - in Eretz Yisrael, Babylon, Spain, North Africa, Europe and Eastern Europe/Russia.
- We invite you to explore them yourself, using the references below.
With all that has been said about the binary nature of Jewish leadership, it is interesting that - over almost two millennia - the names of Judaism's spiritual luminaries generally remain more prominent in the collective memory than those of its secular leaders.
- We ask you to think of some reasons why this should be so, and to give some examples.
Timeline Perspective of Major Events in Jewish History. Jewish America. www.jewishamerica.com/ja/timeline/timpersp.cfm
Internet Jewish History Sourcebook. Fordham University. www.fordham.edu/halsall/jewish/jewishsbook.html
On Ibn Shaprut: www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/khazars1.html
Please also see our Internet References.