On of the unsung heroes of the Bible is Jonathan, son of King Saul and close friend of David. What makes him heroic, according to Sa’adiah Gaon, one of the most important Jewish figures of the ninth century, is that he embodied all of the attributes connected with the Scriptural injunction to rebuke one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:17).
The extent of the command to rebuke one’s neighbor, that is, how far must one go in fulfilling this commandment, is subject to dispute. Some say that rebuke is not rebuke unless the reprimander is willing to endure anger of the target. Others say that rebuke must continue until the target shames the rebuker. Still others say that rebuke continues until the target of the rebuke strikes out against the speaker. Sa’adiah Gaon contends that all three are necessary and that Jonathan is the paradigm for his opinion.
King Saul, as the Bible recounts, sought to kill David who he perceived as a rival and a threat. But ever the loyal friend, Jonathan protected David (1 Samuel 20). When King Saul threatened to have David executed, Jonathan challenged his father, arguing that since David committed no wrong, a death sentence would be unjustified. Noteworthy is that Saul “rages” against Jonathan (v. 30), insults him by calling Jonathan “a son of a perverse and rebellious woman (v. 30), and threw a spear at Jonathan with the intent fo striking him down (v. 33). Sa’adiah sees in Jonathan’s behavior all the elements that suggest he was wholeheartedly committed to the mitzvah of rebuking a wrongdoer – even when the wrongdoer was his father and the king of Israel.
Of how many people in today’s society can it be said that they were willing to go as far as Jonathan in speaking truth to power and holding accountable even the most powerful rulers in the land? Interestingly, Sa’adiah probably saw an aspect of Jonathan in his own conduct. In 922 CE he challenged the primacy of the rabbinate in Israel in a matter relating to the Jewish calendar. His unprecedented willingness to challenge the leading authority in the Jewish world at that time and thereby warn against a schism in Judaism exposed him to severe criticism. Nevertheless, he persevered and ultimately rose to a position of universal acceptance.