Modern attempts to revive the Sanhedrin

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Within Judaism, the Sanhedrin is seen as the last institution which commanded universal authority among the Jewish people in the long chain of tradition from Moses until the present day. Since its dissolution in 358 CE,[1] there has been no universally recognized authority within Jewish law. Maimonides (1135–1204) was one of the greatest scholars of the middle ages, and is arguably one of the most widely known scholars among the Jewish people. Influenced by the rationalist school of thought and generally showing a preference for a natural (as opposed to miraculous) redemption for the Jewish people, Maimonides proposed a rationalist solution for achieving the goal of re-establishing the highest court in Jewish tradition and reinvesting it with the same authority it had in former years. There have been several attempts to implement Maimonides' recommendations, the latest being in modern times.

In October 2004 (Tishrei 5765), a group of rabbis claiming to represent varied communities in Israel undertook a ceremony in Tiberias, where the original Sanhedrin was disbanded, which they claim re-establishes the body according to the proposal of Maimonides and the Jewish legal rulings of Rabbi Yosef Karo.

The Dissolution of the Classical Sanhedrin

During the period when it stood on the Temple Mount, the Sanhedrin achieved its quintessential position, legislating on all aspects of Jewish religious and political life within the parameters laid down by Biblical and Rabbinic tradition. After the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE, the Sanhedrin was re-established with reduced authority, although it was still universally recognized as the ultimate authority in religious matters. This authority was reinforced by the official sanction of the imperial Roman government and legislation.

The Sanhedrin was re-established in Yavneh [70-80 CE]. From there it was moved to Usha under the presidency of Gamliel II ben Shimon II [80-116 CE]. Afterwards it was conveyed back to Yavneh, and again back to Usha. It was moved to Shefaram under the presidency of Shimon III ben Gamliel II [140-163 CE], and to Beth Shearim and Sephoris, under the presidency of Yehudah I [163-193 CE]. Finally it was moved to Tiberias, under the presidency of Gamliel III ben Yehudav I [193-220 CE], where it became more of a consistory, but still retained, under the presidency of Yehudah II ben-Shimon III [220-270 CE], the power of excommunication.

During the presidency of Gamliel IV ben Yehudav II, due to persecution of an increasingly Christianized Rome it dropped the name Sanhedrin, and its authoritative decisions were subsequently issued under the name of Beth HaMidrash. As a reaction to Julian's pro-Jewish stance, Theodosius forbade the Sanhedrin to assemble and declared ordination illegal. (Roman law declared capital punishment for any Rabbi who received ordination and complete destruction of the town where the ordination occurred). Because the Jewish Calendar is based on witnesses' testimony, and that had become far to dangerous to collect, Hillel II recommended a mathematical Calendar that was adopted at a clandestine, and maybe last, meeting [358 CE]. This marked the last universal decision made by that body. Gamliel V [400-425 CE] was the last president. With the death of this patriarch, who was executed by Theodosius II for erecting new synagogues contrary to the imperial decree, the title Nasi, the last remains of the ancient Sanhedrin, became illegal to be used after 425 CE.

There are records of what may have been of attempts to reform the Sanhedrin in Arabia,[2] in Jerusalem under the Calif 'Umar,[3] and in Babylon (Iraq),[4] but none of these attempts were given any attention by Rabbinic authorities and little information is available about them.

Maimonides' semicha by consensus

Maimonides was one of the greatest scholars of the middle ages, and is arguably one of the most widely accepted scholars among the Jewish people since the closing of the Talmud in 500 CE. Influenced by the rationalist school of thought and generally showing a preference for a natural (as opposed to miraculous) redemption for the Jewish people, Maimonides records that it is an absolute, binding requirement of the Jewish people in every generation to set up a Sanhedrin and courts of law. Faced with the demise of classical Semicha (Biblical ordination), he tentatively proposes a rationalist solution for achieving the goal of re-establishing the highest court in Jewish tradition and reinvesting it with the same authority it had in former years.

Maimonides writes:

It appears to me [Maimonides] that if all the sages of the Land of Israel consent to appoint dayanim (judges) and grant them semichah (ordination), they have the law of musmachim and they can judge penalty cases and are authorized to grant semichah to others [thus restoring Biblical ordination].
If so, why did the sages bemoan [the loss of] semichah? So that the judgment of penalty cases wouldn't disappear from among Israel because Jews are so spread out that it's not possible to get their consent [to authorize a dayan]. If someone were to receive semichah from someone who already has semichah, then he does not require their consent – he may judge penalty cases for everyone since he received semichah from beis din (rabbinical court). However, this matter requires a final decision.
(Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11)

The wording of this teaching is vague and tentative and leaves several points open. Firstly, it opens with "It appears to me" and ends with "this matter requires a final decision". Secondly it is not specified what is meant by "consent". Thirdly it leaves open as to who are the "all the sages of the Land of Israel" and lastly - although not apparent here - what is really meant by the word "all". These questions led to significant debate within Rabbinic circles, from those who completely disregarded this teaching to others who differed on its meaning.

The differing interpretations gradually coalesced by the time of Rabbi Yosef Karo [1488-1575] who recorded as definitive Jewish law that ordination could be established by consensus, and accepted such ordination himself. While Rabbi Yosef Karo's magnum opus, the Shulchan Aruch, is considered the most authoritative collection of Jewish Law in use today, his views on this subject are not widely known.[5] In general religious Jews not familiar with his writings on the subject tend to reject outright the notion of establishing a Sanhedrin by consensus.

The matter of restoring semicha by consensus has been a matter of dispute within the orthodox community.

Against semicha by consensus

Against the view are such authorities as the Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz (the Chazon Ish), who quoted Rabbi David ibn abi Zimra (the Radvaz) on the subject, who in turn sided with Rabbi Levi Ibn Chaviv (the Ralbach), who based his claims on the Ramban that it is impossible to form a Sanhedrin before Moshiach, the Jewish messiah, comes.

For semicha by consensus

On the other hand, as explained above, authorities based on Maimonides[6] and Rabbi Yosef Karo,[7] author of the Shulchan Aruch, were of the opinion that semicha could be established by consensus and a Sanhedrin could be formed without waiting for Moshiach. Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, the leading disciple of the Vilna Gaon, wrote in the name of the Gaon that there was no need to wait for Moshiach before forming a Sanhedrin.[8] (Cf. Attempt by Rabbi Yisroel Shklover, 1830 to revive Semicha.)

A brief summary of the last five rabbinical attempts to create a Sanhedrin

A discussion of the last five rabbinical attempts to reinstate Semicha can be found in the Wikipedia entry on Semicha. Rabbi Bavad, a member of the new Sanhedrin, gives a brief discussion of those attempts and how they affected the most recent attempt.[9]

  • Attempt by Rabbi Jacob Berab in 1538. Rabbi Berab assembled 25 of the most leading Rabbis of Israel, who at the time were located in Safed, and declared Semicha re-instituted. The Rabbis of Jerusalem felt a slight on their honor and declared the election invalid, and a major dispute ensued. Some Rabbis disputed it was even possible to renew Semicha but Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, as a final position declared the procedure valid. The new Sanhedrin has modeled its actions after this attempt.
  • Attempt by Rabbi Yisroel Shklover in 1830. In Rabbi Shklover's lifetime the Turkish empire was crumbling, and for the first time in almost a thousand years westerners were being allowed into Yemen. Scientific journals of the time seriously speculated that the remnants of the lost ten tribes would be found. Based on Jewish traditions and "scientific evidence" Rabbi Shklover sent an emissary to obtain Semicha from these lost tribes. In the end, no remnant was found, however the responsa involved in this shed light on the Vilna Gaon's position that it was permissible to attempt to re-establish the Sanhedrin.
  • Attempt by Rabbi Aharon Mendel haCohen in 1901. Rabbi Mendel collected the approval of approximately 500 leading Rabbis in favor of the renewal of Semicha according to the Maimonides. His involvement in the founding of Agudath Israel and the intervening of World War I distracted him from implementing this plan. The new Sanhedrin bases its use of phones, fax and regular mail rather than physically assembling "all the scholars of the Land of Israel" on the rabbinical responsa surrounding this attempt.
  • Attempt by Rabbi Zvi Kovsker in 1940. Rabbi Zvi Kovsker came to Israel from Soviet Russia. Seeing the condition of Jews in the years leading up to World War II, he undertook an effort to contact and work with many Rabbinic leaders in Israel towards getting their approval for the renewal of Semicha, and the reestablishment of a Sanhedrin, as an authentic government for the Jewish people (this was before the establishment of the State of Israel). His efforts to lobby the Rabbinic leaders was the model for twenty years of groundwork and discussions by the organizers of the new Sanhedrin.
  • Attempt by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Maimon in 1949. Rabbi Maimon proposed turning the Israeli Rabbinate into a Sanhedrin. The perceived subordinate position to the government of Israel, was compared to Napoleon's Sanhedrin, and led to strong vocal opposition by all Haredi Rabbis. In contrast, the new Sanhedrin has declared itself entirely independent of the government, and in several respects has opposed the government.

Rabbi Beirav, the model for the current attempt

A closer look at the attempt by Rabbi Beirav,[10] and the involvement of the Beis Yosef, which was the model for the current attempt

Rabbi Yakov Berav (1474-1546), know as the Mahari Beirav, was born in Spain. Evidence of the great respect is afforded by the following lines of Rabbi Abraham Gavison in Omer ha-Shikchah: "Say not that the lamp of the Law no longer burns in Israel! Yakov Beirav has come back! once more he sojourns among us!" In 1533 he became Rabbi at Cairo; and several years after he seems to have finally settled in Safed, which then contained the largest and most learned Jewish community in the Land of Israel. After the Spanish expulsion, many Jews remained in Spain, practicing their Judaism in secret, while publicly appearing to be Christians. Thousands of these Marrano Jews eventually escaped to areas where they could practice their religion with relative freedom, yet they were haunted by the sins they had committed in previous years. As chief Rabbi of Safed, Rabbi Yakov Beirav proposed the creation of Jewish courts that would carry out the punishment of malkos, lashes, which releases someone from the punishment of kareis (Mishnah Makos 23a). But in order to create these Jewish courts, classical ordination had to be reinstituted.

Renewal of Semicha

For a year, Rabbi Yakov Beirav discussed the issues of re-establishment institution of semicha with the scholars of Safed. After much discussion the scholars at Safed came to the conclusion that Maimonides' view was correct, and that there was a pressing need to re-establish the Sanhedrin. In 1538 twenty-five Rabbis met in an assembly at Safed and ordained Rabbi Yakov Beirav, giving him the right to ordain others who would then form a Sanhedrin. After sending a delegation to Jerusalem, Rabbi Yakov Beirav expounded on Shabbat before all the scholars of Safed the halachic basis of the re-establishment of semicha and its implications, with an intent to dispel any remaining doubts. On hearing of this event, approximately two hundred scholars, most of the scholars in Land of Israel, also expressed their consent. To obtain the good-will of the scholars of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yakov Beirav sent Rabbi Shlomo Chazan to inform them of the reinstitution of semicha and to obtain their approval. He extended semicha to the chief Rabbi at Jerusalem, Levi ben Yakov ibn Chaviv, (Ralbach).

The dispute

The Ralbach however rejected the semicha. He considered it an insult to his dignity and to the dignity of Jerusalem that so important a change should be effected without consultation of the scholars of Jerusalem. Rabbi Moshe deCastro of Jerusalem also expressed doubts over the applicability of semicha. Because of this opposition some of the scholars of Safed also began to entertain doubts. Rabbi Yakov Beirav again assembled the scholars of Safed, and reviewed the halachic basis for re-establishment of semicha. Rabbi Yosef Karo and others sent a treatise Maaseh Beis Din to the scholars of Jerusalem explaining the basis for semicha and protesting their opposition to its re-establishment. In the course of time, the Ralbach put his objections to Rabbi Yakov Beirav's semicha in writing, involving additional scholars in the dispute. In response Rabbi Yakov Beirav composed and distributed Iggeret Hasemicha to settle any halachic doubts. The dispute lasted for a year. In general the scholars outside of Land of Israel did not get involved at this stage in the dispute, with the exception of the Radbaz.

The Ralbach's objections centered around the following points:[11]

  1. The re-establishment of semicha will cause the speeding up of redemption, which is not permitted.
  2. The Maimonides closing words, "This matter requires a final decision" shows that he was not fully decided on this ruling. Since the Maimonides was uncertain and the Nahmanides was certain,[12] the law follows the Nahmanides.
  3. Lastly that the role of Sanhedrin had to be complete, the Calendar had to immediately change which could cause division among the Jewish people
  4. Even if Maimonides was correct, because the scholars of Jerusalem were not present the election was invalid.

Rabbi Yakov Beirav countered with the following points:[13]

  1. First, that the re-establishment semicha is not interfering with the process of redemption, rather it is simply the fulfillment of a positive mitzvah.
  2. The Maimonides' closing words refer a different legal matter.
  3. There was no problem leaving the Jewish calendar unchanged.
  4. The most learned scholars lived in Safed and that was sufficient; in Jewish law the word "all" means the "main part". (It is interesting to note that the Ralbach did not differ with Rabbi Yakov Beirav on this point, only he objected that "all" must include the scholars of Jerusalem. He did not claim that every scholar in all of Land of Israel should be present in the assembly).

In his treatise Maaseh Beis Din,[14] Rabbi Yosef Karo explained Maimonides' principle of "all". There he writes that Maimonides meant that if one Rabbi is willing to defer to the knowledge and wisdom of another Rabbi - those lesser rabbis are already included to the greater rabbis and need not be included in the count of "all" (meaning that the scholars of Jerusalem did not need to be included in the election process). To further show that he held that this opinion, he accepted the Semicha of Rabbi Beirav, and passed it on for several generations.

Conclusion

It is known that Rabbi Yosef Karo and Rabbi Moses of Trani were two of the four men ordained by Rabbi Yakov Beirav. The others are assumed to be Rabbi Abraham Shalom and Rabbi Israel de Curial and/or Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto. After weighing the objections of Ralbach, Rabbi Yosef Karo chose to be part of the Mahari Beirav's attempt to reinstate the Sanhedrin in his time. This is the source for the acronym MaRaN, which stands for the words "ordained by two hundred Rabbis" (Masa'im Rabanan Nismach). Scholars never criticized Rabbi Yosef Karo for this decision. Though there were arguments over many years about the authority of the Shulchan Aruch until it became universally accepted, yet no where does one criticize Rabbi Yosef Karo for the fact that he received semicha from Rabbi Yakov Beirav and transmitted it onward. Rabbi Yosef Karo is known to have used his semicha to ordain Rabbi Moses Alsheich, who in turn, ordained Rabbi Chaim Vital. Thus semicha can be traced for at least four generations. Rabbi Yosef Karo, in his commentary the Beis Yosef (Choshen Mishpat 295), answered the objections of the Ralbach by recording as definitive Jewish law the Maimonides' opinion that semicha can be renewed by consensus.

However this view is not shared by all modern Rabbis, Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff writes: Although Rav Yosef Karo had received this semicha and ordained Rav Moshe Alshich, it is not clear he utilized the semicha in any other way. Nowhere does he refer to a renewal of semicha, and furthermore, numerous places in Shulchan Aruch would be written differently if its author assumed that a beis din of semuchim existed today. In all these places, he assumes that no beis din today exists that is authorized to paskin on the laws of penalties and punishments... Although Rav Moshe Alshich ordained Rav Chayim Vital (Birkei Yosef, Choshen Mishpat 1:7), who was renowned as the primary disciple of the Arizal, the semicha trail appears to end at this point. There is no indication of anyone continuing the semicha project after this time... according to Rabbi Kaganoff, 'we can assume that the psak of the Ralbach and Radvaz was accepted that we should not introduce semicha on our own.[15]'

The election process and selection of Rav Halberstam

Maimonides and other medieval commentators suggested that, although the line of semicha (Biblical ordination) from Moses had been broken in 425 C.E., if the sages in the land of Israel agree upon a single candidate being worthy of semicha, that individual would have semicha, and could then grant it to others, thus enabling the re-establishment of the Sanhedrin

According to the new Sanhedrin's website,[16] the process of election was explained by Rabbi Dov Levanoni, a member of the new Sanhedrin. He said the most recent attempt to renew the institution of semicha in 2004, was made through a consensus of hundreds of the most influential and scholarly Rabbis living in the Land of Israel. While Rabbi Yaakov Beirav and Rabbi Yosef Karo laid an excellent halachic (Jewish law) foundation for understanding this teaching of Maimonides, the current attempt to re-establish the Jewish Sanhedrin has tried to learn from previous attempts and avoid some of the pitfalls. For example, to avoid claims that not all the rabbis of Israel were aware of the latest attempt to set up the Sanhedrin, an initial enormous expenditure was spent on a publicity campaign of the upcoming semichah process, 50,000 copies of a detailed flier were distributed among 4,500 Jewish centers in Israel, outlining that a vote of a first samuch was going to be held, along with contact information of the Va'ad ha-Mechonen la-Sanhedrin. Not long afterwards, seven hundred leading Rabbonim were contacted either in person or by written letter. R' Levanoni explained that Rabbi Moshe Halberstam, a senior Rabbi on Jerusalem's Edah HaChareidis, became the first samuch after receiving approval by Israel's leading Rabbis – those followed by most of Israel's religious Jews – and there were no objections from the hundreds of Rabbis consulted via written letters.

The website also claims[17] that leading sages have supported the semichah directly, indirectly or abstained, and specifically mentions these names: Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and many others gave their blessing but did not join the Sanhedrin. The son of Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu is one of the rabbis ordained. Former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva of Merkaz HaRav Kook Rabbi Avraham Shapira chose to abstain on the issue but also refused to discourage it.

Rabbi Halberstam (April 1, 1932April 26, 2006), who was selected to receive Semicha by consensus, was a relatively well known figure and widely respected.
Rabbi Moshe Halberstam
Rabbi Halberstam was the son of Grand Rabbi Yaakov Halberstam of Tschakava, a scion of the Sanz dynasty, and of the daughter of Rabbi Sholom of Shotz of London. He was the Rosh Yeshivah of the Tschakava Yeshivah in Jerusalem and one of the most prominent members of the Edah Charedis Rabbinical court of Jerusalem. He was known as a tremendous Torah scholar and a decisor of Halachic law. He wrote approbations to many works of Torah literature. Rabbi Halberstam served at the President of Hatzolah Israel. He was also the Rabbi of the Shaarei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem. He was known for his tolerance towards other streams of thought in Orthodox Judaism. Despite his own Chareidi anti-Zionist background, he also maintained contacts with Modern Orthodox, religious Zionist leaders.

The website does not claim that these figures supported the creation of a Sanhedrin, only that they supported the reinstitution of Semicha. Rabbi Dov Shtein, the secretary for the Sanhedrin project, claimed that Rabbi Halberstam understood the where his actions would lead. Rabbi Dov Shtein said "Without Rabbi Halberstam's efforts toward renewing semikha, it would not have happened the way it did," he said. "By agreeing to be the first to be ordained, he took a serious risk of being rejected and condemned by his community for taking part in such a project, which set the ball rolling for the foundation of a Jewish legal body that seeks to eventually supersede the Badatz. But despite the serious pressures put on him following his agreement and granting of semikha to others, he never went back on it or even tempered his agreement with the act of renewing semikha."[18].

The formation of a place holder Sanhedrin

The formation of a place holder Sanhedrin by Rabbi Levanoni and the debate it stirred.

The Sanhedrin website explains[19] "To avoid disagreements over who was worthy to sit on the Sanhedrin, a Beis din of 71 was immediately formed. It was formed with the best scholars available, with the public announcement every one of them has agreed to step aside the moment a more deserving candidate should step forward. Lastly, the Nasi has indicated that the Beis din would wait until the best scholars of Eretz Yisroel were represented on the Beis din before beginning to fully function halachically as the Sanhedrin of old."

Inauguration of the Sanhedrin in 2004

In October 2004, a group of over few hundred rabbis representing varied communities in Israel undertook a ceremony in Tiberias, where the original Sanhedrin was disbanded, with about one hundred of them at time having proper Semicha. This was one year after the re-establishment of Semicha. A Beth Din of 71 was formed.

Rabbi Tzvi Eidan, the author of Asot Mishpat (on the laws of reestablishing the Sanhedrin) was appointed as first interim Nasi. Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz, a noted Talmudic scholar and a well-known Jewish philosopher is the currently elected Nasi. The Sanhedrin's spokesmen said that due to concerns that external pressure would be brought to bear upon individuals not to take part in the establishment of a Sanhedrin, the names of most participants would not be made public.

Some of its more known members are[20]

The acceptance of office of Nasi by Rabbi Steinsaltz

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

On the other hand, apparently few Sanhedrin members see the nascent Sanhedrin with such an extreme messianism. The acceptance of office of Nasi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz was marked with an apparent change in direction.

The newspaper Haaretz reported:[21]

In his speech accepting the position of Nasi, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said that the task of building the Sanhedrin will take some time. He spoke about gradually building up the ancient institution, which would take several generations. "In order to move forward and no longer be defined as `an aborted fetus,' to become serious so we can say, `a child was born to us,' we need a lot of time. The mere mention of the name Sanhedrin is not a given. It is no longer a matter of a religious council... It's something that has historical meaning. A basic change, not of one small system, but of fundamental systems."

"It's no wonder that these things frighten people. There are people who are concerned about what is emerging here. And where is it headed? After we have made it through this year with no catastrophes occurring, even though there were some foolish comments and chuckling, we will intensify and strengthen our activities. We will do things with an eye toward future generations, not with a stopwatch and an annual calendar. The Jewish calendar is a calendar of thousands of years. A lot of patience and a lot of work are needed. I'd be happy if in another few years these chairs are filled by scholars who are greater than us and we can say: `I kept the chairs warm for you.'"

Steinsaltz used his position as president of the Sanhedrin to protest its involvement in politics. "I'm not afraid of the Supreme Court, the police or the attorney general. A rabbi is also permitted to engage in public issues, but to do so he has to have all the appropriate material before him, whether he is dealing with the kosher status of a chicken or the disengagement".

Under the influence of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the Sanhedrin project shifted away from idealistic projects of its first year and tried to move toward broadening participation. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz requested that the new Sanhedrin not be referred to as "the Sanhedrin", but requested modest references to the current institution as the nascent Sanhedrin, the developing Sanhedrin, the Sanhedrin project, or simply the Rabbinical Court of 71 judges (Beis din shel 71). Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is recorded as changing direction of the new Sanhedrin towards widening the scope and acceptance of the Court with the intention of moving towards becoming the full Sanhedrin.[22]

According to their website, the strategy to gain wider acceptance and "provide a smooth transition from current halachic leadership to a full Sanhedrin", is to follow these guidelines: Absolute adherence to traditional Rabbinic authorities and procedure; Caution and conservatism; Independence from any other organization; Scholarship; and an open dialog with the Torah sages and current halachic leadership (with the eventual goal of their participation). On their forum it was put this way, "the [new] Sanhedrin should hold no surprises. It should be as comfortable as opening a gemoro [Talmud] or as familiar as reading the Shulchan aruch. It should be the embodiment of Judaism as we know it today."[23]

The current Sanhedrin's view of government

The new Sanhedrin's website portrays the Sanhedrin as a form of Rabbinic Parliament, part of a bicameral system that they claim reflects traditional Jewish government.[24] They claim that this model has influenced the organizational structure of many Western European legislatures.[25] They describe the roles of an upper and lower house:

  • The Sanhedrin is described as a "House of Scholars". This body represents the "rights and obligations" of the people to the "Torah Constitution" which they define as including "the Torah, Talmud and body of Rabbinic Jurisprudence that has been built up over our history as a people".[26]
  • A parallel "Congressional Assembly" represents the "democratic needs of the population". It is conceived as being derived from the royal court of a constitutional monarchy, in a democratic society it would consist of an assembly of regionally elected representatives, represented by voting power.[27] (The head of the lower house was traditionally the Monarch, or in a modern times a Prime Minister. He would have the power to collect taxes and would be the head of the executive branch of government. He would be subordinate only to the Sanhedrin[28])

The Sanhedrin would function as an equal legislative body to a democratically elected body, but it would also function as a supreme judicial body with regard to interpreting basic law, or what they call a "Torah Constitution". It would be analogous to combining the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Senate into one legislative house. It appears that this implies a democracy functioning within a Torah Constitution. From an Israeli point of view this implies adding a second house to Parliament and declaring a Basic Law requiring Israeli civil law to function within Jewish law.

Torah Constitution

This agenda requires a focus on efforts to institute a theocratic or critocratic system of government in which "the authority of government depends on Jewish law",[29] so that secular government institutions and laws would be subordinate to, and function within, Jewish law as determined by the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin has declared itself to have authority to veto democratically-enacted laws which it determines are contrary to the laws of Torah. (This is analogous, for example, to the U.S. Supreme Court's ability to nullify a state law mandating segregated school systems for minorities as contrary to the Constitution). It has made this very clear in, among other pronouncements, its "Decision of the Sanhedrin concerning the State Elections". The Sanhedrin announced that it is seeking a state in which any matters contrary to what Jewish law defines are "issues that cannot be decided by vote":

Torah "Basic Law": Laws which are contrary to the laws of the Torah are not laws of the Jewish people, and therefore they are invalid. Any law which is contrary to the laws of Torah, legislated by the "Knesset" (including legislated amendments) or interpreted as such by judicial sources is a disqualified law. The authority to decide in these matters has been unconditionally expropriated by the central religious court based on the Torah (Bible) [the Sanhedrin].[30]

In an exercise of its claim to authority over "matters concerning the Land of Israel", the Sanhendrin has issued a series of decisions declaring the Israeli pullout from Gaza invalid. In "The Sanhedrin's Declaration Concerning the Disengagement from Gaza",[31] the Sanhedrin prohibited Jews from cooperating with the Government, saying: "The Prime Minister's program of uprooting stands in direct contradiction to the Torah of Israel.", "the decision of this government...is null and void.", "No Jew is permitted to cooperate" and "Any Jew - including a soldier or policeman - who supports the uprooting...transgresses a large number of Torah commandments."

Commenting on the war against Hizbollah in August 2006, the new Sanhedrin also claimed that it is the only authorized national institution to deal with the legal aspects of warfare and to give policy directives to the State concerning warfare. It claims that enacting legislation concerning warfare always has been a distinguishing feature of the historical Sanhedrin.[32]

The Sanhedrin's Actions

Sanhedrin in Session 2005

A great deal of discussion on the Sanhedrin forum appears to indicate that the new Sanhedrin is currently taken up with philosophical discussions about the theory of Jewish Law. The point is repeatedly made that the Sanhedrin "must solve many complex halachic issues" before it can begin to make any statement or decision in terms of Jewish law.[33] It claims its projects are "coordinated in complete consultation with the Gedolei Hador (leading halachic authorities of the generation) as well as with the Israeli Government Authorities, academics and professionals.... The Sanhedrin Initiative seeks to empower Jews to perform national mitzvot that thanks to technological advances and/or sociological developments are currently or imminently in the realm of the possible. The Initiative is staffed by accomplished scholars and academics striving to promote dignified Jewish freedom of religious expression which is consistent with the values of Western democracy. The Sanhedrin Initiative adheres to the criteria of halacha (jewish law), expertise, amenity and peace in... all its... projects."[34] The hebrew version adds that it "has no connection with extremist groups, right wing politcal parties, or those who disregard Jewish law." [35] Events as portrayed by the media, however, have not always fit this idealic picture:

  • The new Sanhedrin formed a committee to collect opinions as to its exact location.[36]
  • Some of its members ascended to a portion of the Temple mount[37] that was added by Herod and is considered permitted to Jews according to some opinions.[38]
  • This visit culminated in a declaration that the "Jewish people should begin collecting supplies for the rebuilding of the Temple".[39]
  • They have announced ties with various academic scholars and institutions.[40]
  • They issued religious rulings on the formulation of the Rachem prayer for Tisha B'Av services, the Kashrus of pheasant and quail, and the proper formulation of the Birkat HaMazon (grace after meals).[41]
  • There was dialogue with the Ministry of Education over "the Bible and Scriptures curriculum".[42]
  • They support Jewish settlement of the West Bank and opposed the Gaza withdrawal.[43]
  • An Israeli court allowed a defendant to consult a ruling from a subordinate court of the Sanhedrin.[44]
  • Since February 2006, the nascent Sanhedrin has been represented on the internet by the 'Friends of the Sanhedrin'.
  • They supported religious and far right parties in the 2006 Israeli Elections.[45]
  • During the Lebanon War they offered extensive opinions in the area of war and military policy.[46]
  • They opposed the Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem in September 2006 (which was cancled), declaring participation in the security operations for the parade a criminal act.[47]
  • They issued repeated calls for soldiers and policemen to disobey orders that the nascent Sanhedrin regards as contrary to Jewish law.[48]
  • They blew the shofar on Rosh Hashanah in September 2006, which fell on a Shabbat. This was essentially a claim to the rights and authority of a true Sanhedrin.[49][50]
  • Summoned an IDF officer who issued restraining orders for several residents of the West Bank to appear before the nascent Sanhedrin. This resulted in a Police investigation of the Rabbis who issued the summons.[51][52] However the reaction of the new Sanhedrin was defiant.[53]
  • Their annual public conference in 2007 included calls for the public to support a government based on Jewish Law.[54]
  • For Passover 2007, they led a drive to offer the passover sacrifice on the Temple Mount.[55][56]

Controversy

Rabbi Bar-Ron, a member of the new Sanhedrin writes, "The rebirth of the Sanhedrin is a slow, ongoing process. Although it makes headlines and many like to highlight its controversy, it is in truth a humble project by rabbis from all sides of the Torah world joining together simply to fulfill a Torah commandment. Rather than a source of religious division, G-d forbid, it is a vehicle to bring about Jewish unity and civil justice, to help repair some of the deepest rifts in our society, and to provide an active, exemplary and unified Torah leadership so lacking in our times."

The organization which calls itself Sanhedrin is not recognized by any wing of Judaism.

While not actually creating division among the different Jewish groups, the new Sanhedrin has generated a great deal of debate about its purpose and potential. While most Jews see the new Sanhedrin as an attempt by a fringe group to re-establish the Temple[57] , many have seen it as a potential vehicle to champion a specific cause.

The debate stirred within the National Religious camp

The National Religious camp took great interest in the new Sanhedrin with the hope that it may be useful in preventing the disengagement from Gaza. The Arutz-7 news service ran approximately 30 articles covering the actions of the new Sanhedrin in a positive light. The new Sanhedrin came out with several strongly worded, yet muted, rulings against "disengagement". They strongly disagreed with the government action, advocated non-violent protests, but fell short of condoning any form of stronger protest to prevent expulsion from Gaza or Hebron as been hoped for by some members of the National Religious camp.[58][59] Coverage of the new Sanhedrin since "disengagement" by the Arutz-7 news service has been almost non-existent since that event.

During the last Israeli elections, the new Sanhedrin was widely expected by the National Religious to fully endorse the political party of Baruch Marzel. Instead the Sanhedrin released a general statement, echoing statements by most of the Hareidi parties, that "one is obligated to vote, and one must vote for a religious party".[60]

The representative leadership of the new Sanhedrin has recently issued a statement against the permissibility of conscientious objection to participation to the war in Lebanon[61] with mixed reactions from the National Religious camp.

The debate stirred within the Haredi camp

Haredi Leadership

When Rabbi Yehudah Leib Maimon in 1949 tried to form a Sanhedrin out of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, leading rabbis of the Haredi world repeatedly voiced their strong opposition in a number of declarations. The Brisker Rav, the Chazon Ish and the Lubavitcher Rebbe were some of the more vocal opponents of that initiative. Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz, (the Chazon Ish) quotes the Radvaz that no one is fit to renew the Sanhedrin. He concluded that any discussion of the topic in this "orphaned generation" is ludicrous.[62][63]

However, although there is clear Haredi opposition to the new 'Sanhedrin', unlike the case of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Maimon's attempt there has been no official response by any Haredi leader or Jewish Court (Beis Din) to this 'Sanhedrin'. The 'Sanhedrin' itself claims that the current attempt is very different than the previous attempt and that leading sages like Rabbi Yosef Sholom Eliashiv, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and Rabbi Moshe Halberstam, who passed away in May 2006, have expressed support for, and consented to, the renewal of Semicha. To date, none of these Rabbis have commented on these claims. It has been met, in public at least, by silence. The new Sanhedrin itself and its supporters claim that it proves there is quiet support. The Haredi community however interprets this to mean that the new Sanhedrin is simply another fringe group not worthy of comment, or even a fabrication.

Haredi Community & Media

The lack of response by the leadership has given pause, but has generally reinforced the feeling in the Haredi world that the 'Sanhedrin' is a complete non-issue, and it is generally ignored by the Haredi press. It is considered a fringe group and is considered unrelated to the Haredi community in any way. People simply do not care even to debate the issue. This is how the average Haredi person or rabbi feels about it: "It has no authority, has no influence, was set up by a bunch of 'heretical' rabbis who do not belong to any group, and doesn't deserve any attention whatsoever."[citation needed]

The members of the new Sanhedrin are not considered as belonging to the Haredi community. The Lithuanian Haredi Yated newspaper, which expresses the official opinion of the Lithuanian Haredi rabbinical establishment, has run several articles condemning Rabbi Yisrael Ariel and his 'Temple Institute' using the expression "poisonous opinions".[64][65] It appears, however, that this opinion is not shared by all the Haredi communities.[66] The Yated has also run recently run articles condemning Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, referring to strongly worded comments made by Rabbi Elazar Shach in 1989.[67][68] It is clear that Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz' untraditional and 'university oriented' approach is at odds with the Haredi approach.[69] While not all leading members of the Sanhedrin have generated such controversy, and some members like Rabbi Yoel Schwartz and Rabbi Michael Shlomo Bar-Ron are generally recognized as scholars within the Haredi community, they are generally unknown figures.

In addition, the new Sanhedrin is seen as identifying with the extreme-right factions of the National Religious movement because some of it's members ascended to a portion of the Temple Mount. While there is disagreement between various orthodox groups on this point,[70] and Maimonides[71] and the Radbaz[72] ascended to the Temple Mount, modern Haredi legal opinions as well as the vast majority of National-Religious authorities, including the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, do not allow this. As Yated Neeman writes, "all halachic authorities categorically forbid it."[73][74]

Conclusion

Although the new Sanhedrin claims that it is in touch and even coordinating with some Haredi leaders, no basis to support these claims can be found. The overriding response to the new Sanhedrin by the Haredi community has been driven by the the fact that leadership of the new Sanhedrin is unknown or controversial, and the decisions of the new Sanhedrin are perceived as identifying with the extreme wings of the National Religious community. The Haredi community tends to simply ignore the new Sanhedrin or ridicule it.

Yemenite opinion

Rabbi Yosef Qafih, former Chief Rabbi of Yemen, wrote in his commentary to the Mishnah tractate Sanhedrin that it would be a very good thing to reinstate the Sanhedrin in our days. However, he held, according to the position of the Rambam, that this could only be done by assembling all leading Torah scholars physically together in one time[citation needed] .

The debate stirred within the Kahanist camp

Rabbi Nachman Kahane is a leading member of the new Sanhedrin. His brother Rabbi Meir Kahane was widely known for his outspoken political views. Rabbi Nachman Kahane, a graduate of Yeshivat Mir, is not known for his political views and is generally acknowledged to be an accomplished Torah scholar by the Mizrachi (Religious Zionism) and Haredi communities.

The new Sanhedrin is often mentioned on political websites run by movements associated with the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, and in general it seems that they both support and are excited by the concept of the new Sanhedrin and possibility of religious government of the State of Israel. However the forums which discuss these points often end with the sentiment that "Rabbis can't be trusted to run the country" or disappointment that "the Sanhedrin is not doing enough".

The debate stirred within the "Temple Mount Faithful" camp

In the first year of operation, the new Sanhedrin was involved with discussions about the Temple Mount. It formed a committee to collect opinions as to its exact location. Some of its members ascended to a portion of the Temple mount that was added by Herod and considered by and rabbis associated with the Temple Mount Faithful movement to be permitted to Jews. This visit culminated in a declaration that the "Jewish people should begin collecting supplies for the rebuilding of the Temple".[75]

Since the acceptance of the position of Nasi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, discussion of issues concerning the Temple Mount has greatly diminished.

These early actions by the new Sanhedrin were announced and followed closely by websites associated with the Temple Mount Faithful movement. However, for at least a year since the new Sanhedrin's "Temple supplies" declaration, it appears that no additional materials or discussions concerning the new Sanhedrin have been added to these websites.

Other effects and comments by Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated Jews

One blog noted that "a number of different Orthodox rabbis and teachers claim that when the Sanhedrin is reconstituted, they will have the power to make broad sweeping changes in halakhic reality... Someone else has expressed this idea as Orthodoxy's ideal being Conservatism — the only practical difference between the two movements [Conservative and Orthodox] is that they [the Conservative movement] believe that they have power over Halakha [Jewish law] that we believe you need a Sanhedrin for." Although it concluded that "The Arutz Sheva Sanhedrin doesn't seem interested in making any positive changes in the state of Jewish Law."[76]

The debate stirred among non-Jews, especially Evangelicals and Catholics

Some Christians, like evangelist Hal Lindsey and evangelical blogwriter David Ketter,[77] see the reinstated Sanhedrin as good news, believing that the Sanhedrin would be responsible for the rebuilding of the Temple, which would eventually be desecrated by the false Messiah during the end times and inhabited by the true Messiah during the period of Christian eschatology referred to as the Millenial Reign.

The Sanhedrin has also selected a group of non-Jewish advisors, scholars and teachers from the Noachide movement - includig Vendyl Jones, to form a High Council of Noahides responsible for outreach education from within the non-Jewish world.[78][79]

Christian apocalyptic and eschatalogical claims about the End Times, the Last Judgment, and the End of the World, have inspired a wide a range of conspiracy theories. Many of these deal with the Antichrist, the foremost figure of worldly evil from the Book of Revelation. This Antichrist, often reported to be a Jew, is supposed to be a leader who will create a world empire and oppress Christians. The new Sanhedrin and its connection with the Noachide movement have become the subject of speculation by numerous apocalyptic conspiracy theories on the internet. This view has been espoused by some fringe Catholic groups and some Islamic groups speculating on fitna literature. [citation needed]

See also

Footnotes

  1. The dissolution of the Sanhedrin, in terms of its power to give binding universal decisions, is usually dated to 358CE when the Hillel II's mathematical Jewish Calendar was adopted. This marked the last universally accepted decision made by that body.
  2. The Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614CE compared with Islamic conquest of 638CE
  3. ibid.
  4. Sefer Yuchsin, cf. Yarchei Kallah, Rabbi Nassan describes "the seventy judges who comprise the Sanhedrin"
  5. Rabbi Yosef Karo's treatise Maaseh Beis Din and his commentary the Beis Yosef, Choshen Mishpat 295, see also Rabbi Yakov Beirav Iggeret Hasemicha
  6. Mishne Torah, Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11
  7. Choshen Mishpat 295
  8. The attempt of Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov to re-establish the Sanhedrin in 1830
  9. HaSanhedrin HaSamchut VeHaChiddush, Appendix I, by Rabbi Bavad, Beit El Press, 2005
  10. Based on Jewish Encyclopedia: BERAB, JACOB, Rabbi Tzvi Eidan's Asot Mishpat, and also Semicha and Sanhedrin Controversies by Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff
  11. Shealos v'teshuvos leRalbach by Rabbi Levi Ibn Chaviv
  12. Sefer Hamitzvos, Aseh 153 by Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman Gerondi (Ramban)
  13. Iggeret Hasemicha by Rabbi Yakov Beirav
  14. Maaseh Beis Din by Rabbi Yosef Karo
  15. Semicha and Sanhedrin Controversies of the 16th and 21st Centuries by Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff
  16. The idea behind the restoration of the Great Court, and the halachic foundations for operation
  17. ibid.
  18. Jerusalem Post: Rav Moshe Halberstam, First to Renew Semicha, Dies at 74
  19. Rabbi Yaakov Beirav's attempt to re-establish a Sanhedrin in 1538
  20. Current members of the Sanhedrin
  21. Haaretz
  22. Arutz-7: Sanhedrin Project Unveiled With Humility
  23. Sanhedrin Forum
  24. Special Court For Matters Concerning The Nation and the State
  25. ibid. Examples are given concerning division of authority, the name "Senate", even semi-circle seating.
  26. Sanhedrin Forum
  27. Special Court For Matters Concerning The Nation and the State
  28. ibid.
  29. http://www.thesanhedrin.org/en/press/hatzofe20032006.html Sanhedrin, "The Authority of the Government Depends on Jewish Law"
  30. Sanhedrin, "Decision of the Sanhedrin concerning the State Elections"
  31. [1]<"The Sanhedrin's Declaration Concerning the Disengagement from Gaza"
  32. Concerning responding to an attack
  33. Haaretz
  34. KorbanPesach.org
  35. hebrew version About KorbanPesach.org (he)
  36. Decision of the Sanhedrin concerning the exact location of the Temple on the Temple Mount
  37. Arutz Sheva: Members of Reestablished Sanhedrin Ascend Temple Mount
  38. Jewish religious law concerning entry to the Temple Mount
  39. The Temple Institute: The Sanhedrin's Decision Regarding the Holy Temple, the Temple Mount, and Jerusalem
  40. Issues on the agenda to be discussed a future sessions
  41. Sanhedrin, Legal Rulings and Opinions to Date
  42. Haaretz
  43. The Sanhedrin's Declaration concerning the disengagement from Gaza
  44. Arutz-7: Sanhedrin Project Unveiled With Humility
  45. Concerning the upcoming State Elections
  46. Based on the Mishnah's statement "they may not send forth (the people) to a Milchemet Reshut (non-mandatory war) except by order of the court of seventy-one",Mishnah Sanhedrin 1:5 the new Sanhedrin has declared that it is "the authorized institution to decide in matters of military policy, issues definitive moral guidance to soldiers on active duty and in the reserves.
  47. Legal decision concerning police officers who are called to perform their duties for the "Parade of Abomination"
  48. Should military call-up orders be heeded for the war in Lebanon?
  49. [http://www.thesanhedrin.org/he/legal/psak5767Tishrei3.html Blowing the Shofer on Shabbat by a Beit Din of Semuchim]
  50. 101 Years later, again the Shofar is blown on Shabbat
  51. [2]
  52. [3]
  53. [4].
  54. Public Conference with Rabbis of the Sanhedrin
  55. Jews Revive the Sanhedrin with Plans for a Passover Sacrifice
  56. Take Part in the (Sanhedrin's) Preparations for the Korban Pesach
  57. Keshev: Targeting The Temple Mount A Current Look at Threats to the Temple Mount by Extremist and Messianic Groups
  58. Israpundit: It’s Time to Think Big and Take Power in Israel, by Ariel Natan Pasko
  59. Israel Reporter: Hebron “Closed Military Zone” Pending Forceful Eviction for 2nd Time in 2006
  60. Concerning the upcoming State Elections
  61. Should military call-up orders be heeded for the war in Lebanon
  62. Chazon Ish: Choshen Mishpat Likutim 1
  63. Dei'ah veDibur: Opinion & Comment, "Meoros HaDaf HaYomi" Insights into the Week's Learning
  64. Dei'ah veDibur: Opinion & Comment, What is Geulah?
  65. Dei'ah veDibur: Beis Din Rejects Machon Hamikdash Petition Against Yated Ne'eman
  66. The Temple Institute: The Rabbinical Guests
  67. Letter dated Erev Shabbos Kodesh Pinchos 5749, Michtovim Umaamorim vol. IV.
  68. Dei'ah veDibur: Opinion & Comment, Purity in Education by Rabbi N.Z. Grossman It is disputed whether Rabbi Elazar Shach really opposed Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in his final days, as it is claimed that Rabbi Steinsalz met with the rabbinical court in Jerusalem (Edah HaChareidis) making required changes and thereby resolving the issue.
  69. Hadassah Magazine: Profile: Adin Steinsaltz, by Rahel Musleah
  70. Temple Mount: Jewish Religious Law Concerning Entry to the Site
  71. Maimonides specifically states that there are areas on the temple mount that we are permitted to enter today even when all Jews are ritually unclean. He writes that in 1165 he visited Jerusalem and went up on to the Temple Mount and prayed in the great, holy house (probably the Al-Aqsa mosque). (Sefer HaCharedim Mitzvat Tshuva Chapter 3)
  72. Shaarey Teshuvah, Orach Chaim 561:1, cf. Teshuvot Radbaz 691
  73. Dei'ah veDibur: Opinion & Comment, Don't Be Conspicuous, by Yisroel Spiegel
  74. Dei'ah veDibur: Opinion & Comment, What is Geulah?
  75. TempleMount.org: Recent Developments in the News
  76. Super Sanhedrin to the Rescue?
  77. Wordpress: The Sanhedrin and the Church
  78. Sanhedrin Recognizes Council to Teach Humanity ´Laws of Noah'
  79. High Council of Bnei Noah, Press Release: Sanhedrin

External links