The Sanhedrin: An Ancient Cure For the Modern World
By Josh Back
The ancient Sanhedrin, a council consisting of 71 men who constituted the Supreme Court and legislative body of Israel during the period of Roman rule, was dissolved in 358 CE, by imperial decree. Since then, there have been multiple attempts to re-establish the Sanhedrin as a self governing body or as in the case of Napoleon’s Sanhedrin, as a puppet of a sovereign government.
In April of 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte, called for the reconvening of the ancient Jewish court, the Sanhedrin. Napoleon intended to utilise, the bodies ruling to establish the French Jews’ exclusive loyalty to France. Napoleon posed a total of 12 questions to the Sanhedrin, all of which dealt with potential conflicts between Jewish religious practice and the newly formed ideals of the state. The answers provided by the Sanhedrin showed that there exists no conflict between the laws of a liberal society and Jewish religious practice. Napoleon’s Sanhedrin was never convened again; it is largely remembered as a curiosity of the 19th century. However there exists a very clear message that emerges from its rulings.
The first of the modern attempts to reconvene the Sanhedrin in 1538: Rabbi Jacob Berab assembled 25 of the leading Rabbis from Safed, who ordained him as ‘Chief Rabbi.’ Rabbi Berab’s error was excluding those not located in Safed, this drew criticism from leading Rabbi’s around Israel, who refused to heed the rulings of the Sanhedrin. The result was a body of leaders without any real legislative power. The intention of this Sanhedrin, and all subsequent attempts at reconvening the Sanhedrin was to renew the Semicha, ordination of a Rabbi through transmission of authority.
In 2004 a group of Rabbis announced that they had re-established the Sanhedrin. The body called for integration into the Israeli government in both the Supreme Court and in a senate capacity. Consisting of over 70 Rabbis, the group stressed its recognition and support from the entire orthodox religious community of Israel, generating much debate amongst secular and religious groups.
According to much of the ultra orthodox following in Israel, the nation and its individuals are enshrouded in a pervading immorality. This has driven a significant backing for the Sanhedrin amongst these communities. The Sanhedrin claims to “promote dignified Jewish freedom of religious expression which is consistent with the values of Western democracy… whilst adher(ing) to the criteria of halacha (Jewish law), expertise, amenity and peace in… all its… projects.” Moreover it asserts that it “has no connection with extremist groups, right wing political parties, or those who disregard Jewish law.” At least in theory, the Sanhedrin seems to have adopted a fairly inclusive approach, claiming to be in consultation with Gedolei Hador (the leading halachik authorities of the generation), Israeli Government authorities, academics and professionals.” The Sanhedrin allowed the blowing of the Shofar on Shabbat during Rosh Hashanah (which is halachically forbidden) in September 2006, thereby staking a claim to the rights and authority of a true Sanhedrin.
Drawing lessons from the 1538 attempt to re-establish the Sanhedrin, this initiative has sought broader support, approaching over 700 Rabbis around Israel. Whilst most of the leading Torah scholars of the generation took no part in the venture, it is clear that the current leadership understands that such a radical change will not immediately have universal support. Indeed many members of the current Sanhedrin view themselves as provisional members, volunteering to step down if the appropriate scholars are willing to take their place.
If the Sanhedrin is able to gain the necessary support and ‘power,’ it may prove to be a forum in which many positive advances for the sake of orthodoxy, and in a broader sense the unification of the state of Israel, are made. With cooperation from the different facets of the orthodox community, the Sanhedrin could provide a centralised body made of representatives from the various elements of orthodoxy. This provides the perfect setting to discuss and direct a unified, universal orthodox approach. Indeed the Sanhedrin itself has acknowledged that much of its time is spent with philosophical discussion about the theory of Jewish law. With the appropriate representation this council may serve as a place where halacha is reinvigorated and reshaped through the meaningful and informed discussion.
Radicalism is something that is often associated with those of a more conservative leaning, though on the Israeli orthodox landscape there are many liberals who have become extreme in their liberalism. Much of the hatred between the facets of the orthodox community that has ensued, has resulted, in my opinion from the lack of an appropriate forum to air and resolve disputes, creating individuals who hate without understanding the approach of another. As the Dati Leumi (Modern Orthodox) movement drifts further away from the more conservative Orthodox groups, a forum for discussion is paramount to ensure that the bodies do not entirely schism and reject one another. It is my belief that the Sanhedrin provides for this need.
Napoleon’s revival of the Sanhedrin was hardly to re-establish Jewish autonomy; on the contrary, it was put in place to establish Jewish loyalty to France. Napoleon’s plan was both conniving and brilliant. In reconvening the Sanhedrin, he restored a sense of ancient glory to the Jewish people. We must remember however, that in the times of the ancient Sanhedrin the Jewish people may not have been as divided as we find it today, though it would be naive to assume that the Rabbis of the time were like-minded with regard to their views on important issues. Indeed one need look no further than a page of Talmud to see the multitude of opinions, both liberal and conservative. The modern Sanhedrin, comprised of members possessing adequate levels of understanding and respect amongst their followers, could prove to be a very useful tool in repairing the schism between the different elements of Israeli Orthodox society.
There is a pervading lack of communication between the different elements of Israeli society; this is especially clear between the more conservative elements of the Orthodox community and the chilonim (secularists). It is easy to see how an institution like the Sanhedrin will be rejected point blank by the chiloni community as ancient and obsolete. It is also clear that the Sanhedrin’s desire to become the supreme Court and Senate of the Knesset rejects a large percentage of Israeli society whose views and values are not in line with that of a halachically-bound institution. There is, however, significant value which derives from having a unified approach from Orthodoxy. The Sanhedrin being the representative body would provide chilonim with a medium to challenge and engage with the Orthodox world.
Perhaps I am a little optimistic, but an effectively functioning Sanhedrin may even force those radicals who have strayed from the folds of commonly practised Orthodoxy to return, thereby reducing hatred and violence amongst the Orthodox and serving to strengthen the whole nation of Israel.
Josh currently leads Year 9 in Hineni Melbourne and is incoming Federal Rosh Hineni for 2011. He grapples with his ideology on daily basis.
This article is part of the Hineni journal, Partition, which was distributed in synagogues around Australia on the 63rd anniversary of the UN’s adoption of the Partition Plan for Palestine. We are publishing a selection of articles from the journal.
The following parties helped make the journal possible:
Frank Levy, JNF, Unger Catering, JMC Corporate Real Estate Consultants, Caulfield Hebrew Congregation, Hagshama Melbourne, Antique Silver Company, shaundesign.com, Danielle Blumberg (editing), Mervyn Chait (formatting)