I was just made aware of a remarkable series of events taking place in Tiberias, Israel. Last October, a distinguished group of rabbis and leaders officially established a new Sanhedrin. Since then, they have been hard at work codifying procedures and drawing up their legal agenda.
A few words of explanation are in order. The Sanhedrin was the high court of the old Jewish legal system, composed of 71 rabbis who were ordained in an unbroken chain stretching back to Moses. Only a court made up of ordained rabbis had the authority to decree corporal or capital punishment for violations of the law, and this court also issued definitive rulings on legal interpretation.
The Sanhedrin was eventually eradicated by the Roman occupiers, and the unbroken chain of ordination was lost. From that point on, the term "rabbi" lost much of its original meaning; but more importantly, there was no longer a single authority for legal practice in the Jewish world. Over time the legal tradition fragmented, first between the Jews of Israel and Babylonia, then Ashkenazi and Sefaradi, until now one can find noticable differences in practice betweeen one city and another.
The 12th-century commentator Maimonides, writing that the formation of a court system was an obligation on every generation, suggested a mechanism for reestablishing the Sanhedrin in its original form and restarting the chain of ordination. But the mechanism was not universally accepted, and when many of the leading rabbis of the 16th century tried to reestablish the court, it did not achieve wide acceptance and was soon disbanded.
Apparently, the new Sanhedrin is going forward under the explicit condition that they gain the full acceptance of the Jewish community, or else their activities should be seen as having no legal force. The court contains a number of towering figures of Jewish law and community, such as R' Adin Steinsaltz, R' Yishai Ba'avad, and R' Avraham Toledano. It has received the endorsement of R' Ovadya Yosef, the preeminent authority of the Sefardi world, and R' Kaminetsky, a leading figure of the Chareidi community.
What is the significance of a new Sanhedrin? First of all, it would have the power to harmonize the many different legal traditions that have grown up around the world, thus eliminating a constant source of friction and bad feeling between communities. Second, in many aspects of Jewish law today, we have a habit of erring on the side of stringency whenever there is a question of the law, simply because we have no final authority. If we have a final authority again, then the process of legal decisions can become more balanced and more open to leniency.
Third, a Sanhedrin could conceivably give religious standing to the State of Israel, helping to convince the Chareidi commmunity in America to become more involved with Israel despite its socialist origins. A Sanhedrin could also coordinate with the Israeli judiciary, laying out appropriate areas of authority for each, which should make the debate over judicial activism in Israel much more pleasant.
Finally, in Jewish tradition, the Messiah must be a prophet; and only the Sanhedrin could declare someone to be a true prophet. Without the Sanhedrin's approval, no one can claim the authority of prophecy. Therefore, a reconstituted Sanhedrin is a necessary prerequisite for the coming of the Messiah.
My first worry about this development is whether the Jewish world is ready to submit to a higher authority and to change some very old and established traditions to follow its dictates. Such a thing is necessary eventually, but I wonder whether people are willing to do it now. But I hope that the new Sanhedrin is successful. For too long we have not been a single people, but rather several diffferent communities divided from each other by legal practice. It is past time for us to become whole again.
That brings me to my second worry, which is how the more liberal communities of Jews, such as then Reform and Conservative movements, will react. Fundamentally, many Jews today reject the principle of the Torah and the Oral Torah as binding law. Until now, much of the observant community has tried to maintain some sort of dialogue with them, despite their rejection of the law; but what happens once we have reconstituted a fulll religious court, that administers punishments for violating the law? I worry that this may end up being the moment of truth for everyone. The Sanhedrin will need to draw dividing lines of some kind, and I do not look forward to the day that it happens. It would be akin to amputating a limb on a body.
But to be honest, that day is inevitable and has been since the very beginnings of the Reform movement. And we do have precedent to look at in the troubles with Karaite Judaism, a thousand years ago. It is my deepest wish that our brethren realize the terrible cost of remaining outside the tradition, and make such amputation unnecessary. But I doubt it will be that easy.
Regardless, I will be watching the progress of the new Sanhedrin with great anticipation. It could well herald the start of a new age, one that has been a long time coming.