When the "new Sanhedrin" was established in Tiberias a year ago, hardly anyone took it seriously. The 71 rabbis who came to the northern city 1,660 years after the original Sanhedrin (the assembly of 71 ordained scholars that was both supreme court and legislature in Talmudic times) held its last meeting there, were welcomed by many in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox sectors with smiles tinged with derision.
The declaration of the Sanhedrin's reestablishment was perceived as both a curiosity on the margins of the right and as a rebellion against halakhic conventions; as a perhaps daring step, but one that was also a warning; far-reaching, but to a large extent provocative.
The fact that the leading Torah scholars of this generation, or those who are identified as such, took no part in this pretentious venture posed many questions about the new Sanhedrin's source of power and authority. The founding rabbis, most of them fairly anonymous, did agree in writing to vacate their places in favor of rabbis who are greater Torah scholars, as soon as some are found willing to serve.
Nevertheless, the initial impression was that this was another effort by the Jewish Leadership movement within the Likud, an effort that had a Torah-oriented, halakhic-messianic slant and was striving for a revolution in the government.
The man who headed the new venture was Hillel Weiss, a professor of literature and one of the leaders of Jewish Leadership, who nearly twenty years ago reinstated another ancient practice: the traditional hakhel gathering, which took place once every seven years at the end of the Sukkot festival, the year after an agricultural Sabbatical (shmitta) year, and was attended by the king of Israel.
The first hakhel gathering organized by Weiss at the Western Wall plaza in 1987 was attended by then-president Chaim Herzog, prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar, chief rabbis Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliahu and many other dignitaries. It has been repeated twice since, once every seven years.
A year after its establishment, it is impossible to see the new Sanhedrin as the domain of the extreme right wing alone: at a large gathering in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood Tuesday, Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz, a well-known Talmud scholar who is much esteemed in Torah circles, both in the ultra-Orthodox world and in the national-religious sector, came forward as the president of the Sanhedrin.
Steinsaltz avoided delving into politics and spoke about gradually building up the ancient institution, which would take several generations, he said. The very fact that he is leading the new Sanhedrin can be considered a dramatic event, given the numerous efforts in the last few years to strengthen the Jewish character of the state, integrate into it elements of Hebrew law and to combat the idea of a state for all its citizens. The fact that the new Sanhedrin also includes many rabbis affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox stream, added to the fact that they are not among the best known and leading rabbis in that sector, endows the effort with another unusual dimension that distances it from being another "extreme right-wing" venture.
In its first year, the new Sanhedrin initiated a dialogue with the Ministry of Education over the Bible and Scriptures curriculum; set up a "High Council for the Sons of Noah," whose task it is to establish contact with non-Jewish communities seeking to observe the Noahide laws - the seven commandments given to the sons of Noah, or all mankind, which non-Jews are obligated to uphold according to halakha.
The Sanhedrin also discussed at length the physical location of the altar and Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount and dealt with the question of whether in our generation, Jews abroad must continue to observe the second festival day of the Diaspora, an additional day that is added to each of the three pilgrimage festivals - Sukkot, Passover and Shevuot.
The new Sanhedrin sharply attacked the disengagement plan and recently ruled that three minors who asked it for a ruling had acted properly when they refused to be tried in a court not based on Torah law.
"We hereby instruct you to continue your refusal, and the One who releases prisoners will release you from your confinement," the rabbis wrote them. In another ruling, the Sanhedrin's "Court for Matters of Nationhood and State" permitted a family from the evacuated community of Sa-Nur to accept compensation from the state for their evacuation, "even though this was an unjust law forced on the expellees."
According to halakha, in order to revive the Sanhedrin, "ordination" is required, i.e., the ordination of members by others who are greater and wiser Torah scholars, to serve on the Supreme Court as necessary.
The first ordination, you may recall, was that of Joshua Bin Nun, whom Moses ordained. Other famous ordinations over the course of the generations included the "five elders": Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Eliezer Ben Shamu'a, who were ordained by Yehuda Ben Baba, between the towns of Usha and Shfaram.
Ordination ended in Israel when the yeshivas closed and the Sanhedrin stopped functioning. The last people ordained no longer placed their hands on their students' heads, because of the restrictions imposed by the Roman government.
Maimonides wrote that if all scholars in Israel agree to appoint scholars and ordain them, than these are ordained people and they may discuss matters of fines and punishment and may ordain others. However, even Maimonides did not see this as a fait accompli; he added that the matter needed to be "decided on."
In the 16th century, nearly all the Torah scholars in the land of Israel accepted the initiative of Rabbi Jacob Birav to resume ordination and reestablish the Sanhedrin. Rabbi Levy Ben Haviv, the rabbi of Jerusalem who was not informed of the plans, sabotaged the effort, and in the end Birav was forced to flee the country.
Upon the reestablishment of the state, the first minister of religion, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Hacohen Maimon, attempted to renew the Sanhedrin, but the opposition of the ultra-Orthodox sabotaged the effort.
It is therefore surprising that the first ordained person in modern times, who ostensibly authorized the convening of the new Sanhedrin, was an ultra-Orthodox figure - Rabbi Dov Levanoni of Jerusalem. The members of the new Sanhedrin present a video in which Rabbi Levanoni relates how he received the first ordination to take place since the time of Rabbi Yaakov Birav, from one of the leaders of the Eidah Haredit's Beit Din Zedek religious court, Rabbi Moshe Halberstam. Levanoni ordained two other rabbis, and they ordained four more.
Since each person can only ordain two people, it took almost a year to ordain the 120 men needed for the new Sanhedrin. Most of them were present at Tuesday's gathering in Hai Taib Street synagogue in Har Nof, to mark a year since the renewal of the ancient institution.
The new Sanhedrin is recognized by a very small public, and this is its Achilles heel. Rabbi Re'em Hacohen, the head of the hesder yeshiva in Otniel, who delivered the opening address at the meeting - he is not a member of the new Sanhedrin - sketched clear halakhic parameters that indicate the problems involved. According to him, it is not possible to resume the ordination without the consent of the entire Jewish people.
"The Sanhedrin is the foundation for the presence of the Divine spirit ... and until this body has representatives from the entire nation - and at the moment it does not have representatives of the entire nation, not even representatives of the religious, Torah observant segment of the nation, then it is problematic," Hacohen said. Like other speakers at the conference, he too feels that "today there is a total division between the executive and judicial branches, and the nation and the rabbinical court system is also not free of this plague." Nevertheless, he says, "The Sanhedrin cannot replace them until it draws its power from the entire nation."
The establishment of the new Sanhedrin reflects profound unhappiness with the way the Israeli legal system is run, there were harsh remarks to that effect at the conference. Rabbi Israel Rosen, the head of the Tsomet Institute of Halakha and Technology, which provides solutions to halakhic problems using technology, attacked the sections on religion and state, minorities and the status of the Supreme Court in the draft constitution proposed by the Israel Democracy Institute, for whom the "Supreme Court has become their Sanhedrin."
"But the Sanhedrin in its existing format," acknowledges Rosen, "is not serious. Even if in principle one accepts the need to revive the Sanhedrin, it should include authoritative halakhic scholars and Torah scholars of the first order. At the moment, it seems as if they have jumped too high."
Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Yoel Schwartz, spiritual advisor to the ultra-Orthodox Nahal brigade and a member of the new Sanhedrin, accepts the criticism and defines the institution as "infrastructure only." Not everyone sees eye to eye with him. Hillel Weiss, who also has become one of the ordained members, says, "The goal of the new Sanhedrin is to become a source of authority for the Jewish people, and this is contrary to the accepted position of the left that the state of Israel is the source of this authority.
"I and many of my colleagues want to be part of this state, but not at the cost of our spiritual and physical destruction. This Sanhedrin draws together all the scars and injuries and anguish from the injustice and persecution that Jews endure here from the Supreme Court and whoever follows the Supreme Court and whoever pretends to maintain the rule of law here."
Rabbi Ratzon Arussi, the rabbi of Kiryat Ono and a member of the Supreme Rabbinical Council, also feels persecuted. On Tuesday, Arussi sharply criticized the Knesset and the court. He spoke about the "clash that is gaining momentum between Torah law and state law," and despaired over "barren dialogues with the secular side that ostensibly create understandings, which have no practical value for various connections to our heritage." The court, Arussi feels, "is today obligated only to the state, but not to its Jewish identity."
Arussi suggested setting red lines for this identity and announcing that if the Knesset does not incorporate them into legislation, all the religious parties will resign. Rabbi Dov Lior, the head of the Committee of Judea and Samaria Rabbis, said things at the conference that were even more far-reaching: "A collective of evil people is not part of the quorum ... every law against the Torah is invalid. There are forces of evil seeking to harm anything related to the sanctity of Israel, and the legal system is one area where the greatest desecration of God's name is occurring.
It is hard to know how long Steinsaltz will last as president of the new Sanhedrin. At the public session held on the first anniversary of the apparent reestablishment of the ancient institution, he appeared to be fighting internal opposition. He pointed out to those present that worldwide events couldn't happen in one fell swoop.
Jerusalem wasn't built in a day
"Before the flood, Noah built the ark and prepared to enter it for 120 years," he reminded the audience. "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, or a council for the cats on Emek Refaim Street. 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.
"When there is such a disengagement plan, and I don't have enough information about it, just as there is a commandment to speak out, there is a commandment to remain silent. As a private person, I, just like every one of us, have understanding, but as a rabbi, dealing with political matters such as the disengagement is a mockery of the essence of the concept of a Sanhedrin.
"If I don't want to be a laughing-stock, then I won't express an opinion on every issue. These words of truth need to be said, so that this Sanhedrin does not become a branch of the Yesha Council (of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza) or of the Council for Peace and Security."