This week’s Torah portion is Vayikkra, Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26.
Why hasn’t the Sanhedrin, the great Jewish court of the First and Second Commonwealths, been revived?
During the centuries of its existence, this body, comprised of 71 elders and sages who ruled on every aspect of life, brought unity to the land in decisions binding on the entire nation.
On the surface, reviving the Sanhedrin seems impossible. Its members must be recipients of the classic Jewish ordination that traces itself back to Moses himself and even to the Almighty. But this ordination ended in the third century. Intrinsic to the idea of the Sanhedrin is a living tradition of ordination; when ordination died out, so, it would seem, did the Sanhedrin and the possibility of its revival.
But a verse in this week’s portion creates alternative possibilities.
In his commentary to the Mishnah, Maimonides writes, “if all the Jewish Sages and their disciples would agree on the choice of one person among those who dwell in Israel as their head [but this must be done in the land of Israel], and (that head) establishes a house of learning, he would be considered as having received the original ordination and he could then ordain anyone he desires.”
So who chooses? The sages and their disciples — everyone with a relationship to Torah sages, to Jewish law. In an alternate source, however, Maimonides extends the privilege of voting to all adult residents of Israel. This idea reappears in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, where he concludes with the phrase, “this matter requires decision.”
A 1563 effort by a sage of Safed ended with the chief rabbi of Egypt siding with opponents, a group of Jerusalem rabbis, in part because “this matter requires decision” left open the possibility that Maimonides may have changed his mind, leaving the issue unadjudicated.
Three centuries later, the first minister of religion in the new government of the Jewish state, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, renewed this controversy when he tried to convince the political and religious establishments that along with creation of the state should come creation of a Sanhedrin.
In his work The Renewal of the Sanhedrin in Our Renewed State, he cites the existence of a copy of Maimonides’ commentary to the Mishnah published along with later additions written by Maimonides, in which he specifically writes that ordination and the Sanhedrin will be renewed before the coming of the messiah.
What is the basis for his most democratic suggestion? I believe it stems from a verse in Vayikkra:
“If the entire congregation of Israel commits an inadvertent violation as a result of (a mistaken legal decision of the highest court)….and they thereby violate one of the prohibitory commandments of God, they shall incur guilt” (Lev.4:13). It deals with the issue of the sins of the congregation.
Commentators ask how can an “entire congregation” sin. Rashi identifies the “congregation of Israel” with the Sanhedrin. In other words, when it says “if the entire congregation of Israel errs” it really means that “if the Sanhedrin errs.”
The institution that protects and defines the law is at the heart of the nation’s existence. How the Jewish people behave, what they do, can become the law.
It should not come as a surprise that Maimonides wanted to revive the ordination, and found a method utterly democratic in its design. The “people” equals the Sanhedrin, the “people” can choose one leading Jew who will then have the right to pass on his ordination to others, to re-create the Sanhedrin. For Maimonides, it is the population living in the land of Israel which represents the historical congregation of Israel.
Apparently, Maimonides is saying that before the next stage of Jewish history unfolds, the nation will have to decide who shall be given the authority to recreate ordination and who will be the commander-in-chief of the rabbis. Will it happen in our lifetime?
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the founding chief rabbi of Efrat.