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Make do without Sanhedrin

Posted By Obadiah Shoher On March 2, 2012 @ 10:14 am In rogue Judaism | 5 Comments

In rabbinical Judaism, Jewish life without Sanhedrin is impossible. Or it is hardly Jewish, as many commandments can only be carried out when Sanhedrin is seated. Expansionary wars, criminal justice, Jubilees, and calendar alterations are only performed through Sanhedrin.

Life without Sanhedrin was okay in the Diaspora when Jews usually lacked criminal jurisdiction, could not wage wars, and Jubilee-year restoration of sold land to its original owners was irrelevant. More importantly, in isolated Diaspora communities Jews could reasonably rely on the opinions of local rabbinical leaders while ignoring the often divergent opinions of other communities. In Israel, however, that arrangement fragments the religious community. There are dozens of major sects, each of which listens only to its own rabbinical leader. In Exile, the sects were physically separated from each other; they were generally town-based. In Israel, they rub against each other and provoke significant hostility. Sanhedrin can end this pitiful situation by establishing uniform opinions.

A technical objection to reassembling Sanhedrin is its broken line of succession: presumably, a new Sanhedrin would be illegitimate. Such reasoning is ridiculous. Sanhedrin was invented to begin with; it is not an institution dating to time immemorial as the rabbis want us to believe. While the Temple was controlled by Sadducean priests, there is no way that Pharisaic rabbis—their enemies—sat in the Chamber of Unhewn Stones and promulgated obligatory laws. If there had been Sanhedrin at the time of Nehemiah, he wouldn’t have struggled with practical issues of intermarriage and purity: presumably, Sanhedrin would have decided them. If there had been Sanhedrin at the time of the Maccabees, they wouldn’t have been puzzled about how to dispose of the polluted sanctuary’s stones—that would have been a rabbinical question. If there had been Sanhedrin at the time of Agrippas and the Romans, it would have been quite a humiliated institution: the Romans usurped the power of capital punishment, severely restricted punishment for religious violations, and Jewish kings exercised their own judicial prerogative. Mishnah Sanhedrin paints the institution as utterly unworkable: no criminal court could operate under such impossibly stringent rules of evidence. If there had been a Pharisaic-controlled Sanhedrin with powers of enforcement, then the Pharisaic-Sadducean debates we know of could never had happened: the rabbis would have executed the alleged heretics, who only accepted the Torah, rather than the entire Bible, as divine.

For all we know about history, Sanhedrin as an all-powerful body never existed. At most, a rabbinical council decided on Pharisaic interpretation of the commandments, and its opinions were not binding. It was constituted arbitrarily if at all, and certainly traced itself neither to Moshe nor to High Priest Zadok.

Why then, do modern rabbis resist “reinstituting” Sanhedrin? There is only one answer: because they don’t want the responsibility. For centuries they created halacha, which arrogated immense powers to Sanhedrin, essentially shaping a Jewish state as a theocracy, and a rather bureaucratic one at that. Frankly, they never expected their envisioned state to take shape. Now that a state is there, the rabbis shrink from practicing what they preached —disallowing Christians (and surely pagans) from this land, demolishing foreign sanctuaries, sentencing people to death for Shabbat violations, and sanctioning the genocide of our Arab enemies. Above all, they are afraid of confronting the atheist Jewish establishment that subsidizes them. A Sanhderin would have no option but to crack down on most MKs and order the execution of the Peace Now members on malshin (informant) and rodef (murderous stalker) charges.

The problem is, halacha does not require Sanhedrin to pass such sentences. Every qualified rabbi has an individual obligation to pronounce death sentences on Jewish traitors who endanger the community. Every rabbi—indeed, every Jew—is banned from following the majority to evil and commanded to expunge evil from our midst. Killing may seem odd to liberals, but our Jewish priests were commanded to immerse their fingers in sacrificial blood to purify the community.

But of course, it is much easier to lament the absence of Sanhedrin than to go out and kill those who have to be killed.

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