By Shlomo Riskin
“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).
If the Jewish state could be revived virtually from the ashes of destruction after two thousand years, then why hasn’t the Sanhedrin, the great Jewish court of the First and Second Commonwealths, been revived? During the centuries of its existence, this august body, comprised of 71 elders and sages who ruled on every aspect of life, brought unity to the land because their decisions were binding on the entire nation.
On the surface, reviving the Sanhedrin seems impossible because its members must be recipients of the classic Jewish ordination that traces itself back to Moses himself, and even to the Almighty, as it were, who ordained Moses, who then ordained Joshua, Joshua the elders, the elders the prophets, the prophets the Men of the Great Assembly. This ordination came to an end in the third century of the Common Era. Since 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 Mishna, 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 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.” Maimonides adds that the Sanhedrin would return to its original function as it is written in Isaiah 1:26: “I will restore thy judges as at first and thy Sages as in the beginning.” Such a selection would mean an election, a list of candidates, ballots. So who does the choosing? 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’ Mishna Torah, Laws of Sanhedrin, Ch. 4, Law, 11, except there he concludes with the phrase, “this matter requires decision.”
In 1563, an attempt was made by a leading sage of Safed, Rabbi Yaakov BeRab, to revive classic ordination using the Mainionidean formula; in an election held in Safed, BeRab was declared officially ordained. He proceeded to ordain several others of his disciples along with his most important student, Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch.
The rabbis in Jerusalem opposed the Safed decision. When the question was put before Rabbi David Ben Zimra (Ridbaz), the chief rabbi of Egypt, he ruled in favor of the Jerusalem rabbis.
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 of Israel 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 Mishna published after Maimonides wrote the Mishna Torah, where he specifically writes that ordination and the Sanhedrin will be renewed before the coming of the Messiah, which implies that it must be achieved through human efforts.
What is the basis for his most democratic suggestion? I believe it stems from a verse that we find in this week’s portion of Vayikra, quoted above, which deals with the issue of the sins of the entire 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 Jewish people are a nation defined by commandments, precepts and laws. Therefore the institution that protects and defines the law is at the heart of the nation’s existence. It should not come as a surprise then that Maimonides wanted to revive the ordination, and found a method 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! And for Maimonides, it is the population living in the land of Israel that represents the historical congregation of Israel (B.T. Horayot 3b).
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 chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.