Thursday, November 03, 2005

One Year Later: The Sanhedrin Watch Continues...

Today two articles on the Sanhedrin were published. One – no surprise – by Arutz-7. But the other was by, of all papers, Haaretz! In any case they are both posted below:

Arutz-7 reports:

Sanhedrin Project Unveiled With Humility

23:02 Nov 03, '05 / 1 Cheshvan 5766
By Ezra HaLevi

A conference this week unveiled the Sanhedrin project to the public, shifting away from euphoric satisfaction with the launch of the Court one year ago and moving toward broadening participation.



Since it was launched in Tiberius last year, the Court of 71 rabbis has strived to fulfill the halachic (Jewish legal) requirements for renewing authentic semicha (rabbinic ordination passed down from Moses) and for reestablishing the Great Court, which was disbanded 1,600 years ago. At Sunday’s conference, distinguished members of the Court, led by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz), presented a humble, yet exhilarating plan to widen the scope and acceptance of the Court to truly move toward becoming the restored Sanhedrin of old.



Along with the increasingly modest references to the current institution of a Court or Sanhedrin project came new high-caliber participants in the project. Rabbi Even-Israel (Steinsaltz) publicly accepted the position of Nassi, President of the Sanhedrin, Rabbi Re’em HaKohen – head of the largest Hesder Yeshiva in Israel - delivered the first address of the morning and Kiryat Arba Chief Rabbi and Dayan (Rabbinical Court Judge) Dov Lior spoke both at the conference and later at the festive meal.

Media covering statements by Sanhedrin rabbis at festive meal.


Also participating in the conference were Rabbi Yisrael Rozen, who heads the Tzomet Institute and Rabbi Ratzon Arussi, Chief Rabbi of Kiryat Ono and a member of the Chief Rabbinate. Both spoke about the relationship of Torah Law with the law of the State of Israel, with Rozen focusing on the grassroots desire for honest and sincere leadership in Israeli society following the crisis of the Disengagement and Arussi outlining the critical importance of the formation of a unified court of Torah monetary law.

Rabbi Ratzon Arussi addresses those attending the conference.


The crowd attending the conference, which took place in a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood, overflowed onto the street and consisted of many stripes of religious Jews, with a sprinkling of secular Jerusalemites interested in the return to biblical concepts.

Part of the crowd that attended the conference


“While it would be easy to write off secular Jewry as not interested in the preservation of Jewish tradition and therefore not meriting consideration by the Sanhedrin,” said Rabbi Re’em HaKohen in his opening address, “the authority and divine inspiration of the ultimate Sanhedrin comes from the Divine Presence, which our rabbis tell us rested upon the Jewish people at Sinai because not one single Jew was left out or excluded. The Sanhedrin project is a vehicle toward unity and unity is what will be the vehicle that will restore the Divine Glory to the Sanhedrin.”



Rabbi HaKohen also expressed the opinion that the project should refer to itself as a Court more often than a Sanhedrin in order to allow the recognized Gedolim, Torah Greats, to join the effort.



The prevailing opinion of most of the senior members of the Sanhedrin is that the Sanhedrin has not yet achieved full halachic (Jewish legal) status on par with its status before it was disbanded 1,600 years ago, but that its restoration is truly underway.



In his speech accepting the position of Nassi, Rabbi Even-Israel (Shteinzaltz) said that though the task of building the Sanhedrin will take some time, the ark that Noah built took 120 years to build. He expressed his opinion that the project should steer clear of political pronouncements – a point that was challenged by Rabbi Yisrael Ariel of the Temple Institute, who said that publicly opposing the expulsion and supporting those Jews expelled from Gaza and northern Samaria could not be referred to as political. The diverging viewpoints gave those in attendance a glimpse of the manner in which Sanhedrin members disagree with one another, yet remain in the cohesive body to provide a complete prism encasing the spectrum of Jewish thought.

Rabbis Even-Israel (Steinsaltz) and Ariel speak between sessions (Hebrew writing in upper corner reads: Love your neighbor as yourself)


Members of the Court delivered reports outlining how the nascent Sanhedrin is already working toward fulfilling some of the primary function that the ultimate Sanhedrin must fulfill – the role of societal leadership. In ancient times there was the Nassi, who was the legal head and there was the Av Beit HaDin, Father of the Court, who served more on a societal level. The Sanhedrin was the ultimate authority of Jewish law one the one hand, and a body of leadership for Jewish society on the other hand.



Among the projects currently being worked on are the Beit Din Bein HaAm v’HaMedina, the Court Dealing With the Relationship Between the Nation and the State. The Court, which is subordinate to the Sanhedrin, grabbed headlines in the Maariv Daily when an Israeli secular court allowed a person arrested during the expulsion from Gaza to obtain a ruling from the Sanhedrin regarding whether or not to agree to restricted conditions in exchange for release from prison.



Ettie Medad, wife of the director of the Honenu legal assistance organization, accepted the Sanhedrin Court’s ruling that she should refrain from agreeing to the restrictions, even though it meant indefinite continued incarceration with her small child. She was released three days later after informing the secular court of the ruling.



Currently in the courts is the case of a teenage girl who was arrested in the northern Samaria town of Sa-Nur and is refusing to be tried by secular courts, asking to be tried by the Sanhedrin’s Court instead.



The Beit Din Bein HaAm v’HaMedina is also engaged in high level discussions with the Ministry of Education in an attempt to improve the way in which Bible is taught in Israel’s public school system.



Other topics addressed at the conference included:

*Rabbi Shabati Sabbato commended those behind the Sanhedrin project and Rabbi Even Israel (Steinsaltz), saying that the Sanhedrin has withstood its first year, “in spite of all the derisiveness” toward the endeavor from some sectors.



* Rabbi Nachman Kahane, currently the Av Beit HaDin, spoke about the Sanhedrin project in light of world events and the failure of the United Nations to reject the Iranian calls to eradicate Israel.



* Rabbi Yoel Schwartz, Vice-Av Beit HaDin, spoke about the Sanhedrin’s achievements over the past year, including its interactions with the Ministry of Education.



* Rabbi Yehuda Edri summarized the various opinions regarding the place of the Holy Temple, a topic examined in depth by the Sanhedrin this year.



* Rabbi Gid’on Charlap, a master architect, summarized conclusions of the Sanhedrin’s committee regarding the place of the holy Temple - though the Sanhedrin has not yet ruled on accepting the committee’s conclusions at this time.



* Rabbi Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron spoke about the Sanhedrin’s mission to the B’nei Noach, non-Jews who observe the seven laws of Noah, emphasizing the high caliber and self-sacrifice of the Noahides he met on behalf of the Sanhedrin who are coming to Israel in Tevet (January) to be ordained as a high council for the B’nei Noach.



Sanhedrin spokesman Prof. Hillel Weiss, speaking with Israel National TV (Click here to view - segment begins at 1:35 mark), said that the Sanhedrin seeks to gain the support of the Jewish Nation not through coercion or animosity, but through love, which will eventually culminate in a basic law being put forth in the Knesset restoring the Court to its proper authority.



One of those who took the day off from work to attend the conference was Efrat resident Jeremy Gimpel. “I had read everything written about the renewed Sanhedrin with such excitement, I had to see for myself,” Gimpel said. “What struck me is that ever since Mt. Sinai, there were always 70 elders leading the Jewish people and I believe that G-d, in His infinite wisdom, knew the Jews would be dispersed among the 70 nations. To see all these rabbis and leaders gathered back in the land of Israel, bringing with them different traditions, cultures and approaches to Torah is a humbling experience and an answer to our daily prayer of Hashiva Shofteinu K’Varishona, Return our judges of old.”






Ha'aretz reports:

Now that there's a Sanhedrin, who needs the Supreme Court?
By Nadav Shragai

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."

Ordination revived

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."

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