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Judaism Supreme Court/Judicial

The Sanhedrin

Because of the anti-Jewish as well as anti-democratic tendencies of Israel’s Supreme Court, especially under the leadership of Chief Justice Aaron Barak, serious Jews have turned their attention to the Great Sanhedrin and the possibility of re-establishing this ancient institution. They know, of course, that no Sanhedrin can exist without the Temple, the Beit HaMikdash.

Moreover, and according to Maimonides, the building of the Temple presupposes the appointment of a king and the destruction of Amalek. But this means that the establishment of the Great Sanhedrin will require the advent of the Moshiach.

It’s commendable that some Jews are thinking in these terms, but no one should be under the illusion that establishing the Sanhedrin is comparable to establishing a rabbinical court. Furthermore, and with all due respect, one may wonder whether our most learned rabbis today possess the qualifications required of the Sanhedrin as specified in Maimonides’ Mishne Torah, from which much of the following is drawn.

Consisting of seventy-one judges, the Great Sanhedrin judicial and legislative powers. The President of the Sanhedrin must be capable of teaching the whole of the Torah and of deciding any question within its all-embracing domain. Of course every member of the Sanhedrin must be expert in Torah. But the judges must also be versed in many branches of science, such as astronomy, mathematics, logic, anatomy, and medicine. They must possess knowledge of non-Torah doctrines and practices so as to be able to deal with cases requiring such knowledge. Accordingly, the judges must be familiar with secular law, indeed, with international law. I would go further: they should be competent in a such disciplines as political and military science. One may wonder whether our most learned rabbis fulfill these intellectual qualifications.

Turning to their personal qualifications, to maximize public confidence in their decisions, the judges must be of good lineage: Kohanes, Levites, and Israelites having a reputation for wisdom and reverence. They must be of spotless character (even as youth, so as not to give cause for recrimination). They must be of mature age, imposing stature, good appearance, and free from all physical defects—again to command respect and authority. An extremely old man or a man who is childless cannot be a judge because he is apt to be wanting in tenderness. A member of the Sanhedrin must be kind and merciful. Even in the case of three-man courts, its members must possess the following seven qualifications: wisdom, humility (anava), fear of God, disdain of gain, love of truth, a good reputation, and love of his fellow men.

It should be emphasized that to establish a Sanhedrin is not to establish a “theocracy.” If the term “theocracy” signifies a regime ruled by a church or by priests, Judaism is not theocratic. There is no church in Judaism, neither theologically, since there is no mediation between G-d and the individual Jew, nor institutionally, since there is no ecclesiastical hierarchy. If, however, the term “theocracy” is construed literally as the “rule of G-d,” then Judaism is theocratic, for G-d is the ultimate source of law and authority. But what does this mean operationally? In Judaism no priesthood but only publicly tested scholarship can lay claim to any validity regarding the laws of the Torah. This means that the Torah belongs to every Jew, whether he is a Kohane, Levite, or Israelite.

In a mature Jewish community the center of gravity lies not in any ruling class but in the body of the people. As the Sages teach: “We must not appoint a leader over the community without first consulting it” (Berachot 55a). They also teach that “No legislation should be imposed on the public unless the majority can conform to it” (Avoda Zara 36a). It follows from this principle of Jewish law—and here I quote Professor Elon: “(1) before legislating the legislator must examine and investigate whether a majority of the public will be able to conform to the proposed enactment, and (2) if, after the legislation is enacted, it appears that a majority of the public do not accept it, the legislation is legally ineffective.”

This should put to rest the idea that the Torah prescribes a theocracy. Incidentally, back in the 18th century, Harvard president Samuel Langdon considered the government embodied in the Torah to be a “perfect republic”!

It behooves those who envision the re-establishment of the Great Sanhedrin to bear these thoughts in mind. They themselves should not be mere rabbis. Nor should they be amateurs in political science.

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