Since it was launched in Tiberias last year, the Court of 71 rabbis has strived to fulfill the halakhic (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 publicly accepted the position of Nassi, President of the Sanhedrin, and Rabbi Re’em HaCohen – head of the Otniel Hesder Yeshiva - delivered the first address of the morning. 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 HaCohen 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 HaCohen 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 halakhic (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 said that the task of building the Sanhedrin will take some time - but that 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, recognizing their responsibility to enable the body to provide a wide spectrum of religious 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 functions that the ultimate Sanhedrin must fulfill – the role of societal leadership. In ancient times there was the Nassi, 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. This Court, which is subordinate to the Sanhedrin, recently grabbed headlines in the daily Maariv newspaper. The paper reported on an arrested disengagement protestor, who was allowed by an Israeli secular court 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 to 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 former 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 the following:
* Rabbi Shabtai Sabato commended those behind the Sanhedrin project and Rabbi Even-Israel (Steinzaltz), 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 precise location of the Holy Temple, a topic examined in depth by the Sanhedrin this year.
* Rabbi Gideon Charlap, a master architect, summarized conclusions of the Sanhedrin’s committee regarding the site of the Holy Temple - though the Sanhedrin has not yet ruled on accepting the committee’s conclusions at this time.
* Rabbi Michael Shlomo Bar-Ron spoke about the Sanhedrin’s mission to the B’nei Noach, non-Jews who observe the seven laws of Noah. He emphasized 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 as of old.”