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Sanhedrin Initiative

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Within Judaism, the Sanhedrin is seen as the last institution which commanded universal authority among the Jewish people in the long chain of tradition from Moses until the present day. Since its dissolution in 358 CE[1], there has been no universally recognized authority within Jewish law. Maimonides (1135–1204) was one of the greatest scholars of the middle ages, and is arguably one of the most widely known scholars among the Jewish people. Influenced by the rationalist school of thought and generally showing a preference for a natural (as opposed to miraculous) redemption for the Jewish people, Maimonides proposed a rationalist solution for achieving the goal of re-establishing the highest court in Jewish tradition and reinvesting it with the same authority it had in former years. There have been several attempts to implement Maimonides' recommendations, the latest being in modern times.

In October 2004 (Tishrei 5765), a group of rabbis claiming to represent varied communities in Israel undertook a ceremony in Tiberias, where the original Sanhedrin was disbanded, which they claim re-establishes the body according to the proposal of Maimonides and the Jewish legal rulings of Rabbi Yosef Karo.

Contents

The Dissolution of the Classical Sanhedrin

During the period when it stood on the Temple Mount, the Sanhedrin achieved its quintessential position, legislating on all aspects of Jewish religious and political life within the parameters laid down by Biblical and Rabbinic tradition. After the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE, the Sanhedrin was re-established with reduced authority, although it was still universally recognized as the ultimate authority in religious matters. This authority was reinforced by the official sanction of the imperial Roman government and legislation.

The Sanhedrin was re-established in Yavneh [70-80 CE]. From there it was moved to Usha under the presidency of Gamliel II ben Shimon II [80-116 CE]. Afterwards it was conveyed back to Yavneh, and again back to Usha. It was moved to Shefaram under the presidency of Shimon III ben Gamliel II [140-163 CE], and to Beth Shearim and Sephoris, under the presidency of Yehudah I [163-193 CE]. Finally it was moved to Tiberias, under the presidency of Gamliel III ben Yehudav I [193-220 CE], where it became more of a consistory, but still retained, under the presidency of Yehudah II ben-Shimon III [220-270 CE], the power of excommunication.

During the presidency of Gamliel IV ben Yehudav II, due to persecution of an increasingly Christianized Rome it dropped the name Sanhedrin, and its authoritative decisions were subsequently issued under the name of Beth HaMidrash. As a reaction to Julian's pro-Jewish stance, Theodosius forbade the Sanhedrin to assemble and declared ordination illegal. (Roman law declared capital punishment for any Rabbi who received ordination and complete destruction of the town where the ordination occurred). Because the Jewish Calendar is based on witnesses' testimony, and that had become far to dangerous to collect, Hillel II recommended a mathematical Calendar that was adopted at a clandestine, and maybe last, meeting [358 CE]. This marked the last universal decision made by that body. Gamliel V [400-425 CE] was the last president. With the death of this patriarch, who was executed by Theodosius II for erecting new synagogues contrary to the imperial decree, the title Nasi, the last remains of the ancient Sanhedrin, became illegal to be used after 425 CE.

There are records of what may have been of attempts to reform the Sanhedrin in Arabia [2], in Jerusalem under the Calif 'Umar[3], and in Babylon (Iraq)[4], but none of these attempts were given any attention by Rabbinic authorities and little information is available about them.

Maimonides' semicha by consensus

Maimonides was one of the greatest scholars of the middle ages, and is arguably one of the most widely accepted scholars among the Jewish people since the closing of the Talmud in 500 CE. Influenced by the rationalist school of thought and generally showing a preference for a natural (as opposed to miraculous) redemption for the Jewish people, Maimonides records that it is an absolute, binding requirement of the Jewish people in every generation to set up a Sanhedrin and courts of law. Faced with the demise of classical Semicha (Biblical ordination), he tentatively proposes a rationalist solution for achieving the goal of re-establishing the highest court in Jewish tradition and reinvesting it with the same authority it had in former years.

Maimonides writes:

It appears to me [Maimonides] that if all the sages of the Land of Israel consent to appoint dayanim (judges) and grant them semichah (ordination), they have the law of musmachim and they can judge penalty cases and are authorized to grant semichah to others [thus restoring Biblical ordination].
If so, why did the sages bemoan [the loss of] semichah? So that the judgment of penalty cases wouldn't disappear from among Israel because Jews are so spread out that it's not possible to get their consent [to authorize a dayan]. If someone were to receive semichah from someone who already has semichah, then he does not require their consent – he may judge penalty cases for everyone since he received semichah from beis din (rabbinical court). However, this matter requires a final decision.
(Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11)

The wording of this teaching is vague and tentative and leaves several points open. Firstly, it opens with "It appears to me" and ends with "this matter requires a final decision". Secondly it is not specified what is meant by "consent". Thirdly it leaves open as to who are the "all the sages of the Land of Israel" and lastly - although not apparent here - what is really meant by the word "all". These questions led to significant debate within Rabbinic circles, from those who completely disregarded this teaching to others who differed on its meaning.

The differing interpretations gradually coalesced by the time of Rabbi Yosef Karo [1488-1575] who recorded as definitive Jewish law that ordination could be established by consensus, and accepted such ordination himself. While Rabbi Yosef Karo's magnum opus, the Shulchan Aruch, is considered the most authoritative collection of Jewish Law in use today, his views on this subject are not widely known[5]. In general religious Jews not familiar with his writings on the subject tend to reject outright the notion of establishing a Sanhedrin by consensus.

The matter of restoring semicha by consensus has been a matter of dispute within the orthodox community.

Against semicha by consensus

Against the view are such authorities as the Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz (the Chazon Ish), who quoted Rabbi David ibn abi Zimra (the Radvaz) on the subject, who in turn sided with Rabbi Levi Ibn Chaviv (the Ralbach), who based his claims on the Ramban that it is impossible to form a Sanhedrin before Moshiach, the Jewish messiah, comes.

For semicha by consensus

On the other hand, as explained above, authorities based on Maimonides[6] and Rabbi Yosef Karo[7], author of the Shulchan Aruch, were of the opinion that semicha could be established by consensus and a Sanhedrin could be formed without waiting for Moshiach. Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, the leading disciple of the Vilna Gaon, wrote in the name of the Gaon that there was no need to wait for Moshiach before forming a Sanhedrin.[8] (Cf. Attempt by Rabbi Yisroel Shklover, 1830 to revive Semicha.)

A brief summary of the last five rabbinical attempts to create a Sanhedrin

A discussion of the last five rabbinical attempts to reinstate Semicha can be found in the Wikipedia entry on Semicha. Rabbi Bavad, a member of the new Sanhedrin, gives a brief discussion of those attempts and how they affected the most recent attempt.[9]

  • Attempt by Rabbi Jacob Berab in 1538. Rabbi Berab assembled 25 of the most leading Rabbis of Israel, who at the time were located in Safed, and declared Semicha re-instituted. The Rabbis of Jerusalem felt a slight on their honor and declared the election invalid, and a major dispute ensued. Some Rabbis disputed it was even possible to renew Semicha but Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, as a final position declared the procedure valid. The new Sanhedrin has modeled its actions after this attempt.
  • Attempt by Rabbi Yisroel Shklover in 1830. In Rabbi Shklover's lifetime the Turkish empire was crumbling, and for the first time in almost a thousand years westerners were being allowed into Yemen. Scientific journals of the time seriously speculated that the remnants of the lost ten tribes would be found. Based on Jewish traditions and "scientific evidence" Rabbi Shklover sent an emissary to obtain Semicha from these lost tribes. In the end, no remnant was found, however the responsa involved in this shed light on the Vilna Gaon's position that it was permissible to attempt to re-establish the Sanhedrin.
  • Attempt by Rabbi Aharon Mendel haCohen in 1901. Rabbi Mendel collected the approval of approximately 500 leading Rabbis in favor of the renewal of Semicha according to the Maimonides. His involvement in the founding of Agudath Israel and the intervening of World War I distracted him from implementing this plan. The new Sanhedrin bases its use of phones, fax and regular mail rather than physically assembling "all the scholars of the Land of Israel" on the rabbinical responsa surrounding this attempt.
  • Attempt by Rabbi Zvi Kovsker in 1940. Rabbi Zvi Kovsker came to Israel from Soviet Russia. Seeing the condition of Jews in the years leading up to World War II, he undertook an effort to contact and work with many Rabbinic leaders in Israel towards getting their approval for the renewal of Semicha, and the reestablishment of a Sanhedrin, as an authentic government for the Jewish people (this was before the establishment of the State of Israel). His efforts to lobby the Rabbinic leaders was the model for twenty years of groundwork and discussions by the organizers of the new Sanhedrin.
  • Attempt by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Maimon in 1949. Rabbi Maimon proposed turning the Israeli Rabbinate into a Sanhedrin. The perceived subordinate position to the government of Israel, was compared to Napoleon's Sanhedrin, and led to strong vocal opposition by all Haredi Rabbis. In contrast, the new Sanhedrin has declared itself entirely independent of the government, and in several respects has opposed the government.

Rabbi Beirav, the model for the current attempt

A closer look at the attempt by Rabbi Beirav[10], and the involvement of the Beis Yosef, which was the model for the current attempt

Rabbi Yakov Berav (1474-1546), know as the Mahari Beirav, was born in Spain. Evidence of the great respect is afforded by the following lines of Rabbi Abraham Gavison in Omer ha-Shikchah: "Say not that the lamp of the Law no longer burns in Israel! Yakov Beirav has come back! once more he sojourns among us!" In 1533 he became Rabbi at Cairo; and several years after he seems to have finally settled in Safed, which then contained the largest and most learned Jewish community in the Land of Israel. After the Spanish expulsion, many Jews remained in Spain, practicing their Judaism in secret, while publicly appearing to be Christians. Thousands of these Marrano Jews eventually escaped to areas where they could practice their religion with relative freedom, yet they were haunted by the sins they had committed in previous years. As chief Rabbi of Safed, Rabbi Yakov Beirav proposed the creation of Jewish courts that would carry out the punishment of malkos, lashes, which releases someone from the punishment of kareis (Mishnah Makos 23a). But in order to create these Jewish courts, classical ordination had to be reinstituted.

Renewal of Semicha

For a year, Rabbi Yakov Beirav discussed the issues of re-establishment institution of semicha with the scholars of Safed. After much discussion the scholars at Safed came to the conclusion that Maimonides' view was correct, and that there was a pressing need to re-establish the Sanhedrin. In 1538 twenty-five Rabbis met in an assembly at Safed and ordained Rabbi Yakov Beirav, giving him the right to ordain others who would then form a Sanhedrin. After sending a delegation to Jerusalem, Rabbi Yakov Beirav expounded on Shabbat before all the scholars of Safed the halachic basis of the re-establishment of semicha and its implications, with an intent to dispel any remaining doubts. On hearing of this event, approximately two hundred scholars, most of the scholars in Land of Israel, also expressed their consent. To obtain the good-will of the scholars of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yakov Beirav sent Rabbi Shlomo Chazan to inform them of the reinstitution of semicha and to obtain their approval. He extended semicha to the chief Rabbi at Jerusalem, Levi ben Yakov ibn Chaviv, (Ralbach).

The dispute

The Ralbach however rejected the semicha. He considered it an insult to his dignity and to the dignity of Jerusalem that so important a change should be effected without consultation of the scholars of Jerusalem. Rabbi Moshe deCastro of Jerusalem also expressed doubts over the applicability of semicha. Because of this opposition some of the scholars of Safed also began to entertain doubts. Rabbi Yakov Beirav again assembled the scholars of Safed, and reviewed the halachic basis for re-establishment of semicha. Rabbi Yosef Karo and others sent a treatise Maaseh Beis Din to the scholars of Jerusalem explaining the basis for semicha and protesting their opposition to its re-establishment. In the course of time, the Ralbach put his objections to Rabbi Yakov Beirav's semicha in writing, involving additional scholars in the dispute. In response Rabbi Yakov Beirav composed and distributed Iggeret Hasemicha to settle any halachic doubts. The dispute lasted for a year. In general the scholars outside of Land of Israel did not get involved at this stage in the dispute, with the exception of the Radbaz.

The Ralbach's objections centered around the following points[11]:

  1. The re-establishment of semicha will cause the speeding up of redemption, which is not permitted.
  2. The Maimonides closing words, "This matter requires a final decision" shows that he was not fully decided on this ruling. Since the Maimonides was uncertain and the Nahmanides was certain[12], the law follows the Nahmanides.
  3. Lastly that the role of Sanhedrin had to be complete, the Calendar had to immediately change which could cause division among the Jewish people
  4. Even if Maimonides was correct, because the scholars of Jerusalem were not present the election was invalid.

Rabbi Yakov Beirav countered with the following points[13]:

  1. First, that the re-establishment semicha is not interfering with the process of redemption, rather it is simply the fulfillment of a positive mitzvah.
  2. The Maimonides' closing words refer a different legal matter.
  3. There was no problem leaving the Jewish calendar unchanged.
  4. The most learned scholars lived in Safed and that was sufficient; in Jewish law the word "all" means the "main part". (It is interesting to note that the Ralbach did not differ with Rabbi Yakov Beirav on this point, only he objected that "all" must include the scholars of Jerusalem. He did not claim that every scholar in all of Land of Israel should be present in the assembly).

In his treatise Maaseh Beis Din[14], Rabbi Yosef Karo explained Maimonides' principle of "all". There he writes that Maimonides meant that if one Rabbi is willing to defer to the knowledge and wisdom of another Rabbi - those lesser rabbis are already included to the greater rabbis and need not be included in the count of "all" (meaning that the scholars of Jerusalem did not need to be included in the election process). To further show that he held that this opinion, he accepted the Semicha of Rabbi Beirav, and passed it on for several generations.

Conclusion

It is known that Rabbi Yosef Karo and Rabbi Moses of Trani were two of the four men ordained by Rabbi Yakov Beirav. The others are assumed to be Rabbi Abraham Shalom and Rabbi Israel de Curial and/or Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto. After weighing the objections of Ralbach, Rabbi Yosef Karo chose to be part of the Mahari Beirav's attempt to reinstate the Sanhedrin in his time. This is the source for the acronym MaRaN, which stands for the words "ordained by two hundred Rabbis" (Masa'im Rabanan Nismach). Scholars never criticized Rabbi Yosef Karo for this decision. Though there were arguments over many years about the authority of the Shulchan Aruch until it became universally accepted, yet no where does one criticize Rabbi Yosef Karo for the fact that he received semicha from Rabbi Yakov Beirav and transmitted it onward. Rabbi Yosef Karo is known to have used his semicha to ordain Rabbi Moses Alsheich, who in turn, ordained Rabbi Chaim Vital. Thus semicha can be traced for at least four generations. Rabbi Yosef Karo, in his commentary the Beis Yosef (Choshen Mishpat 295), answered the objections of the Ralbach by recording as definitive Jewish law the Maimonides' opinion that semicha can be renewed by consensus.

However this view is not shared by all modern Rabbis, Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff writes: Although Rav Yosef Karo had received this semicha and ordained Rav Moshe Alshich, it is not clear he utilized the semicha in any other way. Nowhere does he refer to a renewal of semicha, and furthermore, numerous places in Shulchan Aruch would be written differently if its author assumed that a beis din of semuchim existed today. In all these places, he assumes that no beis din today exists that is authorized to paskin on the laws of penalties and punishments... Although Rav Moshe Alshich ordained Rav Chayim Vital (Birkei Yosef, Choshen Mishpat 1:7), who was renowned as the primary disciple of the Arizal, the semicha trail appears to end at this point. There is no indication of anyone continuing the semicha project after this time... we can assume that the psak of the Ralbach and Radvaz was accepted that we should not introduce semicha on our own.[15]

The election process and selection of Rav Halberstam

Maimonides and other medieval commentators suggested that, although the line of semicha (Biblical ordination) from Moses had been broken in 425 C.E., if the sages in the land of Israel agree upon a single candidate being worthy of semicha, that individual would have semicha, and could then grant it to others, thus enabling the re-establishment of the Sanhedrin

According to the new Sanhedrin's website[16], the process of election was explained by Rabbi Dov Levanoni, a member of the new Sanhedrin. He said the most recent attempt to renew the institution of semicha in 2004, was made through a consensus of hundreds of the most influential and scholarly Rabbis living in the Land of Israel. While Rabbi Yaakov Beirav and Rabbi Yosef Karo laid an excellent halachic (jewish law) foundation for understanding this teaching of Maimonides, the current attempt to re-establish the Jewish Sanhedrin has tried to learn from previous attempts and avoid some of the pitfalls. For example, to avoid claims that not all the rabbis of Israel were aware of the latest attempt to set up the Sanhedrin, an initial enormous expenditure was spent on a publicity campaign of the upcoming semichah process, 50,000 copies of a detailed flier were distributed among 4,500 Jewish centers in Israel, outlining that a vote of a first samuch was going to be held, along with contact information of the Va'ad ha-Mechonen la-Sanhedrin. Not long afterwards, seven hundred leading Rabbonim were contacted either in person or by written letter. R' Levanoni explained that Rabbi Moshe Halberstam, a senior Rabbi on Jerusalem's Edah HaChareidis, became the first samuch after receiving approval by Israel's leading Rabbis – those followed by most of Israel's religious Jews – and there were no objections from the hundreds of Rabbis consulted via written letters.

The website also claims[17] that leading sages have supported the semichah directly, indirectly or abstained, and specifically mentions these names: Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and many others gave their blessing but did not join the Sanhedrin. The son of Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu is one of the rabbis ordained. Former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva of Merkaz HaRav Kook Rabbi Avraham Shapira chose to abstain on the issue but also refused to discourage it.

Rabbi Halberstam (April 1, 1932April 26, 2006), who was selected to receive Semicha by consensus, was a relatively well known figure and widely respected.
Rabbi Moshe Halberstam
Rabbi Halberstam was the son of Grand Rabbi Yaakov Halberstam of Tschakava, a scion of the Sanz dynasty, and of the daughter of Rabbi Sholom of Shotz of London. He was the Rosh Yeshivah of the Tschakava Yeshivah in Jerusalem and one of the most prominent members of the Edah Charedis Rabbinical court of Jerusalem. He was known as a tremendous Torah scholar and a decisor of Halachic law. He wrote approbations to many works of Torah literature. Rabbi Halberstam served at the President of Hatzolah Israel. He was also the Rabbi of the Shaarei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem. He was known for his tolerance towards other streams of thought in Orthodox Judaism. Despite his own Chareidi anti-Zionist background, he also maintained contacts with Modern Orthodox, religious Zionist leaders.

The website does not claim that these figures supported the creation of a Sanhedrin, only that they supported the reinstitution of Semicha. Rabbi Dov Shtein, the secretary for the Sanhedrin project, claimed that Rabbi Halberstam understood the where his actions would lead. Rabbi Dov Shtein said "Without Rabbi Halberstam's efforts toward renewing semikha, it would not have happened the way it did," he said. "By agreeing to be the first to be ordained, he took a serious risk of being rejected and condemned by his community for taking part in such a project, which set the ball rolling for the foundation of a Jewish legal body that seeks to eventually supersede the Badatz. But despite the serious pressures put on him following his agreement and granting of semikha to others, he never went back on it or even tempered his agreement with the act of renewing semikha." [18].

The formation of a place holder Sanhedrin

The formation of a place holder Sanhedrin by Rabbi Levanoni and the debate it stirred.

The Sanhedrin website explains[19] "To avoid disagreements over who was worthy to sit on the Sanhedrin, a Beis din of 71 was immediately formed. It was formed with the best scholars available, with the public announcement every one of them has agreed to step aside the moment a more deserving candidate should step forward. Lastly, the Nasi has indicated that the Beis din would wait until the best scholars of Eretz Yisroel were represented on the Beis din before beginning to fully function halachically as the Sanhedrin of old."

Inauguration of the Sanhedrin in 2004

In October 2004, a group of over few hundred rabbis representing varied communities in Israel undertook a ceremony in Tiberias, where the original Sanhedrin was disbanded, with about one hundred of them at time having proper Semicha. This was one year after the re-establishment of Semicha. A Beth Din of 71 was formed.

Rabbi Tzvi Eidan, the author of Asot Mishpat (on the laws of reestablishing the Sanhedrin) was appointed as first interim Nasi. Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz, a noted Talmudic scholar and a well-known Jewish philosopher is the currently elected Nasi. The Sanhedrin's spokesmen said that due to concerns that external pressure would be brought to bear upon individuals not to take part in the establishment of a Sanhedrin, the names of most participants would not be made public.

Some of its more known members are[20]

The Sanhedrin's initial actions

Several of the members of the new Sanhedrin are associated with the Temple Mount Faithful movement and the Temple Institute. The first actions of the new Sanhedrin appeared to operate in a manner compatible with the ideology of these movements.

In the first year of operation, the new Sanhedrin was involved with discussions about the Temple Mount. It formed a committee to collect opinions as to its exact location. Some of its members ascended to a portion of the Temple mount[21] that was added by Herod and considered by and rabbis associated with the Temple Mount Faithful movement to be permitted to Jews.

This visit culminated in a declaration that the "Jewish people should begin collecting supplies for the rebuilding of the Temple".[22]

The acceptance of office of Nasi by Rabbi Steinsaltz

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

On the other hand, apparently few Sanhedrin members see the nascent Sanhedrin with such an extreme messianism. The acceptance of office of Nasi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz was marked with an apparent change in direction.

The newspaper Haaretz reported[23]:

In his speech accepting the position of Nasi, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said that the task of building the Sanhedrin will take some time. He spoke about gradually building up the ancient institution, which would take several generations. "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... 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".

Under the influence of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the Sanhedrin project shifted away from idealistic projects of its first year and tried to move toward broadening participation. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz requested that the new Sanhedrin not be referred to as "the Sanhedrin", but requested modest references to the current institution as the nascent Sanhedrin, the developing Sanhedrin, the Sanhedrin project, or simply the Rabbinical Court of 71 judges (Beis din shel 71). Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is recorded as changing direction of the new Sanhedrin towards widening the scope and acceptance of the Court with the intention of moving towards becoming the full Sanhedrin.[24]

According to their website, the strategy to gain wider acceptance and "provide a smooth transition from current halachic leadership to a full Sanhedrin", is to follow these guidelines: Absolute adherence to traditional Rabbinic authorities and procedure; Caution and conservatism; Independence from any other organization; Scholarship; and an open dialog with the Torah sages and current halachic leadership (with the eventual goal of their participation). On their forum it was put this way, "the [new] Sanhedrin should hold no surprises. It should be as comfortable as opening a gemoro [Talmud] or as familiar as reading the Shulchan aruch. It should be the embodiment of Judaism as we know it today." [25]

The current Sanhedrin's view of government

The new Sanhedrin's website portrays the Sanhedrin as a form of Rabbinic Parliament, part of a bicameral system that they claim reflects traditional Jewish government.[26] They claim that this model has influenced the organizational structure of many Western European legislatures.[27] They describe the roles of an upper and lower house:

  • The Sanhedrin is described as a "House of Scholars". This body represents the "rights and obligations" of the people to the "Torah Constitution" which they define as including "the Torah, Talmud and body of Rabbinic Jurisprudence that has been built up over our history as a people".[28]
  • A parallel "Congressional Assembly" represents the "democratic needs of the population". It is conceived as being derived from the royal court of a constitutional monarchy, in a democratic society it would consist of an assembly of regionally elected representatives, represented by voting power.[29] (The head of the lower house was traditionally the Monarch, or in a modern times a Prime Minister. He would have the power to collect taxes and would be the head of the executive branch of government. He would be subordinate only to the Sanhedrin[30])

The Sanhedrin would function as an equal legislative body to a democratically elected body, but it would also function as a supreme judicial body with regard to interpreting basic law, or what they call a "Torah Constitution". It would be analogous to combining the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Senate into one legislative house. It appears that this implies a democracy functioning within a Torah Constitution. From an Israeli point of view this implies adding a second house to Parliament and declaring a Basic Law requiring Israeli civil law to function within Jewish law.

Torah Constitution

This agenda requires a focus on efforts to institute a theocratic or critocratic system of government in which "the authority of government depends on Jewish law"[31], so that secular government institutions and laws would be subordinate to, and function within, Jewish law as determined by the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin has declared itself to have authority to veto democratically-enacted laws which it determines are contrary to the laws of Torah. (This is analogous, for example, to the U.S. Supreme Court's ability to nullify a state law mandating segregated school systems for minorities as contrary to the Constitution). It has made this very clear in, among other pronouncements, its "Decision of the Sanhedrin concerning the State Elections". The Sanhedrin announced that it is seeking a state in which any matters contrary to what Jewish law defines are "issues that cannot be decided by vote":

Torah "Basic Law": Laws which are contrary to the laws of the Torah are not laws of the Jewish people, and therefore they are invalid. Any law which is contrary to the laws of Torah, legislated by the "Knesset" (including legislated amendments) or interpreted as such by judicial sources is a disqualified law. The authority to decide in these matters has been unconditionally expropriated by the central religious court based on the Torah (Bible) [the Sanhedrin].[32]

In an exercise of its claim to authority over "matters concerning the Land of Israel", the Sanhendrin has issued a series of decisions declaring the Israeli pullout from Gaza invalid. In "The Sanhedrin's Declaration Concerning the Disengagement from Gaza" [33], the Sanhedrin prohibited Jews from cooperating with the Government, saying: "The Prime Minister's program of uprooting stands in direct contradiction to the Torah of Israel.", "the decision of this government...is null and void.", "No Jew is permitted to cooperate" and "Any Jew - including a soldier or policeman - who supports the uprooting...transgresses a large number of Torah commandments."

Commenting on the war against Hizbollah in August 2006, the new Sanhedrin also claimed that it is the only authorized national institution to deal with the legal aspects of warfare and to give policy directives to the State concerning warfare. It claims that enacting legislation concerning warfare always has been a distinguishing feature of the historical Sanhedrin. [34]

The Sanhedrin's recent actions

Sanhedrin in Session 2005

A great deal of discussion on the Sanhedrin forum appears to indicate that the new Sanhedrin is currently taken up with philosophical discussions about the theory of Jewish Law. The point is repeatedly made that the Sanhedrin "must solve many complex halachic issues" before it can begin to make any statement or decision in terms of Jewish law. It is also claimed that the new Sanhedrin does not want to tackle the most difficult points in Jewish Law before it has given the current Jewish leadership a chance to participate in the decision making process. They have announced ties with various academic scholars and institutions[35] and while the new Sanhedrin is not recognized by the Israeli government, a ruling of a subordinate court of the Sanhedrin was consulted by a secular Israeli court[36]. A year after its establishment, it was reported that the body was in "dialogue with the Ministry of Education over the Bible and Scriptures curriculum". [37] Since February 2006, the nascent Sanhedrin has been represented online by the 'Friends of the Sanhedrin', which translates and distributes material by the nascent Sanhedrin.

In addition to various politically-oriented opinions. the Sanhedrin has also announced decisions on several traditional religious topics including the formulation of the Rachem prayer for Tisha B'Av services, the Kashrus of pheasant and quail, and the proper formulation of the Birkat HaMazon (grace after meals). [38] Although it is mentioned on the Sanhedrin Forum that these decisions were "not a final psak and should not be presented as such." [39]

One area where the Sanhedrin has offered extensive opinions is in the area of war and military policy. Based on the Mishnah's statement "they may not send forth (the people) to a Milchemet Reshut (non-mandatory war) except by order of the court of seventy-one"[40], the new Sanhedrin has declared that it is "the authorized institution to decide in matters of military policy, issues definitive moral guidance to soldiers on active duty and in the reserves. It also comments on the current administration's defense policy..."[41]. They clearly state "The commandment to 'inherit and dwell' (Deut. 12:29) in the Land of Israel is obligatory upon every Israeli government. In this regard Israel is commanded by G-d to conquer the entire expanse of the Land of Israel within its Biblical boundaries, including the Gaza strip." [42].

The new Sanhedrin has offered opinions on several other politically charged issues. Concerning the Gay Pride parade in Israel in September 2006 (which was cancled), it declared that "In consideration of the above (citing a Biblical verse), any police officer that participates in the security operations for the parade is committing a criminal act, breaking Jewish law and assisting those who would commit a crime. This is a very serious offense [and although the Jewish courts cannot enforce the law at this time] he or she will need to face judgment in the supernal court at the throne of the Almighty." and "Every police officer who reveres the word of the L-rd should refuse orders and not participate in any manner or fashion in the security operations of those who commit to acts of abomination under the law. [43]

Conflicts with Israeli government

Within the background of repeated calls for soldiers and policemen to disobey orders that that the nascent Sanhedrin regards as contrary to Jewish law, an IDF officer issued restraining orders for several residents of the West Bank from entering the West Bank. This officer was summoned before the Sanhedrin, when he did not appear, letters were sent requesting that this officer be denied the honor of being called to Torah. Under Israeli government laws governing "incitement" this action was potentially illegal and the Chief Justice, Rabbi Yisrael Ariel was arrested and brought in for questioning. He was released within a few hours. [44][45] However the reaction of the new Sanhedrin was defiant.[46]