The Sanhedrin, Past and Future
The Great Sanhedrin.
By Sidney B. Hoenig.
Dropsie College (Philadelphia). 310 pp. $5.50.
The period of the Second Temple was the most creative epoch in all Jewish history. The five centuries from the end of the Babylonian Exile to the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year 70 of the present era saw the development of almost every basic institution and the founding of the entire literary tradition upon which Jewish life ran for the next two thousand years. Except for those parts of Scripture which were written in pre-Exilic times, much of the Bible’s text and certainly the final editing of the Scriptural canon was arrived at in this period. The synagogue, the world’s first religious institution for purely spiritual worship; the first regular system of adult education, based on the public reading and interpretation of the Law; the first of the translations of the Bible that made the Hebrew Scriptures a religious classic for the world; the Sadducees, the source of Jewish sectarianism; the Essenes who inspired Christianity; and the Pharisees, the creators of post-Biblical Judaism; and the first development of the Oral Law which expanded into the Talmudic culture that filled the Jewish mind up to the present day—all these emerged during the period of the Second Temple. Yet this is also the least-known period in our Jewish history. It is still being discussed whether there was one Simon the Just or two, and if there were two, then almost a century must have elapsed between them. So vague is the history of these great five centuries that as much as a whole century cannot be adequately accounted for.
This is why the era of the Second Temple has offered such a challenge to Jewish scholarship, and called forth more study perhaps than any other in our history. Although the post-Exilic period is likewise of interest to Christians since it saw the birth of Christianity, Christian scholarship has devoted more attention to the study of pre-Exilic, or Biblical, times. It has been left to modern Jewish scholarship to emphasize the Second Temple period.
One of the great puzzles of that age is the question of the Sanhedrin, religious or secular, which under various names guided Jewish communal life in Palestine. The problem is complex for a number of reasons. The Jews in this period were first under Persian, then under Greco-Egyptian and Greco-Syrian rule, then under their own independent Maccabean commonwealth, and finally part of the Roman Empire. Their ways of self-government certainly must have been constantly modified by all this, and these modifications are reflected in the changing titles of their governing body. It must be determined whether these terms were substantially synonyms or whether they describe different types of institutions either coexisting or successive. We hear of the “men of the Great Synagogue,” the “Gerousia,” the “Sanhedrin,” the “Great Court,” the “Court of Priests,” the “Zugoth,” etc. Dr. Sidney Hoenig’s learned and original work deals specifically with the Great Court of Sanhedrin, which seems to have ruled the Jewish community in the last century of the Second Commonwealth, i.e., from about 140 B.C.E. to almost 70 C.E. when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans.
The problem of the Sanhedrin, or Beth Din Ha-gadol, involves the usual difficulties of distinguishing between one institution and another, or one name and another, and of setting a specific institution against a historical background that still remains vague. The task here, however, offers in addition a more specific difficulty in that the two types of sources give contradictory impressions. Passages in the Mishna—presumably reflecting the past—describe a court of rabbinic scholars who interpreted and decided the Law. The Greek language sources, Josephus and the New Testament, describe a court headed by the High Priest and being more or less concerned with the Temple, its ritual, and with general statecraft. The decision as to which of these two opinions, the Hebrew or Greek, is correct is not without, practical interest, for it may help us judge the accuracy and historicity of the New Testament description of the crucifixion of Jesus by a Sanhedrin headed by the High Priest.
Dr. Hoenig’s book was written as his doctoral thesis for Dropsie College, and it is only reasonable to expect that his opinions on this question have been influenced by his famous teacher, Solomon Zeitlin. Dr. Zeitlin believes that two courts existed side by side: a court of the rabbis and scholars as the Hebrew sources say, and a court of priests, or a political Sanhedrin, as the Greek sources say. Dr. Hoenig, going one step further, believes that there were actually three courts: the great court of rabbis, which dealt with the Law, its development and decisions; the court of priests, which dealt with Temple ritual; and a governing council, which dealt with general administrative and civil matters.
It would be worth while making a detailed analysis of Dr. Hoenig’s arguments, but for the purposes of this review it is sufficient to say that he has studied the original sources and has analyzed all previous opinion on the matter. He approaches the task in a resolute mood and does not hesitate to set aside the opinions of many famous predecessors. He makes a number of startling emendations of the transmitted text. For example, he alters the Talmudic statement that the right to impose capital punishment was taken away from the Sanhedrin forty years before the destruction of the Temple, by changing “arbayim ” (forty) to “arba ” (four). “Etz,” the “Chamber of Wood,” he emends to read “Ezra,” the “Chamber of the Council.” He dates the Great Sanhedrin from 141 B.C.E. to 66 C.E. (i.e. four years before the Destruction). The whole work is creative, original, and carries conviction. Undoubtedly, many more studies of the Sanhedrin will be made, but Dr. Hoenig’s will long be referred to.
The problem of the Great Sanhedrin or Great Court is now impinging on general Jewish interest. The vehement controversy in Israel and elsewhere having to do with the reestablishment of the Sanhedrin makes urgent more exact knowledge of the original Sanhedrin upon which the proposed modern institution is to be modeled. Did the old Sanhedrin actually govern? How much of life did it govern? To what extent were the secular authorities independent of the Sanhedrin? Did the original Sanhedrin, in the form, for example, that Dr. Hoenig’s book gives it, display such qualities as would fit it to serve as a model for a Sanhedrin reestablished in modern times?
Dr. Hoenig declares that the Great Sanhedrin, as he conceives it, was not at all political, and that affairs of state were dealt with originally by the priests’ Sanhedrin—and then by a third Sanhedrin, the “Boule.” This would indicate a division of functions that would accord with modernist notions, which would restrict a revived Sanhedrin to matters outside secular government. Unfortunately, such a limited role would not satisfy the Orthodox, or at least their extreme right wing. For them, Judaism covers every aspect of life, and the Torah, including the latest commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch, is the only valid constitution for a truly Jewish state. This explains one of the objections of the Agudat Yisroel to the Sanhedrin proposal. Rabbi Jonah Merzbach in Hamayon (Tel Aviv, 1953) speaks of the impossibility of having a true Sanhedrin today—that is, one with the “courage to govern all of Jewish life.” He asks scornfully: Would such a Sanhedrin dare punish the chief of state if he violated Jewish law?
Dr. Hoenig, in his solution to the problem of the zugot, the “pairs of leaders,” writes that whether a Sanhedrin conservative or liberal held precedence over his co-leader in these pairs depended on which side was in the majority, since the head of the zug, the Nasi, always represented the majority. This would show that the Sanhedrin was organized on a democratic basis. But the very notion that a religious issue could be subject to decision shocks the modern Orthodox, for many of whom the whole idea of a democratic state seems incompatible with a governing religious Sanhedrin. What they are afraid of is that a democratic Sanhedrin would represent various degrees of Orthodoxy (if, properly speaking, there can be such a thing as degrees of Orthodoxy), which means that it would be composed of people who obeyed the Law in varying degree, and among these there would certainly be some who wanted to “adjust” the Law to modern conditions. This, however, would be absolutely inacceptable to extremely Orthodox Jews like Rabbi Merzbach (cf. Hamayon, and also in the same pamphlet, the article by R. Katzenellenbogen, “The State and the Laws of Judaism”).
These Jews are animated by heroic, if also somewhat pathetic, motives. They feel they live in a beleaguered city and that any crack in the walls might lead to a breach, and then to the destruction of the city. The Torah is “shelema ”—perfect and complete. They are afraid of a Sanhedrin because it means change; in all likelihood it would be a democratic Sanhedrin, and then change could not be halted.
To the liberal wing of Judaism, the mood behind the movement for a Sanhedrin seems strange and inacceptable. They are willing to be guided by Jewish law in their religious life, but they are not willing to be governed by it. They think of religion in terms of spiritual moods and ethical endeavors, and for them a Sanhedrin is not the danger it seems to be to the Orthodox, but an irrelevance. For the great middle group of Jews, however, the modernizing Orthodox and the right wing of the Conservatives, a restored Sanhedrin has a great appeal because they accept both the concept of Judaism as expressing itself through Law, and the need of adjustment to the modern age. They believe both in legality and in change. For them the Sanhedrin would be a blessing. It would offer the oportunity to make bold changes and yet make them on the basis of Jewish law. It would mean a more radical treatment of the sources than hitherto, but the sources would nevertheless be respected and sustained.
Of course, a Jewish Sanhedrin could not be too close a copy of the Sanhedrin described by Dr. Hoenig, for, in spite of all claims to
the contrary, Judaism does not rule over all of life except as a general ethical influence. It is inconceivable, for example, that a modern Sanhedrin should be the supreme court for final decisions in such civil matters as contracts, loans, corporations, stocks and bonds, etc. Yet all these matters are an integral part of Jewish religious law. However, as a supreme court over purely religious tribunals, a modern Sanhedrin could quite feasibly embody what might be called the “center” in Judaism. It would not affect the lives of the extremely Orthodox who feared it, or of the Reformers who ignored it, but it might give a legitimacy to a gradual religious reform that Would strengthen modern Orthodoxy throughout the world.
Of course, the authority of a modern Sanhedrin would have to rest on its legitimacy, and this would depend upon the possibility of reestablishing the old, full, mystic-legal ordination (semicha) for its members. On this question Palestinian Jewry in the 16th century split, and it is doubtful whether the Jewry of modern Palestine could ever agree upon it. Meantime, all those interested in the problem will do well to read closely Dr. Hoenig’s bold and thorough study.