We’re used to hearing that this or that halakhic impasse can be resolved only by the authority of a new Sanhedrin. The problem of course is that a Sanhedrin cannot be set up without a unanimous decision of all the “greats” of a single generation—something that is unlikely to happen in the near future.
But is a new Sanhedrin really such a great idea, even if it were doable?
A Golden Age that never was
Essentially, the function of the Sanhedrin is political governance. When we look back on the historical Sanhedrin, we’re looking back through the lens of nostalgia for a Golden Age that never really was. The Talmud records plenty of cases of corruption in the Sanhedrin, of judges being afraid to convict powerful thugs, of judges being under the sway of this or that party.
So how does it come about that we look back on the Parliament/Supreme Court of the previous incarnation of Jewish statehood as the ideal? Is it that there was something inherently better about the institutions of self-government in that age? Or is it simply that any form of self-government at all looks like a Golden Age to a nation in exile? Given that human nature doesn’t change all that fast, I’m putting my money on the later.
The long road to a central government
But another component of the nostalgia is a function of effort invested: we worked very, very hard for that unitary government! We went from being a dysfunctional family, to a group of divisive tribes, to a divided kingdom and civil war… It took the genius of King David to set up a national capitol in a city owned by none of the warring tribes or clans. It’s no coincidence that the Tanakh records the purchase of the land for the Temple in such great detail; it provides a written counter-claim should any of the tribes later claim that the land was theirs and therefore, so was the kingship. The original Washington DC!
The Torah also records the struggle for unity—unity of purpose, if nothing else. “The place where My name will dwell…”, “the place that I will choose…” All of it is a way of steering Am Yisrael toward a central government. And that meant unification of religious worship first and foremost.
And then we had to start all over again after the Babylonian exile! The Sanhedrin that emerged (after a series of other institutions) from Ezra and Nehemia’s day was a parliament modeled on that of the surrounding nations, just as our Knesset today is modeled on that of the nations in which we’ve lived. In both cases, the need to reconstitute a Jewish self-government made good use of the lessons learned in exile. We learn from adversity, and we adapt foreign institutions to our own national ethos.
Are we there yet?
For all intents and purposes, we already have the modern equivalent of a Sanhedrin—an institution of central governance modeled on the best of the nations around us. Yes, the decision making is carried out differently, and yes, the means of election are different, as are the criteria for getting into power. But the function is the same—to govern with as much justice as possible.
To insist on reconstituting a parliament exactly along the lines of Greek and Roman institutions would be like insisting that all vehicles must be horse-drawn—that form is more important than function. And yes, we do this frequently in halakhah—choosing the manner in which things used to be done over the purpose for which they were originally done.
If we really want to be true to our national ethos, we’ll do what those who established the original Sanhedrin did; we’ll put to use the lessons learned in exile. We’ll learn from both our mistakes and our successes: What political and religious institutions have we built in the galut? How can those institutions be adapted to our present situation of Geula? What has the exile taught us, as a people?
It turns out that some of our galut institutions of government are uniquely adapted to the modern, information-centric world. These institutions were unique for their time in that they had to function with only soft-power as a means of enforcement—government without an executive. Because the top position of power was left empty (since Kingship belongs only to God), holders of the next level of power (the Parnassim or the Hachamim) were seen as custodians and functionaries, and thus could achieve only so much power in the eyes of the people without overstepping the bounds imposed by society.
The functions of government were also unique and very different from those of other nations. The only real spheres of control for Jewish self-government were those that are an after-thought on the part of most governments, and usually left to lower-level functionaries. These were things like education, social welfare, local taxation and enforcement of market rules.… Amazing what you can accomplish when your best political minds are limited to running a society—when the option of playing on the chessboard of high politics is non-existent!
These institutions—and the whole attitude toward the functions of government—stood us in good stead when it came time to set up the modern Jewish state. The health care system established under this model is considered one of the best in the world. The educational system, though it has fallen into decline as the nation’s values shifted, was amazingly functional for a nation just starting out. The same goes for the institutions of aliyah and absorption, which, for all their faults, did manage to work a few miracles worthy of a Megillah! And all of this was run from the bottom up!
The lessons of exile
So where does all this bring us? It would appear that the last thing we would want to do is turn back the clock, and abandon the lessons we’ve learned. I don’t think this exile was brought on us for no reason. In fact one of those reasons may have been to get a political education. We’ve been through too much to spurn those lessons, especially since what we’ve learned puts us at a distinct advantage in the age in which we find ourselves.
Our greatest strength is in working at the local level, without an executive, and with power organized horizontally, rather than vertically. Interestingly enough, this is exactly the model that is coming into vogue in many places in the world as the sovereignty of nation-states continues to erode. The decentralized Jewish political model, developed over 2,000 years of exile, is the wave of the future.
The challenge now is to grab these lessons with both hands and apply them to halakhah on the ground. It’s doable; the proof is in the fact that it’s what we have been doing for thousands of years. It is only in recent years—largely as a defense reaction—that we’ve fostered the notion that halakhah is either unchangeable or changeable only from the top down. But this was not true in previous generations. We need to embrace the model of grassroots, information-centric governance, rather than trying to rebuild institutions that aren’t what they used to be, and never were.