Sanhedrin Celebrates First Birthday

Haaretz reports on the first anniversary of the new “Sanhedrin” in Israel, which this blog has been following for a while:

When the “new Sanhedrin” was established in Tiberias a year ago, hardly anyone took it seriously. The 71 rabbis who came to the northern city 1,660 years after the original Sanhedrin (the assembly of 71 ordained scholars that was both supreme court and legislature in Talmudic times) held its last meeting there, were welcomed by many in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox sectors with smiles tinged with derision.

…the initial impression was that this was another effort by the Jewish Leadership movement within the Likud, an effort that had a Torah-oriented, halakhic-messianic slant and was striving for a revolution in the government.

However:

A year after its establishment, it is impossible to see the new Sanhedrin as the domain of the extreme right wing alone: at a large gathering in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood Tuesday, Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz, a well-known Talmud scholar who is much esteemed in Torah circles, both in the ultra-Orthodox world and in the national-religious sector, came forward as the president of the Sanhedrin…The fact that the new Sanhedrin also includes many rabbis affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox stream, added to the fact that they are not among the best known and leading rabbis in that sector, endows the effort with another unusual dimension that distances it from being another “extreme right-wing” venture.

I’m not sure about that – the presence of “many rabbis affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox stream” might just as easily signify that they have become enamoured of extreme right-wing ideas, rather than that they are acting as a moderating force. And the report’s author has to concede that Steinsaltz’s position is somewhat tenuous anyway:

It is hard to know how long Steinsaltz will last as president of the new Sanhedrin. At the public session held on the first anniversary of the apparent reestablishment of the ancient institution, he appeared to be fighting internal opposition.

This public session was at a synagogue in Jerusalem, and although participants appeared to acknowledge the current limitations of the Sanhedrin, the desire for theocracy was as evident as ever:

Hillel Weiss, who also has become one of the ordained members, says, “The goal of the new Sanhedrin is to become a source of authority for the Jewish people, and this is contrary to the accepted position of the left that the state of Israel is the source of this authority…”

I noted Weiss’s railing against the Supreme Court in a previous entry; Steinsaltz seems to be reluctant to follow such a politicised line. However, despite all the complaining, the report does note the following:

In its first year, the new Sanhedrin initiated a dialogue with the Ministry of Education over the Bible and Scriptures curriculum…

Study of the Bible is mandatory for Jewish children in Israel. An article from 2003 by Israel Idalovichi and published in Religious Education notes the following:

The Orthodox establishment [in Israel] advocates policies that support a growing and more vocal commitment to Jewish religiosity. For adherents of Jewish Orthodox culture, the Holy Scriptures are of paramount value by virtue of their being a work of divine design. For the Orthodox, the problem is that the study of the Bible-rather than canonical commentaries-might suggest that there is more than one way to the Jewish religion.

In other words, the Orthodox want not just the Bible to be taught, but their particular interpretation of it. Idalovichi studied the attitudes of Bible teachers, and concluded:

The religious bible teachers are committed to their principles but they exhibit great flexibility and adaptation to the social, moral, and democratic principles of secular society…Jewish religious fundamentalism enjoys a far broader and vociferous platform in the media and among political…than in the classroom, at the hands of public school teachers. Even such a problematic subject as bible studies appears to serve functional and pragmatic needs, and motivations for its presence in the Israel school curriculum are driven by pragmatic values, not only religious passion.

But with a theocratic group now “in dialogue” with the Ministry of Education, how long before “religious passion” takes centre stage?

(Tipped from Christianity Today Weblog)