Dear Jew in the City-
Since the election, it is clear that both political sides doubt each other’s integrity. It made me think about the requirements for Jewish leaders according to Torah. What kind of qualities did leaders have to have to sit on the Sanhedrin or be a judge?
Thanks for your question. First let’s clarify a few things about the Jewish court system.
When we speak of the Sanhedrin, we generally mean the “great Sanhedrin,” the Jewish supreme court of 71 members. This court was instituted in Numbers chapter 11, in which God told Moshe to gather 70 elders to stand with him, for a total of 71. This court met in the “Chamber of Hewn Stone” in the Temple.
But this wasn’t the only court known as the Sanhedrin; there were also “small Sanhedrins” of 23 judges. Two of these convened as part of the Temple complex – one in the entrance to the courtyard and the other at the entrance to the Temple mount. Additionally, every city that had at least 120 adult men had a “small Sanhedrin.” Cities smaller than this had courts (batei din) of three judges.
As far as qualifications, you can imagine that higher courts had more requirements than lower courts. For local courts of three, the requirements are that the judges demonstrate (1) Torah wisdom; (2) personal humility; (3) reverence; (4) a hatred of money – even of their own; (5) a love of the truth; (6) the love of their fellow men; (7) a good reputation based on their deeds (Rambam Hilchos Sanhedrin 2:7). These characteristics are derived from the Torah. For example, Deuteronomy 1:13 refers to judges as “men of wisdom and understanding,” from which we see they must be wise; the verse continues, “beloved by your Tribes,” from which we see that the judges must have the approval of the people, and so on for the rest of these qualities. Appointing an unfit judge, such as because of his wealth or out of nepotism, violates a Torah prohibition (KSA 181:10).
To be appointed to either the great Sanhedrin or a small Sanhedrin a judge needed not only vast Torah knowledge but also broad secular knowledge. This included not only proficiency in sciences like medicine, math and astronomy, but also a passing knowledge of such things as the practices of alleged sorcerers and the tenets of idolatry. This was necessary so that they would be able to judge cases involving all of these disciplines (Hilchos Sanhedrin 2:1). A member of the Sanhedrin also had to have kids because there are certain scenarios that cultivate the trait of mercy that are unique to parents (ibid., 2:3).
Judges had to be multilingual so that they could evaluate cases directly and not rely on testimony as filtered through an interpreter’s translation (ibid., 2:6). The king couldn’t serve as a judge because the other judges wouldn’t be able to speak up in disagreement with him (ibid., 2:4). There are other requirements. Judges to the higher courts were fielded from the lower courts (ibid, 2:8).
Obviously, the members of the Sanhedrin, and judges in general, were people of integrity but I don’t think that’s the entirety of the situation. There are people otherwise of integrity on both sides of the American political divide but that integrity goes out the window when they impugn their opponents for partisan reasons. I think the real sign of our Sages’ greatness is not in the wisdom, humility or sincerity that got them the job, but in the way they disagreed with their colleagues.
There’s a famous example cited in Yevamos, on daf 14b. Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai – the two preeminent schools – disagreed in a number of cases that affected who might be eligible to marry whom. Nevertheless, the Talmud tells us, members of Beis Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beis Hillel, nor did members of Beis Hillel refrain from marrying women from Beis Shammai. Each not only respected the differing opinion of the opposing school, they relied on members of the other school to say, “You can marry this woman according to your opinion” and “You don’t want to marry this woman according to your opinion” even if they themselves differed.
Consider also the famous example, from Baba Metzia 59b, in which Rabbi Eliezer invoked a number of miracles in order to support his halachic position, to no avail. (Law is decided by majority rule, not by proving the rightness of your own position by calling down Heavenly voices.) In the lesser-known postscript to this story, the Sages were forced to excommunicate Rabbi Eliezer for his refusal to bow to the majority. (To refrain from doing so was to risk a schism.) They discussed who would notify Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Akiva, who was his dear student, volunteered for the unpleasant duty in order to assure that it would be done so in a respectful manner. Rabbi Akiva delivered the message dressed in mourning clothes and speaking euphemistically in order to soften the blow.
Rabban Gamliel was head of the Sanhedrin at the time and he was traveling on a boat while this was going on. A large wave threatened to drown him, so he uttered a prayer. He said that the wave was sent as punishment for besmirching Rabbi Eliezer’s honor but that God knows that Rabban Gamliel’s motivation in excommunicating him wasn’t for personal aggrandizement. Rather, he was standing up for God, so that halachic disputes should not proliferate. In response to this prayer, the sea calmed.
Despite his refusal to yield to the majority and subsequent ostracism, Rabbi Eliezer is respected as one of the greatest sages of the Talmud. (It should be noted that Sanhedrin 68a records the ultimate reconciliation preceding Rabbi Eliezer’s death, as well as the lifting of the ban against him.)
We see that there was no joy in censuring a political opponent. Rather, it was a solemn duty that was undertaken only out of great necessity. And while Rabbi Eliezer’s refusal to accept the majority position was unacceptable, his opponents didn’t impugn his personal greatness because of it.
Like much of the free world, I watched Hamilton when it was released on Disney+ at the start of the pandemic. I noted that there was no real antagonist in the story. Yes, Hamilton opposed and was opposed by Aaron Burr, and by Thomas Jefferson, but neither of them is a villain. Rather, they just had different ideas about how to run the country. Similarly, when we look at Jefferson and John Adams, we can recognize that they clashed significantly but we don’t tend to view either of them as evil. This is a far cry from how many view today’s leaders, i.e., mine are righteous and yours are either fascists (if you’re to the right of me) or communists (if you’re to the left).
This doesn’t mean that we can’t disagree, it’s just that our disagreements have to be sincere. The Mishna in Avos (5:17) famously says, sincere disputes will prove themselves worthwhile and insincere disputes won’t. An example of a sincere dispute is the halachic debate between Hillel and Shammai, the purpose of which was to determine the truth. An example of an insincere dispute is Korach’s rebellion against Moshe, the purpose of which was his own personal empowerment.
The old song by Dave Mason says, “There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy, there’s only you and me and we just disagree.” Recognizing that we can disagree without the other party being a villain – that’s what makes the difference.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
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