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 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.
- It appears to me 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 .
- If so, why did the sages bemoan 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 . 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 "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 Yosef Karo 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. 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 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 Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (Ramban) that it is impossible to form a Sanhedrin before Moshiach, the Jewish messiah, comes.
On the other hand, authorities based on Maimonides and Rabbi Yosef Karo, 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. (Cf. Attempt by Rabbi Yisroel Shklover, 1830 to revive Semicha.)
Read more about this topic: Modern Attempts To Revive The Sanhedrin
Famous quotes containing the word consensus:
“A consensus politician is someone who does something that he doesnt believe is right because it keeps people quiet when he does it.”
—John Major (b. 1943)