The Rebellious Elder of the Mishnah Part One

Posted by Boaz Willis on

In my previous post I explored some of the ways that one might connect the Israelite practice and belief to that of the early rabbis. I discussed the common ‘creed’ of the Jewish people: the Shema prayer. By closely analyzing the language there we emerged with an understanding of how important orality, recitation, and repetition became in the early rabbinic project, and ultimately led to the creation of The Mishnah. In this post, we’ll examine mishnah Sanhedrin 11:2, the first of many mishnayos that I’ll hope to shed some light on in this series (and I’ll only get through half in this post). In engaging this specific mishnah, I’ll also demonstrate some of the key ideas that drive this project to be a ‘critical’ endeavor. In saying that this is a ‘critical’ study, I mean to convey that we will look beyond the content and form of the mishnah to derive meaning about it and from it. We will use the tradition cited below as a reflection of the external influences on the rabbinic mindset. As we expose the desire of the rabbis to mold history in their own image, we emerge with a deeper understanding of our traditions, and the considerations that prompted their codification. 

But what is the cornerstone upon which we will build our conception of the major figures in early rabbinic discourse? And how can we trust our intuitions when we have so many ingrained biases? When answering these questions, it can be helpful to start by understanding the limits of whatever thing it is one is trying to learn about. Our question then becomes: What is a rabbi absolutely NOT? I’m sure each and every person reading this could come up with a whole list of things that disqualifies someone from being considered their rabbi (hour long sermons, hypocritical practices, and so on and so forth). In this case, we have the opportunity to dig a bit deeper into how the early rabbis answered that question. That is the everlasting question of “who’s in, and who’s out?” 

This question persisted long before the rabbis, and so the bible has its own direction for “the person (האיש אשר יעשה בזדון) who intentionally disregards the instruction of the priest that stands there to serve יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ, or the judge’s instruction; that person shall be put to death, and you will have removed the evil from the Israelite nation.” (Deut 17:12)

Accordingly, when the rabbis organize The Mishnah, this character is found in the section detailing those who are liable for the death penalty (specifically by strangulation). The interesting thing in this case, is how the rabbis conjure this character in rabbinic fashion while locating the narrative within the biblical landscape. 

 זָקֵן מַמְרֵא עַל פִּי בֵית דִּין  - ‘An elder that rebels against the statements of the court’ is the full term used in early rabbinic discourse to discuss the ‘person’ who intentionally disregards the standing priests’ orders. Already we discern a shift from any person to a specific type of person: one who is elderly and presumably has some status in the community. Mishnah Sanhedrin 11:2 opens with the above term followed by the verse from Deuteronomy. It goes on to present the landscape of the necessary courts one must pass through to be considered such a rebellious elder. “One [court] sits at the entrance to the temple complex, and one sits at the entrance to the temple courtyard, and one sits in the chamber of hewn stone.”  These are the three highest courts in the land, set at the highest and most ritually significant locations. 

Taking a critical approach to the beginning of this mishnah, we see the ways in which the rabbinic class attempts to supplant the priestly class and their right to govern. By building off of the scriptural dictate invoking both priests and judges serving “from that place which the Lord has chosen,” the rabbis read (or truly recite) themselves into the role of adjudicators - determiners of right and wrong, pure and impure, envisioning themselves as keepers of the tradition. Indeed, they might be just that, yet rabbis reciting this tradition had never seen the Jewish temple built in all its glory. It is the icon of the temple, its centrality to the Israelite people that is remembered here. The early rabbis utilize this imagery to express the importance of their project in the precarious situation in which they reside: stripped of sovereignty, the ability to practice ritual sacrifice, and without a designated ruling class. What better way to convey the rabbis’ own self importance than to create a ritual procession which indicts a sage for using his intuition to undermine traditions received from generations past? And to have the punishment be death by strangulation?! How dramatic! Stay tuned for our next post to hear how this (almost rebellious) elder is expected to defend himself in front of his teachers and friends.

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