Representative council, composed of rabbis and laymen, and convened to deliberate upon and determine points of Jewish doctrine, policy, and practise. The "elders" in the time of Moses and the members of the Great Assembly in the time of Ezra may be regarded as the elements of a synodal organization. Hananiah ben Hezekiah ben Garon was the head of a synod that decided upon the Bible canon and compiled the "Megillat Ta'anit," the official scroll of the fast-days. Many important decrees were issued from Hananiah's retreat (Shab. 13b).
In the Middle Ages the synod known as the "asefah" (assembly) was called into existence not only for the protection of Judaism but for the purpose of solving current problems concerning Jews and their relations to their Christian neighbors. Under the presidency of R. Tam (d. 1171) a synod composed of several hundred rabbis and scholars of northern France and Germany assembled frequently at Troyes and Rheims. Its decisions included regulations regarding civil cases, over which the Jews had special jurisdiction. In one of its meetings it was decreed that no Jew might purchase a crucifix or any church furniture, because such an act might endanger the Jewish community. An amendment to the ordinance of R. Gershom forbidding polygamy provided that in case the wife was insane the rule might be abrogated with the written consent of onehundred rabbis from three different provinces (e.g., Francia, Normandy, and Anjou). The ban of excommunication was pronounced against all who transgressed these or other decisions of the synod.In the Middle Ages.
A synod held at Mayence in July, 1223, regulated the special Jewish tax and enacted that no Jew might incur blame by dishonorable dealings with Christians or by passing counterfeit coin. About twenty rabbis were assembled, among them being R. Eleazar of Worms, author of the "Roḳeaḥ." The synod of Spanish Jews held on Sept. 25, 1354, represented the communities of Catalonia, Aragon, Valencia, and Majorca ("He-Ḥaluẓ," i. 15-29). A synod of rabbis and communal leaders held at Mayence on Aug. 5, 1381, renewed the taḳḳanot of Speyer, Worms, and Mayence (known collectively as "Shum"), especially that regarding the protection of the childless widow against extortion or delay in her release through the ceremony of ḥaliẓah. A synod was convened at Weissenfels, Saxony, in 1386 for the purpose of deliberating on certain religious questions and adopting resolutions concerning measures of public utility. The members provided themselves with safe-conducts from the Saxon princes; nevertheless brigands, with the connivance of the nobles, waylaid the travelers on their return journey, robbed them, and held them for ransom.
The Jews of Italy convened a synod, first at Bologna and then at Forli (1416-18), to consider measures for averting the dangers which were threatened by the attitude of the Dominican Vicente Ferrer. The rabbis of Safed, Damascus, Salonica, and Constantinople called a synod at Jerusalem in 1552 to determine the Sabbatical year (Azkari, "Sefer Yere'im," p. 83). A permanent synod of rabbis and leaders assembled at Lublin, Poland, in 1650, and occupied itself, among other things, in amending the stringent laws against the remarriage of an 'Agunah. The synod in Starokonstantinov on Rosh ha-Shanah, 1756, ratified the ban against the Frankists and appealed to R. Jacob Emden to enter upon a crusade against them. The sittings of the Council of Four Lands were held regularly from the middle of the sixteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth century.In Russia.
These synods assembled at the call of the interested communities or of the leading rabbis, and bore an international character. In some cases the government of the country in which a synod was to be held suspected a political design and prohibited its meeting. At other times the local government itself would call a synod of rabbis and Jewish representatives for the purpose of explaining Jewish law and usage. Such a synod was the notable convocation known as the French Sanhedrin (1806). Alexander I. of Russia, by an edict of Dec. 4, 1804, called for a Jewish deputation to meet at St. Petersburg ("Ha-Karmel," 1871, p. 587). The object and result of this synod are not clear. In 1843, by order of Nicholas I., under a commission headed by Count Uvarov, a synod consisting of leaders of the various Jewish groups assembled in St. Petersburg. R. Senior Zalman of Lodi and Israel Heilprin of Poland represented the Ḥasidim; R. Isaac of Volozhin represented the anti-Ḥasidim; while Bezaleel Stern of Odessa and Max Lilienthal represented the Haskalah movement. Sir Moses Montetiore and Isaac Adolphe Crémieux were invited, but did not attend (Ḥayyim Meïr, "Bet Rabbi," ii., Berdychev, 1902). The synod was interrogated on certain questions of Jewish law in relation to the national law, and on Jewish education in particular. Similar synods were called in St. Petersburg in 1857, 1862, and 1879. That of the last date was presided over by F. Blumenfeld, and included, besides rabbis, A. Harkavy and other prominent laymen. The government required information on the question of marriage and divorce; likewise as to whether polygamy is considered a crime, and, if so, what is the punishment attached to it ("Ha-Meliẓ," 1879, No. 28).
An interesting synod was held in Cracow Aug. 9, 1903, when about fifty rabbis from different countries assembled at the call of R. Elijah Ḥazzan, ḥakambashi of Alexandria, Egypt, the sessions being presided over by Ḥayyim Levi Horowitz, the rabbi of Cracow. A special feature of this synod was the public oath taken by the rabbis in declaring that the Blood Accusation was absolutely false, and that neither the Talmud nor any other rabbinical book contains any mention of the ritual use of blood, which would be contrary to Jewish law. This synod also warned the Jewish youth to refrain from joining the ranks of the Nihilists or the Socialists, whose object, the destruction of the existing government, it declared to be treasonable according to Jewish law.
These synods always gave decisions on traditional lines; they never attempted to change a doctrine or principle of faith or to abolish any law, although they modified the latter when there was urgent need, as in the case of the 'agunah. The object of the synod was rather to strengthen the Law and to fence it about. Another aim was to raise the ethical standard of the Jews and provide means to better their position among the Christians.
The synods of the Reform Jews were of a quite different character. In their first attempt to organize a synod, in 1845, through the Berlin Genossenschaft für Reform im Judenthum, they declared for "a synod which shall renew and establish Judaism in a form worthy of continuance as a living force." They desired a synod composed of a large number of like-minded persons—of theologians and leaders of communities elected by their congregations—its essential task to be "to see to it that its decisions expressed the convictions of the communities at large and satisfied their needs." The decree of the synod was to be decisive and binding on the congregations which united to form it—binding, but not forever. "We must not look upon the decrees of this synod as the authentic interpretation of the divine will, but as the complete expression of the contemporary religious consciousness and as the realization of the religious needs apparent in the Judaism of to-day" (S. Stern, "Die Gegenwart Bewegung in Judenthume," 1845, pp. 44-45). Ludwig Philippson approved the plan of a German synod in 1848; Samuel Holdheim, Abraham Geiger, and Zacharias Frankel also were in favor of it; yetit did not meet till long afterward—in 1869 in Leipsic and in 1871 at Augsburg.In America.
The appeal for a synod in Germany was echoed in America, where its principal advocate was Isaac M. Wise. It was largely due to his efforts that the Conference of American Rabbis, held in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1855, recommended the calling of a synod. Wise wrote many editorials in the "Israelite" in favor of a synod, supporting his contention by the authority of the Bible, the Talmud, and Jewish procedure. Wise, like Holdheim, though extremely radical, wished to give Reform a legal aspect by connecting it with the Talmud and with Jewish legalism. He combated the plea of priestly domination; and from the start he was confronted with strong opposition, particularly in the Eastern States. B. Felsenthal in 1856 strenuously opposed the creation of a synod, because the "modern Jewish consciousness is opposed to all sanhedrins, and denies them the right to usurp the authority which belongs to the individual Jew." David Einhorn, rabbi in Baltimore, Md.; James K. Gutheim, rabbi in New Orleans, La.; Emil G. Hirsch, and Kaufmann Kohler also opposed the idea. So strong was the opposition that the matter was dropped for over twenty years, until after the death of Wise, when the advocates of the synod were again heard from at the Central Conference held at Buffalo, N.Y., in 1900. H. G. Enelow, in a paper read before that body, reviewed the question in favor of establishing a synod on Reform principles for the purpose of readjusting ancient religious theories to a new environment and new conditions of life.Revival of the Synod Question.
Joseph Silverman, of Temple Emanu-El, New York, in 1903 expressed himself in favor of a synod that would decide on questions of Jewish theology, on the way to further the observance of Sabbath and the festivals, and on the problems of intermarriage, proselytism, cremation, in uniformity in synagogal music and religious instruction. Joseph Krauskopf, acting president of the Central Conference held at Louisville, Ky., June 27, 1904, strongly recommended that the conference enter seriously and at once upon the formation of a synod.
Beside Felsenthal the most outspoken opponent of the synod was Solomon Schechter, president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. His negative attitude was inspired by the dread of hierarchical pretensions and sacerdotal tendencies on the part of such a synod. This dread, he said, might not be justified in the eastern countries of Europe, where the Torah is the source of authority and the rabbi is but the interpreter of the Law; but in western countries loyalty to the Torah is replaced by blind devotion to a favorite orator, and the rabbi assumes the rôle of an independent authority. But Schechter argues against the plea that a synod is needed to counteract the whim and caprice of the individual rabbi, as he fears that the remedy may prove worse than the evil of a permanent schism in the congregation of Israel. If the synod is to become a blessing, he declares, it must first recognize a standard of authority in the Bible, the Talmud, and the lessons of Jewish history as to what is vital and essential in Judaism.
- Graetz, Hist. iii. 376-378, iv. 218;
- Horowitz, Die Frankfurter Rabbinerversammlung von Jahre 1613;
- Views on the Synod, issued by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Baltimore, 1905.