If there arise a matter too hard for you in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, being matters of controversy within your gates, then shalt you arise and go up into the place which the LORD your God shall choose. And you shall come unto the priests, the Levites, and unto the judge who shall be in those days, and inquire; and they shall show you the sentence of judgment. And you shall do according to the sentence, which they of that place which the LORD shall choose shall show you; and you shall observe to do according to all that they inform you.According to the sentence of the law which they shall teach you and according to the judgment which they shall tell you, you shall do. You shall not stray from the sentence which they shall show you to the right hand nor to the left. And the man who will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest who standeth to minister there before the LORD thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die; and you shall put away the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear, and fear, and do no more presumptuously.
Mishna Sanhedrin 11:2
A judge rebelling against the Great Sanhedrin is commanded in the Scripture as in Deut. xvii. 8-13: If there arise a matter too hard for you in judgment...cases come before your court that are too difficult... And in case a judge in the country had a dispute about the law with his colleagues... all of them came to the Great Sanhedrin which was in the Temple treasury, from which the law proceeds to all Israel as it reads [ibid., ibid. 10]: "From that place which the Lord will choose, and thou shalt observe to do according to all that may instruct thee." Then if the judge returns to his own city and continues his lectures as before, he is not culpable. If, however, he gives his decision for practice, he is subject to capital punishment. As it reads [ibid., ibid. 12]: "And the man that will act presumptuously," etc., which means that he is not culpable unless he decides for practice.
I testify against him, modeling my composure after the blankness of his face. I tell them what he said when we warned him of his sin: I know, my sons, I know, but what should I do? Should I hang myself on this High Court, to follow the logic of the servants and transgress the words of the Master?
I do not know how to describe the tears in his voice when he asked the question, and anyway, it is not relevant.
The judges whisper sagely to each other as if they have something to say.
We feel like school-children making solemn games out of the day's lessons. He withdraws into an invisible glass box, watching the earnest young faces debate, balanced on the knife-edge between suicide and perversion of justice.
The sentence is given in a carefully level voice, as though the judge reads a text in an unfamiliar language. The teacher nods once, with grave restraint. The glass bowl is broken in some indefinable way, and it is only then that we realize how firmly he kept himself in check. The judges stand before him for a moment uncertainly. Then the hour of departure arrives and they go their separate ways, they to live and he to die.
Before the trial, he was compactly intense, treating his prison cell as though it were his study hall. He discussed the laws of prayer in prison, the ruling on a maternal aunt’s co-wife married to a brother, questions of how to purify ovens. He committed and recommitted the crime for which they would try him, citing logic, tradition, sources to back his opinion, his colleagues looking awkwardly away. We did not know if believing that his ruling was wrong would have made it easier or not.
But after the trial, he refuses to teach his students, saying that we should not study with one whom the court has convicted. Still we hang around the prison, not knowing where else to go.
They lead him to the execution through frozen crowds that shy away from the procession as though we are lepers or seraphim, but follow behind us, another set of unwilling actors. I want to wake up and go to the study hall and have somebody explain my dream favorably. A dream of a teacher's execution, they would say, is a portent for future greatness. And then we would fall silent and wait for the lecture to begin...
A little before the end, they instruct him to confess, the passages from Joshua intoned as they have been intoned to hardened criminals and sobbing convicts. He listens as though hearing them for the first time. He asks them to help him to bow and they gently lower him onto his face.
This is his confession in the cold damp wind:
Master of the Universe, I am before Thee like a vessel full of shame. For Thy Name is desecrated daily and Thy commandments are transgressed, because I did not succeed in having my words accepted by my fellows, in punishment for my many sins. Let my death atone for all my sins and let Thy Name be sanctified through me.
Someone prompts him to confess the sin for which he will die. Should I confess, he asks, and then wait until you ask me to rule again? He who says ‘I shall sin and repent, I shall sin and repent…’
But, Rabbi, says a judge, at least confess conditionally, for who can say whether you have ruled correctly?
And he replies: And you who follow the ruling of the High Court and act as they have permitted- do you confess conditionally?
Four cubits before the end, they remove his clothes. We cannot bear to watch or look away.
They sink him in the dung up to his elbows and we tear our clothes as we would if a Torah scroll were flung to the ground. I hold my hands to keep them still.
They wrap the scarf around his neck, hand the ends to the witnesses so that our hands will be first against him. He looks up at me and quotes softly: There are two paths before me- one to heaven and one to hell and I do not know which one they will lead me on. Should I not cry?
We bury him among the adulterers, murderers, and false prophets, and our tears burn like coals in our throats.
This stab at Tannaitic fiction was brought to you by this shiur (audio file), this post, and my Mishpat Ivri class. I am aware of the anachronisms in the quotes and allusions, but I'm okay with that.