The idea of a multilayered judicial system is advanced in this week's Torah reading by Yitro, the father-in-law of Moshe. As it appears in the Torah, Moshe originally envisioned himself as being the sole judge of the Jewish people and that all matters, great and petty, should be brought before him for judgment and decision.
Yitro advises him that neither he nor the people would survive under such a system. The Jewish people by nature are argumentative and litigative. It is impossible for one human being to bear such a burden, by one's self. Therefore the result was that tens of thousands of judges and administrators were chosen to service the judicial needs of the people of Israel.
Almost one–sixth of the entire adult male population of the Jewish people at that time was engaged in a type of judicial civil service. Because of this inordinate ratio of judges to people, every ten Jews had their own local judge, so to speak. Even in later times when this ratio of judges to people was no longer maintained, it seems from the Mishna and the Talmud that there were many local courts present even in villages and towns of rather limited population.
Resolving disputes and rendering justice was always seen as a basic requirement for any Jewish community, even for those that had a very small population base. In later times throughout the Exile the local rabbi served as the arbiter of disputes and the dispenser of justice, oftentimes suffering insult and injury thereby. A Jewish community that does not have some sort of court system based on Torah law is a complete rarity in the Jewish world.
Unresolved matters that the lower courts were not able to satisfactorily handle were brought to higher courts and eventually to the great Sanhedrin. In the desert of Sinai during most of their forty years of wandering, the Jewish people recognized Moshe, by himself, as being the great Sanhedrin. It was only at the end of his life and mission that Moshe created the great Sanhedrin of seventy elders.
This court and system of justice persisted in Jewish life throughout First and Second Temple times and even for centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple. It only lapsed in about the fifth century of the Common Era when the ordination necessary to be a member of the Sanhedrin was no longer exercised and granted.
There have been attempts in Jewish history to somehow renew that ordination and create a Sanhedrin to solve outstanding judicial and halachic issues. All such attempts have failed, none of them having been able to pass the test of time. Because of this lack of central authority that would be binding on all sections of Jewry, many difficult and basic issues are still unresolved in our time.
It seems that we need another Yitro to step forward and suggest an approach to restore the essential judicial system that would operate for the benefit of all of Israel. Let us hope that such a bold and wisely charismatic person will yet emerge in our days.
Rabbi Berel Wein