(RNS) In a donated apartment concealed among the narrow streets of the Jerusalem suburb of Nahlaot, 13 Orthodox Jewish men meet every Tuesday to debate matters of Jewish law. They are the management team of a larger developing Sanhedrin, or religious court, in Israel.
And they plan to sacrifice sheep on the Temple Mount on the day before or one month after Passover, which starts at sundown April 2. Either date is permissible under Jewish law. "If the government will not resist," said Rabbi Dov Stein, 68, a member of the group, "we will do it."
As Easter eclipses the last days of Passover this year, Christians will focus again on the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus. The Sanhedrin, meanwhile, will literally attempt to resurrect the Passover sacrifice of old.
For these Jews, the sacrificial Passover offering is not their redemption per se, yet it is vital to the process.
The Passover sacrifice is the latest of more than 40 legal decisions issued by the modern Sanhedrin. Seventy-one Orthodox men revived the court more than two years ago in the city of Tiberius, the same geographical spot they believe marked the final days of the Sanhedrin a few hundred years after the time of Jesus.
In antiquity, the Sanhedrin determined Jewish practice. It now rules on political and religious issues and ultimately sees itself as an alternative to the secular Supreme Court of Israel. It hopes to impose Jewish law on the Jewish people and the seven "Noahide" laws - prohibitions on theft, murder, blasphemy and others, based on Jewish teaching - on Gentile nations.
"We want all the world," Stein said, "to walk with God."
Descriptions of the Sanhedrin can be found in Jewish legal writings and the New Testament. The Gospels say Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin so its members could assess his messianic claims. This current Sanhedrin also sees as one of its goals to evaluate any potential messianic contender.
"There is no redemption without the Sanhedrin," said Stein. "We are building the opportunity for a king (messiah)."
Some Orthodox Jews see the Passover sacrifice on Jerusalem's Temple Mount - one of the most disputed pieces of real estate on the planet - as key to quickening redemption.
The Sanhedrin bought a herd of 12 sheep - 110-150 pounds each - from a farm in southern Israel. Anyone wanting to eat of the sacrifice can pay seven shekels ($1.67) for an 8-10 gram slice, the minimum required by Jewish law, Stein said. The group is hoping to collect 30,000 signatures through its Web site to prove its influence to the Israeli authorities, and gain access to the Temple Mount area.
Some members of the Sanhedrin are a bit more cautious.
"The Passover plans are just preparation," said Hillel Weiss, a professor of Hebrew literature at Bar Ilan University. "Not everyone is in favor of it."
The Passover sacrifice will draw the attention of some religious Jews as well as evangelical Christians who see both the restoration of the Sanhedrin and sacrifice as part of end-times prophecy. Other Orthodox Jews want to distance themselves from this group, which they consider extremist.
Religious Zionists, such as Israeli settlers, serve as the main audience for the new Sanhedrin, said Mordechai Inbari, 37, an Israeli who teaches at the University of Florida. Inbari sat in on some of the Sanhedrin meetings last year for his doctoral research.
Zionists perceive Israel as in the process of redemption, Inbari said, but most see the Temple's reconstruction with its sacrificial system as the last stage, occurring only after a widespread repentance in which all Jews turn religious. "But the extremists see it as going hand in hand," he said.
Hila Lipnick, a 28-year-old Orthodox woman who lives in Cambridge, Mass., used to live in Jerusalem and traveled daily to Gush Etzion, a settlement in the West Bank, for school. While she believes in the eventual rebuilding of the Temple, she is unsure about sacrifice.
"I can't see rivers of blood going all over Jerusalem," she said, "and society just accepting it."
In order for the Sanhedrin to proceed with the sacrifice, they would need to build an altar on the Temple Mount, at least the size of 1 amah (21 inches) by 1 amah, Stein said. They would slaughter the sheep and sprinkle the blood towards the altar, said Hillel Weiss. The meat would then be taken from the Temple area and cooked on a special oven and given to families to eat.
Some leaders in the Jewish community question not only the renewal of sacrifice without a Temple, but the validity of the Sanhedrin itself.
"They are a self-selected group," said Michael J. Broyde, an Orthodox rabbi who sits on the Rabbinical Court of America. "And they have no more and no less authority than any other self-selected group of rabbis."
While many Jews are either ambivalent or hostile toward the Sanhedrin and other Temple-related groups, some evangelicals support these projects. They get excited when they perceive the Jewish people fulfilling what they view as part of future prophecy, said Randall Price, an evangelical professor and author of four books about the Temple. "Then they think we're getting closer to that being a reality," he said.
The Sanhedrin considers the Passover sacrifice equal in importance to circumcision, since it is the first collective commandment given to the Jewish people.
"Since the Passover sacrifice is an eternal commandment, we should do it," said Rabbi Yeshayahu Hollander, an English spokesperson for the group. Those who do not observe the sacrifice, he said, will be cut off from the Jewish people.
"If we have psychological inhibitions, it is our duty to educate ourselves, to overcome the inhibitions," Hollander said. "This is part of our redemption. An essential part."
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