My six-year-old son likes to abbreviate words, so the Hebrew term for synagogue, beit knesset, is often shortened to knesset, leading to an oft-heard declaration which literally and hilariously translates as, “I want to go to Parliament with you.” The Knesset, capitalized and unitalicized, is, of course, our unicameral legislature, modeled on the 120-seat Great Knesset of the Second Temple Era. But I think my son may be on to something.
In fact, beit knesset (as well as, for that matter, the Greek term synagogue) means “house of gathering,” not house of prayer. Mondays and Thursdays in Second-Commonwealth Israel were days of kenisa, the gathering of all the villagers in county seats to present their grievances to the court (Rashi, Megilla 2a, s.v. Ela I). So where did people go to study Torah? That was the province of the beit midrash, the study hall. Indeed, the Midrash (Genesis Rabba 97:7) sees a tribal distinction: the tribe of Simeon was designated to serve as scribes in the beit knesset, while the tribe of Levi was dedicated to serve as teachers and scholars in the beit midrash. Scribes were the court stenographers of their day, and they were a necessary part of any Jewish court fulfilling its judicial and legislative functions.
This brings us to Beersheba, capital of the Israeli southland and the ancient tribal territory of Shimon. Elsewhere in Genesis Rabba (54:33), the Midrash credits the Patriarch Abraham with the founding of the first Jewish court–in Beersheba. After the Kierkegaardian trauma of the Binding of Isaac, Abraham sends his heir off to the beit midrash of Shem and Eber, and afterwards “They arose and went together to Beersheba” to apply what Isaac had learnt (Midrash Lekach Tov, Gen. 22:19). Generations later, the Prophet Samuel follows this example when “he placed his sons as judges for Israel… judges in Beersheba” (I Samuel 8:1-2).
Fast forward to this past Monday, when Israelis were shocked to hear about a mass shooting at a bank in Beersheba: there were four victims, and the shooter took his own life. Contrary to what Wayne LaPierre would have you believe, mass shootings (as opposed to terror attacks) are a new phenomenon in Israel. Within 48 hours, our Knesset began formulating plans to tighten our gun laws and keep our public places safe, an idea with appeal across the dozen parties in our parliament. How many votes will it take to pass new legislation? A simple majority of the members present. No filibusters, no vetoes, no conferencing. That , after all, is the way a beit knesset is supposed to work. I only wish the land of my birth, America, could learn that lesson too.