An Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In his The Half-Life of Facts, MIT professor Samuel Arbesman grapples with the meaning of the fact that the majority of all scientists who have ever lived are alive today. Extending his observations, it is also likely that the majority of all Torah scholars who ever lived are currently alive as well, a development that brings significant change to how Torah is studied, and how communal policy is deliberated and set. However, many people in the trenches of those very conversations do not seem to be aware of the tremendous paradigm shift that is taking place all around them.
One current example is the popular lament, particularly in the Modern Orthodox community, over the dearth of contemporary leadership. Especially as compared with the transcendent leadership of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, who enjoyed a near hegemony over American Modern Orthodox policy and discourse for decades, today’s Modern Orthodox communal leaders, scholars and rabbis control smaller and sometimes overlapping circles of influence. The recent passing of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein marked, perhaps, the end of the era when a Modern Orthodox rabbinic leader could stand head and shoulders above the fray.
Some locate this leadership gap in the progressive flank of Modern Orthodoxy, which, they claim, lacks those with the courage and authority to articulate and maintain limits as critical red lines are approached and crossed. Others find it in the conservative flank of Modern Orthodoxy, which, they respond, lacks those with the courage and integrity to grapple honestly with contemporary issues in a way that resonates with contemporary communities. Yet others worry that the Center lacks leaders with the gravitas to frame issues and prevent communal fragmentation. In fact, though, the entire argument demonstrates a much larger point, one that the combatants on each side have largely missed.
Arbesman demonstrates how technology enabling collaboration and information-sharing like never before, combined with so many more researchers working and competing within each field, sets the stage for exponentially more sophisticated research in ever more specialized areas. As a result, the rate of advancement continues to increase, and the amount of time between major breakthroughs decreases. One ramification of this is that, in today’s world, it becomes harder and harder to accurately laud anyone as the preeminent leader or driving force in a particular field. Far from a weakness, this reality reflects the vastly larger numbers of researchers at work and the ever-increasing momentum they collectively bring to the fore.
If scientists and engineers now live in the world of Big Data, then we also live in the world of Big Torah.
Modern tools and research methods, supported by technology, have brought more sophisticated knowledge and access to more people – both in terms of numbers and background – than ever before, and this is manifested in the ever-increasing quantity, variety and innovative creativity of scholarship that is being produced.
It stands to reason that this critical shift should bring significant change. For one thing, we now need to understand that there may never again be a single leader or small group of leaders towering over Orthodox discourse, as Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein put it, “like a colossus.” However, like in other fields touched by Big Data, the apparent lack of top-down leadership reflects a stronger new reality that contains many leaders, each with significant, specialized and sophisticated contributions, and addressing an ever-more knowledgeable community.
Indeed, far from a lack of thinkers on contemporary topics, we are blessed with an abundance of well-reasoned and innovative responses written by well-credentialed and relevant authors that span the spectrum on every issue under the sun. More importantly, the laity that now evaluates responses to contemporary challenges is more empowered to do so than any that has ever existed. The rising tide in STEM fields, driven by numbers and technology, increases innovation and sophistication across the board, and that is also true when it comes to matters of Torah and halacha.
As one example, the technical halachic arguments for and against women’s ordination, as they arose from the primary sources, were once closed to all but those with sophisticated yeshiva backgrounds. Now, they are available to anyone with access to Google and the time to read a short article. Furthermore, novel interpretations, challenges, or ritual innovations that arise anywhere are now instantly available to the entire world, open for criticism, adoption, or adaptation. With so many more diverse voices chiming in, the conversations move faster, and make a greater impact.
Therefore, we should not be lamenting the lack of a singular, top-down authority that tells us what to do.
We should, rather, all be spending more time using the unprecedented resources and capabilities at our disposal to carefully evaluate the options that so many preeminent thinkers and scholars are making available to us, and taking a real sense of responsibility for the choices we make, both as individuals and communities.
In the age of Big Torah, all of the arguments are on the table, and there are legitimate leaders who can chart the course to wherever we want to go. The question now is whether the followers are up to the challenge.
The author writes frequently on Jewish thought, contemporary issues and their intersection. He served as assistant rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue and program director of Great Neck Synagogue, and lives with his family in Scranton, Pennsylvania.