Wikipedian culture insists that everyone has a right to contribute to the discussion and that all opinions are created equal. On Wikipedia, the assertions of a high school biology student are given equal weight to the writings of a senior tenured professor specializing in the subject at a leading university’s graduate level program.
A radical example of the absurdity of this is discussed in the recent book, “Virtual Unreality” by Charles Seife (Viking Publishers 2014; pp.30-31). Someone posted a claim that the protagonist in one of Philip Roth’s novels was based upon the character of a deceased New York Times literary critic. Roth, himself, however, insisted that the character was based upon a sociology professor at Princeton. Incredibly, the admins of this popular online encyclopedia were not swayed by the direct clarification of the author himself. When it came to the thought processes of a novel’s author, an anonymous editor with no verifiable credentials was just as credible as the author of the novel himself.
The intellectual culture of Judaism is characterized by openness and equal access. Everyone is able to take part in the conversation – and they do. Even the greatest sages and scholars encourage students to question them and probe deeply. The most respected students in Jewish academies were always the ones who asked the most incisive questions. Anyone can come up with an answer. But to ask a profound question requires true insight.
However, Judaism was never a radical democracy where every opinion was always given equal weight. Although scholars can be questioned, ultimate rulings of Jewish law were never put up for a popular vote where all opinions were equally considered. This was certainly not the kind of legal system that God promoted.
When Moses’ was being overwhelmed with his responsibilities of adjudicating the disputes of the Jewish people, his father-in-law advised him to delegate some of the more routine cases to highly qualified leaders (Exodus 18:17-26). Decisions were not to be left up to the ad hoc decisions of the people themselves – only people who had very specific qualifications were given this responsibility. Scripture was very critical of times in Jewish people where there was no strong leadership and everyone did what they saw fit (Judges 17:6, 21:25).
When God Himself instructed Moses how Torah law was to be adjudicated, it was not left up to whatever any self-proclaimed authority would decide. G-d specifically delegated this responsibility to the leading judges of each generation (Deuteronomy 17:8-13 and see II Chronicles 19:8-11).
Even our secular legal systems in the modern world are complex and take years of study to achieve competency. Many jurisdictions will prosecute people who attempt to practice law without a license demonstrating the completion of an accredited program to achieve proficiency. The same requirement of serious education and rigorous testing applies to many fields from practicing medicine to flying a jet liner.
Jewish law is much more complex than our secular legal practice since it covers many more areas of theory. Whereas someone can go to law school after graduating from university and receive a law degree in three years – mastering Torah law is a much longer enterprise. The texts studied cannot be properly understood in translation and require master scholars who are able to not just transmit information – but the spirit of the law as well.
Many delicate and complicated issues in Jewish law arise regularly in modern times. Some of these are areas of law where there are very few people in the world with any real expertise. For example, over the past 2000 years, non-Jews have not approached Jewish sages for guidance on how Torah law applies to them. As well, we have not had a generation before ours with thousands of people believing they have Jewish lineage and wanting to live Jewish lives and rejoin themselves to the Jewish people. It is not simple to determine personal status issues in cases where people have been disconnected from the Jewish people for generations and in cases of doubtful lineage.
These and other related questions are not simple ones to resolve. We know one thing. The answers will not come from people who might be earnest, but have only studied the Bible in English translation, have never immersed themselves in Jewish legal literature and use google as a crutch. We must humbly seek out those who have dedicated long years of their lives mastering Torah law and stand in an unbroken chain of scholars going all the way back to the days of Moses and Joshua. These are the people that G-d Himself directs us to follow.