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 in the ever-increasing quantity, variety and innovative creativity of scholarship that is being produced.
It stands to reason that this critical change 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 halakha.
Whether the challenges are the halakhic propriety of issues like partnership minyanim or specific remedies for agunot, or larger questions like the viability of a state-sponsored rabbinate, the primary sources and lines of argumentation that were once closed to all but those with particular backgrounds are available to anyone with access to Google and the time to read an article. Furthermore, novel interpretations, questions, or ritual innovations that can arise from 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 far 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 era of Big Torah, all of the arguments are on the table, and there are legitimate leaders who are charting the course to anywhere we want to go. The question now is whether the followers are up to the challenge.
Avraham Bronstein, “The Bold New Era of Big Torah”, The Times of Israel (1 September 2015) [http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-bold-new-era-of-big-torah/]