We live in an age of unprecedented access to information. On the surface, this can be a gift as never before in human history do we have such a vast reservoir of information. Yet, we can clearly see the challenges that having access to a veritable avalanche of information can cause. What do we trust? Which sources? Who is reliable? Who is not?
In 2018, a study from MIT found that falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude on the social network Twitter than real news does. The same is true on other social media platforms. The ability to reach so many people so quickly allows for the quick dissemination of information, much faster than normal person to person communication.
We see this with false claims about everything from Israel, vaccinations, climate change, and really any other news item. How can we combat this? How can we be sure about what we are reading? How are we to combat this challenge to truth? How can we be sure of the information we are receiving?
This week, we are reading Shoftim, the portion which devotes the bulk of the text describing responsibilities of public officials. However, there is one deviation from this theme, where the text focuses not on the officials, but on the people and their responsibility:
If a case is too baffling for you to decide, be it a controversy over homicide, civil law, or assault—matters of dispute in your courts—you shall promptly repair to the place that the Adonai your God will have chosen, and appear before the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time, and present your problem. When they have announced to you the verdict in the case, you shall carry out the verdict that is announced to you from that place that Adonai chose, observing scrupulously all their instructions to you. You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you; you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left. (Deuteronomy 17:8-11)
This radical concept, introduced in our Torah thousands of years ago, still holds true today. If I may paraphrase, in short, if you are not an expert in an area, consult the expert! In an age when there is extreme specialization in many fields, no one can be expected to be able to grasp the finer points and minutiae of concepts that you never studied. The place that God has shown us are those places where experts gather and learn and share their knowledge in whatever field, whether it be science, history, religion, or philosophy. Those places where we must consult if a case is too baffling for us to decide, or even if it’s an area where we cannot possibly be expected to be an expert.
Especially in light of the current crisis we find ourselves, both medically with the COVID lockdowns, and the climate with the recently released report from the UN, now more than ever, let us rely on those who are in charge at the time, the experts in those fields, the places where God has shown, not on those who claim, without justification, to be. Let us act in accordance with the instructions they have given us, and act decisively.
Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth