(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...emunat chakhamim, trusting in sages...
(Exodus 36:2) ...v'el kol ish chakham lev asher natan H' chokhma b'libo...[Moses called] to every person of sage heart, in whose heart God had given wisdom...
In my early years as rabbi of Agudas Achim, we hosted Prof. Burton Visotsky of the Jewish Theological Seminary. I knew Rabbi Visotsky in our Chicago days, before either of us had a title, so we have a very easy-going relationship.
Also present was a local politician. In introducing him, I offered a (complimentary) characterization that I felt skirted the line between reportage and politics. As such, I began by saying, "Speaking not as Rabbi Moline, but as Jack Moline..." Rabbi Visotsky took me aside afterward and said to me, "You are never `not Rabbi Moline,' and don't be embarrassed or reluctant about it. Your opinions mean something because you are a rabbi."
I am not entirely persuaded by Rabbi Visotsky's words, but I admit to paying very close attention to their application in my own life. The fact is, I pay much closer attention to the opinions of those I respect than to the opinions of mere acquaintances. By opinions, I mean expressions of preference, not documented arguments or formal teachings; the latter offer a basis for evaluation. Even when I do not share their perspective, people of integrity and wisdom get my attention and hold it. And even when the opinion expressed is outside the individual's usual area of expertise, the person's credibility seems transferable. (The example that comes to mind is George Will's early and accurate criticism of the designated hitter rule in Major League Baseball's American League.)
The path to Torah commended in this week's topic seems counter-intuitive to a text-based tradition like ours. We do not rely on the pronouncements of oracles or pundits; we go straight to the sources. And I would be the first to reject the notion that emunat chakhamim, trusting in sages, is the primary way to acquire Torah. But a sage – a person of learning and experience, a person who talents and skills combine with insight – is a source of wisdom in more than just his or her area of expertise. Wisdom is a transferable quality, and discerning who is wise, as opposed to who is merely smart, is as much a way to find Torah as studying a book.
I have written before about the original meanings of the words for "heart" and "wisdom" as they appear in the Biblical verse. They needn't be repeated here. And likely the use of the word "sages" in the Talmudic reference has a technical meaning as well. The Sages (as opposed to people who were merely sage) were the rabbis who lived during an extraordinary period of Jewish history. Though their influence persists to this day, they were not the only leadership figures of their time. Various political, military, business and religious voices were raised, and they claimed leadership of the people. (One such voice became the central figure of a world religion.) It could be that "trusting in Sages" is as much a political statement as it is a technique of learning: the rabbinic perspective represents Torah, whereas other perspectives do not.
It is of no matter whether "sages" begins with a capital or lower-case s. And it is of no matter if the verse from the Torah refers to skilled artisans or inspired leaders. In either case, a person who has earned wisdom has earned more than technical expertise. In a way, the individual has become Torah itself, as Abraham became a blessing and the people Israel became holiness. There is a revelatory aspect to such a person's thought process.
A caution is in order. Blind obedience, even to a sage, is never in order. Sages may be credible, but that doesn't mean they can't be wrong. Part of acquiring Torah is learning to recognize wisdom in content, not just in source. That's the case whether the Torah is oral or written.
How can you practice emunat chakhamim? Seek out a person you admire and respect and ask his or her advice. I especially commend asking someone who has advanced in years, not just for the sheer quantity of experience that those years have accumulated, but because it is a genuine statement of the worth of older age – something too often missing in our youth-oriented society.