Much Jewish practice finds its justification in appeals to precedent and tradition (masorah in Hebrew), even though it is not at all evident why one should do things simply because they were done by one’s ancestors. Making use of the tools of philosophical logic and the ideas of the modern philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alex Ozar constructs a defense of tradition, and then explores some of the implications of his own argument:
[According to Wittgenstein], “if one person is considered in isolation, the notion of a rule as guiding the person who adopts it can have no substantive content.” This is because the individual, presented with a new case, has no way of distinguishing between what is really “right” and what one merely, presently, thinks one ought to do. To get beyond subjective whim, Wittgenstein argues, requires accountability to a community. . . . It is through and only through our embeddedness within a community, and that community’s continuing fidelity to a specific form of life, that the facts of past precedent—rules, customs, examples—can provide real guidance.
An intriguing consequence of all this, it is worth noting, is that mere third-person acquaintance with the rules is not enough for faithful interpretation: it will of necessity be only those who truly and deeply feel the pulse of the community’s form of life, and achieve a view not only of the individual norms but of the whole in which those norms are integrally embedded, who will adequately project traditional practice into the future. . . .
But of course . . . just what qualities it takes to qualify an authoritative interpreter of communal tradition will of necessity be itself determined by nothing other than the concerned community and the world it makes. Why, according to Maimonides, are the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud authoritative? Because the [Jewish] people made a world that made them so.
The meaningfulness of the guidance of precedent, then, requires that the ends and purposes of the statute, custom, or exemplar are the same as, or continuous with, the ends and purposes of the community’s interpretive practice as embedded in its present form of life.