The time has passed when the Jewish public was amazed by Torah on a new medium–websites, cell phones, social media, etc. We demand more than just innovation for its own sake but primarily useful content and practical value. Many argue that text message responsa–rabbinic questions and answers in text message format–represent a diminution of Torah, worthy of ridicule. I disagree and find value in this genre.
The most recent critique of text message responsa was published last week by Dr. Yoel Finkelman (link). To his credit, his evaluation was mixed and, unlike some others, not dripping in condescension. R. Shlomo Aviner published a defense of text message responsa on his website (link). As I expressed in a post last week (link), I am generally opposed to all “ask the rabbi” features, regardless of format or medium, because people should develop a personal relationship with their local rabbi. Good halakhic rulings must recognize the questioner’s personal circumstances, which can never be fully evaluated without a longstanding personal relationship. However, setting that aside, I find text message responsa fascinating and I eagerly devour e-mail compilations of R. Shlomo Aviner’s correspondence.
Torah is deep. A good question deserves a long answer, explaining the background, multiple views and reasons why the rabbi answers the way he does. But some questions are simple and receive only a brief response. Many of R. David Tzvi Hoffmann’s responsa are extremely brief because the answer was so straightforward. And when a good communicator is forced to be concise, he finds ways to convey a complex message in a simple form. I find that R. Aviner does this excellently. He states the key points–what and why–and provides a source for further research. And, like he recently declared, when a question demands a more personal touch, R. Aviner asks the questioner to call him (link):
Q: What type of questions can I ask Ha-Rav in a text message?
A: It is permissible to ask anything. If it is complex, I will answer that we need to speak.
The questions R. Aviner faces are not merely about ritual law. They cover multiple areas, including Jewish thought and practical advice. In the recent compilation linked above, R. Aviner is asked whether the Lubavitcher Rebbe attained prophecy, one may wear clothes that belonged to someone deceased, a man should accept a proposed blind date with an overweight woman, the Jewish people has free choice, a woman may wear an immodest shirt on top of another shirt and more. His answers are sensible and often accompanied with sources for further study.
R. Aviner’s breadth of knowledge is quite impressive. The Gemara (Kiddushin 30a) states that you should learn Torah until it is sharp in your mouth, which most take to mean that you are able to immediately answer a question in Jewish law. R. Aviner is able to that even in areas of Jewish thought.
Most areas of Torah contain varying opinions and R. Aviner is among the most tolerant and accepting of rabbis. However, in this context he offers only his own view, only remarking when relevant that other views are also valid. Some may criticize him for failing to express more frequently that multiple views exist but I don’t see that as a valid critique. Questioners should recognize that they are asking only for R. Aviner’s brief ruling, not a survey of the issue.
Apparently, some readers of text message responsa look at them for opportunities to ridicule answers. And when you look for that, you inevitably find it. I look at the responsa for lessons in Torah, both content (R. Aviner’s views) and format (his concise style of communication). I read the responsa and find great nuggets of wisdom and conversation-starters, even when I disagree with R. Aviner’s answer. I don’t see a different answer as wrong and worthy of ridicule but merely a different approach. And I see R. Aviner as a hero for having the courage to answer any question, no matter how difficult, and publish the answers for everyone to see. This is agreeing to an excruciating level of scrutiny.
Most importantly, we live in an age when publicists often distort the teachings of leading Charedi rabbis. Signatures on public pronouncements are sometimes forged; rulings are published in newspapers without rabbis’ knowledge. R. Aviner and the other text message rabbis make themselves available. Anyone can easily clarify their view. This level of accessibility is an important public service that, to a large degree, bypasses the system of assistants and gatekeepers so common among other rabbis. R. Chaim Soloveitchik said that just like God is close to all who call to Him (Ps. 145:18), so too a rabbi must be available to everyone without any handlers or intermediaries. Text message availability certainly fulfills this requirement. The text message rabbis are not asking people to text them or demanding that others follow their rulings. They are merely making themselves as available as possible to answer questions in the way most convenient for the questioner.
As I mentioned above, I believe that people need to ask their questions to their local rabbis who know them and their families intimately. As I spoke this morning with R. Mordy Friedman about this genre, he noted the following lesson local rabbis must learn from the popularity of text message responsa. Every rabbi should be available to answer his congregants’ questions via text message. When a person has a halakhic or hashkafic question, he should be able to text, e-mail or otherwise contact his rabbi. However people are communicating, rabbis should be on that medium as well, serving their congregants.
UPDATE: I am happy to share with readers that an English collection of R. Shlomo Aviner’s text message responsa is now available for purchase. More information here: link.