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Text Message Responsa

 

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.

 

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Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

 
The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.
 

22 Responses

  1. IH says:

    Gil — Given our recent discussion regarding R. Broyde’s post, in this post you seem to be conflating rulings — p’sak, with responsa — t’shuvot.

    I would expect that a p’sak can be verbally very terse, but a contemporary t’shuva — as R. Broyde argues — should cover the standards to which he judges others.

  2. Hirhurim says:

    First, you are once again misrepresenting R. Broyde’s statement. He only said that someone claiming to survey the literature should actually do so. He did not say that all responsa must be in that style.

    Second, R. Aviner has published six volumes of responsa. The text message rulings are clearly different.

  3. IH says:

    The issue I am raising is your ambiguous terminology: conflating rulings and responsa.

    As for what R. Broyde said, I disagree with your reduction, but readers can make up their own minds: http://torahmusings.com/2012/07/convert-on-a-bet-din-for-conversion/

  4. Hirhurim says:

    1. I agree but “text message responsa — Shu”t SMS or Shu”t Solalari” is the catchy name of the genre.

    2. I focus on these words in R. Broyde’s essay: “To be fair, the Conservative movement has often claimed a preference for engaging the Talmudic literature and the rishonim directly, with little if any engagement in achronim. However, this does not explain the RA’s teshuva here. The fact that the teshuva engages myself, Rabbi Weiss, and Rabbi Waldenberg implies that the author of this responsum was interested in engaging achronim; unfortunately, this selective engagement strongly implies “less than robust” research into the topic by its author.”

  5. IH says:

    You’ll forgive me for thinking you have a double standard, given:

    Hirhurim on July 4, 2012 at 9:19 am
    IH: Whe did R. Broyde set any standards for giving a pesak? I think you might be confusing a teshuvah and a pesak.

  6. Hirhurim says:

    I apologize for being unclear. Let me restate:
    1. R. Broyde was only discussing responsa, not rulings.
    2. Even among responsa, he was only discussing those that attempt to survey the views.
    3. These text message responsa are misnamed and are really just rulings.

  7. IH says:

    Thanks, Gil. My request is that you clarify the post accordingly. The message I replayed you was your response to a sloppy comment of mine (and I referred you back the original correct and more precise formulation at the time). But, others may make this mistake in earnest. It is in everyone’s interest to be precise in the posting.

    As to R. Broyde’s post: I agree with points 1 & 3 and disagree with 2. I won’t belabor the point, e.g. but R. Broyde’s 5th standard — analogies — has nothing to do with a survey of views.

  8. David Tzohar says:

    I have asked R’Aviner several questions by SMS and was dissatisfied with the answers for many of the reasons stated in the post. Extreme brevity giving only one halachic view (i.e. his) etc. There were clear answers on what to do halacha lemaáseh but no way to extrapolate to similar cases. IMHO text message responsa is a flawed genre. Insstead of texting would it be so difficult to pick up the phone and csll the Rav?

  9. Moshe Shoshan says:

    Gil
    If dont undersatnd how you differentiate between “ask the rabbi” which you say is bad because people need to establish a relationship with a rabbi and “Shut SMS” which you do subject to this critique.

  10. ba says:

    I, too, have enjoyed R’ Aviner’s Shu”t SMS. However, you didn’t seem to address the main problem that the opposing article had: That answers given are too broad. It seems to me to be a valid claim: It’s okay if you’re getting one person’s opinion, because you know you can follow it; but what can you do with an answer that’s too broad?

    (by the way, R’ Aviner linked to this: http://www.ravaviner.com/2012/07/defense-of-text-message-responsa.html )

  11. Yoel Finkelman says:

    Gil,

    My argument was not that all Shut SMS are problematic or that the genre is inherently problematic. On the contrary. There is no reason why a straightforward question can’t get a concise answer. Many of the published ones do just that.

    Instead, my argument is that very often the questions are not straightforward and the answers try to deal with issues in 160 characters that require a different medium to do so responsibly.

    Of course, if they only published straightforward questions and reasonable answers, nobody would read them.

    Yoel

  12. shachar haamim says:

    “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. ”

    But isn’t the above effectively adopting the view of the Re”MA (which he later abandoned due to cirucmstances when he wrote his glosses on the Shulchan Aruch) and the early Polish Acharonim (also supported by traditional yemenite p’sak) that there is no such thing as precedent and sifrei shuti”m of actual cases should not be published at all?

    “stataure” issues aside, how is the Igrot Moshe any different than a good “ask the rabbi” column in the newspaper?

  13. Shlomo says:

    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…. 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

    If you like R’ Aviner then you should love R’ Cherlow.
    http://www.moreshet.co.il/web/shut/advancedSearchResult.asp?i=0&nop=20&WholeWord=0&aw=&shut=&rabonim=10040

  14. DAVID TZOHAR:

    “dissatisfied with the answers for many of the reasons stated in the post. Extreme brevity giving only one halachic view (i.e. his) etc. There were clear answers on what to do halacha lemaáseh but no way to extrapolate to similar cases.”

    i don’t understand this objection. everyone has the option of calling or writing to him for a fuller response citing other views or with further details to use for extrapolation, etc.
    obviously those who text him instead don’t need or don’t want other views or information for extrapolation.

    “Insstead of texting would it be so difficult to pick up the phone and csll the Rav?”

    again, if one needs or wants a fuller response they always have that option. but presumably there is no way he could respond to a large volume by phone.

  15. joel rich says:

    it’s a new world Goldie!
    like it or not, we need to understand that each generation communicates differently (that’s why consulting firms have communications specialists). Is something lost? for sure the opportunity to dig deeper, to be sure that one can chanoch lshoel kfi darko….but that’s the world we live in (and frankly a r”y or pulpit rabbi with a large flock may not be able to do all that much better)
    KT

  16. IH says:

    R’ Joel — I guess the next step is to program SIRI accordingly. Back to the future: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ELIZA

  17. Hirhurim says:

    Moshe Shoshan: I dont undersatnd how you differentiate between “ask the rabbi” which you say is bad because people need to establish a relationship with a rabbi and “Shut SMS” which you do subject to this critique.

    I do not differentiate. I object to both for the same reason. But setting aside that reason, I don’t see any additional reason to object to Shut SMS.

    ba: That answers given are too broad. It seems to me to be a valid claim: It’s okay if you’re getting one person’s opinion, because you know you can follow it; but what can you do with an answer that’s too broad?

    I don’t find them too broad. Can you wear an immodest shirt on top of a regular shirt? Yes. Can you listen to a female choir sing? No – Tzitz Eliezer 14:7. Can you learn quietly between aliyos? Yes – Ohev Yamim p. 10. Can a cohen visit a sick person in the hospital? Yes – Tzitz Eliezer 16:33, Iggeros Moshe YD 1:248, 2:116. Those answers aren’t too broad.

    shachar haamim: But isn’t the above effectively adopting the view of the Re”MA (which he later abandoned due to cirucmstances when he wrote his glosses on the Shulchan Aruch) and the early Polish Acharonim (also supported by traditional yemenite p’sak) that there is no such thing as precedent and sifrei shuti”m of actual cases should not be published at all?

    No, not at all. Rather, like R. Moshe Feinstein writes in the introduction to his first volume of responsa, his teshuvos are there for halakhic scholars to see his reasoning. Laypeople should not be reading responsa and paskening on their own based on them.

    Shlomo: If you like R’ Aviner then you should love R’ Cherlow

    I do like R. Cherlow but I find that R. Aviner’s views on many issues accord more with mine than do R. Cherlow’s.

  18. ba says:

    I wrote:

    …That answers given are too broad. It seems to me to be a valid claim: It’s okay if you’re getting one person’s opinion, because you know you can follow it; but what can you do with an answer that’s too broad?

    You responded:
    I don’t find them too broad. Can you wear an immodest shirt on top of a regular shirt? Yes. Can you listen to a female choir sing? No – Tzitz Eliezer 14:7. Can you learn quietly between aliyos? Yes – Ohev Yamim p. 10. Can a cohen visit a sick person in the hospital? Yes – Tzitz Eliezer 16:33, Iggeros Moshe YD 1:248, 2:116. Those answers aren’t too broad.

    Most of them are like that, but the ones quoted in the article against Shu”t SMS — Question: They say that if high-tech companies do not renew themselves, they die. Does Judaism ‘renew itself’? Always, Judaism must renew itself.

  19. shachar haamim says:

    “No, not at all. Rather, like R. Moshe Feinstein writes in the introduction to his first volume of responsa, his teshuvos are there for halakhic scholars to see his reasoning. Laypeople should not be reading responsa and paskening on their own based on them.”

    so then as long as the “ask the rabbi” column or the published SMS site has the very same disclaimer as the first one on this website, there – again – is no difference between Ask the Rabbi and the Igrot Moshe.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Is there any way to get R Aviner’s book responding to the Satmar Rebbe shipped in America?
    http://www.ravaviner.com/2012/07/alo-naale-response-to-book-vayoel-moshe.html

  21. [...] Shmuel Jablon and R. Yitzchak Blau square off on the value of text message responsa (see this post: link). Be Sociable, Share! [...]

 
 

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