I. Texting* and E-Mailing
A recent NY Times article highlighted the growth of real-time written communication — texting, chatting, messaging — and the corresponding drop in e-mailing (link). Texting and the other forms of messaging receive quicker responses and involve less formality. They are the written equivalent of a conversation. What’s not to love?
I don’t think e-mail will be disappearing any time soon. Like most things in life, correspondence requires balance. Some conversations are best in real-time messaging but others are not. There is a time and a season for each.
E-mail still holds a number of benefits over messaging. The ability to delay before responding is valuable for many reasons. Adults are often too busy to message because we have jobs that involve meetings and deadlines. We also take our study time seriously, refusing to interrupt it with unnecessary distractions. We cannot always correspond in real-time. Additionally, some correspondence requires thought and consultation with others. If I am e-mailed a complex question, I can research the issue and respond when I am ready. If I am texted such an inquiry, I can either respond tentatively but insufficiently or decline to answer.
II. Responding Rabbis
Consider a rabbi who is asked a religious question. He may want to look up the issue before responding or consult with colleagues or mentors. Rabbis generally prefer face-to-face questions but when electronic formats must be used, e-mail is better.
On the other hand, rabbis should know the answers immediately. The Gemara (Kiddushin 30a) explains the phrase “ve-shinantem — and you shall study [Torah]” (Deut. 6:7) to mean that you must reach the point where words of Torah are on your fingertips. You should not need to look anything up. “If anyone asks you something, you should not stumble but should answer immediately.”
III. Think Before You Speak
However, the Mishnah (Avos 1:1) says: “Hevu mesunim be-din — be deliberate in judgment.” This implies careful thought and delay rather than instant response. How can this be reconciled with the obligation to have answers at your fingertips?
The Meiri (commentary, ad loc.) suggests that the Mishnah is referring solely to court cases where two litigants compete for judicial sympathy. A judge risks sympathizing with the underdog or the powerful and therefore needs to carefully consider both sides before ruling. On ritual matters, however, where there are no dueling parties, a rabbi may rule quickly.
Alternately, the Meiri proposes, the Mishnah could be referring to someone who does not know the proper ruling automatically. Rather than rushing to judgment and making a mistake, he should proceed with care and caution. However, when a rabbi knows the proper answer with certainty, he may respond immediately.
R. Shlomo Zalman Braun (She’arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah, Kiddushin 30a sv. she-im) quotes a responsum of the Shevus Ya’akov (2:64) who says that a rabbi should look up a law in his books ruling on a question. What, R. Braun asks, about the Gemara’s statement that a rabbi should be able to answer immediately? He answers that a rabbi can immediately answer a standard question that is explicitly discussed in the sources. If he must arrive at a new ruling, then he should consult the texts and think carefully before responding.
It would seem, then, that accomplished scholars do not need to hesitate before answering simple questions on religious ritual. Real rabbis can text. Unless, that is, their busy schedules or limited technology skills prevent them. And presuming they can obtain enough information from a text or chat to adequately reach a conclusion. However, I have not yet reached that level of Torah mastery and can only dream of someday getting there. I still need my correspondence to allow me time to research.
* If you think text is only a noun and not a verb, then messaging is not for you.