Rabbi Mordechai Tzion, ed.
Reviewed by Gil Student
The communications revolution of the last two decades places a troubling premium on innovation. Those who can utilize the new media most effectively control the conversation, regardless of subject matter expertise. This makes the rare polymath, the accomplished talmid chacham with intuitive mastery of communications technology, so treasured. He can rise above the clutter by combining old with new, Torah and technology.
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, rabbi of Beit El and rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim, is a familiar name in Israel. His comments are regularly sought by the traditional media. His frequent writings appear in Torah newsletters and journals, his dozens of Torah books are ubiquitous and his phone number is among the most popular in Israel. Buzzing throughout the day, Rabbi Aviner’s cellphone is the vanguard of halachic decision making. People he has never met constantly text him questions on Jewish law and thought, to which he responds with brief but authoritative answers. While not the only rabbi who answers text message questions, Rabbi Aviner is by far one of the most active, responding to approximately 200 such questions each day. Two years ago, he published a collection of his text message responsa in English translation (Short & Sweet), and last year he published a Hebrew collection of text message responsa and other brief discussions (Piskei Shlomo).
But availability and speed are not always welcome. Many critics have decried the phenomenon of text message responsa, some with curmudgeonly condescension but others with serious points. How much information about the questioner and his dilemma can be conveyed in a text message? And how can a nuanced answer be so brief? These complaints are valid. Ideally, people will ask their she’eilot to their local rabbis who know their circumstances and understand often-unstated aspects of the inquiries. Nevertheless, for many reasons—some of them good—a growing number of people utilize the ubiquitous “ask the rabbi” features on web sites for religious guidance. Text message responsa are merely a variation of this widespread phenomenon of halachic e-inquiries.
Brevity as an Art
Torah is proverbially longer than the Earth and broader than the sea. A good question deserves a long, detailed answer with background, sources and explanations. Nevertheless, many of the Geonim’s responsa are extremely brief because the answers are straightforward. A good communicator can convey a complex message in a simple form. Rabbi Aviner is a master of such conciseness. In his text message responsa, he states the key points—what and why—and provides sources for further research.
In this respect, he goes further than the Rambam. Rambam was criticized for including in Mishneh Torah, his classic halachic code, only rulings and not sources. This led to an entire genre of literature attempting to identify Rambam’s sources. Rabbi Aviner frequently includes sources in his text messages (and if he doesn’t, you can always text him asking for a source!). A recipient of such an answer, or a student of these books, can easily find lengthy discussions that support Rabbi Aviner’s conclusions. Additionally, these books—particularly the Hebrew set—contain expansions by the editor that provide further argumentation and sources.
Still, when all is said and done, some questions do not allow for brief answers. When a question demands a more personal touch, Rabbi Aviner asks the questioner to call him:
Q: What type of questions can I ask HaRav in a text message?
A: It is permissible to ask anything. If it is complex, I will answer that we need to speak.
More Than Halachah
Responsa have never been solely about halachah. A review of medieval responsa quickly uncovers questions and answers about philosophical issues.1 Text message responsa are no different. Rabbi Aviner fields questions on the most difficult subjects.
Responsa for the Smartphone Generation
Q: I work in a store that plays background music. What should I do during the Three Weeks?
A: Try your best not to listen. This is considered a benefit that comes to a person against his will
Q: Is the end of the world coming in the year 6000?
Q: Is it permissible to hunt animals?
A: For livelihood, it is permissible. For pleasure, it is cruel. Shut Noda BiYehudah (Mehadura Tanina, Yoreh Deah #10).
Q: Are the prophecies of Nostradamus true? Many of them have come to fruition.
A: No. Since they are indistinct, many events can appear to fit within them.
Q: I am in mourning and am a musician. What should I do?
A: It is permissible to perform for one’s livelihood (Nitei Gavriel, Aveilut, vol. 2, 14:5).
Q: I was adopted and am a convert and fear that people will find out. Can I be called to the Torah by my Jewish adopted father’s name and not as “Ben Avraham Avinu”?
A: Yes (Shut Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:161. As opposed to Shut Minchat Yitzchak 1:136, 4:49).
Q: Who was greater—the Lubavitcher Rebbe or HaGaon Rav Avraham Shapira?
A: Each one in his own way.
Q: Can you be more specific?
A: The greatness of Torah is not a subject for a text message.
While these books follow the order of the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch, the table of contents in each book includes additional areas of inquiry: Internet, leisure, Holocaust, Am Yisrael, faith, prophecy and much more. Fielding questions in all these areas with such frequency requires not just great breadth but clarity. The Gemara (Kiddushin 30a) explains that the requirement to learn Torah extends until it is clear-cut in your mouth; you must be able to answer a question in Jewish law without hesitation. Rabbi Aviner’s voluminous output of text message responsa proves that his ability extends even to areas of Jewish thought.
Most Torah subjects are rich with varying opinions. While Rabbi Aviner is among the most tolerant and accepting of rabbis, in this context he generally offers only his own view. On rare occasions, Rabbi Aviner manages to include a dissenting opinion or a note that other views are also valid. Some may criticize him for failing to express more frequently that multiple views exist, but that critique fails to recognize the uniqueness of the medium. Questioners must understand that they are asking only for Rabbi Aviner’s brief ruling, not a survey of the issue.
Benefits and Dangers
We live in an era defined by media professionals. Even rabbis are often controlled by handlers and publicists. Public pronouncements are sometimes issued with forged signatures; halachic rulings are sometimes published in newspapers without rabbis’ knowledge. Rabbi Aviner and the other text message rabbis have shifted the paradigm because, thanks to their use of technology, anyone can easily clarify their views. This level of universal accessibility harks back to the days when Moshe ruled the entire nation before Yitro’s advice to delegate. These rabbis’ radical availability serves an important public service that, to a large degree, bypasses the system of assistants and gatekeepers so common among other rabbis.
Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik (Rav Chaim Brisker) said that just like God is close to all who call to Him (Psalms 145:18), so too a rabbi must be available to everyone without any handlers or intermediaries. Text message availability fulfills this requirement to a degree Rav Soloveitchik could not have imagined. 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 a way most convenient for the questioner.
Apparently, some readers of text message responsa attempt to abuse this public service. They ridicule answers and try to sneak in silly questions to see whether Rabbi Aviner will take them seriously. When you look for something to ridicule, you will always find it. But, as Rabbi Aviner explains, that does not undermine the genre.
Q: Perhaps we should stop answering text message questions since there are people who ask ridiculous questions and it shames the halachah?
A: For every 1,000 serious questions I receive, there is one ridiculous one. It is not correct to punish all the serious people because of a few ridiculous questions.
Technology and Torah
Rabbi Aviner recognizes a simple truth: A new generation has arisen that communicates primarily electronically. If people ask questions of their lawyers and accountants electronically, why not their rabbis? Every rabbi should be available to answer his congregants’ questions via text message.2
I look forward to each new batch of text message responsa, published in Rabbi Aviner’s yeshivah’s journal and on his web site, for their Torah lessons. Both Rabbi Aviner’s conclusions and his concise style are worthy of study. Additionally, his refreshing and bold use of technology is worthy of broader recognition. Indeed, his activity is downright courageous. In this age of new-media cynicism, Rabbi Aviner is surprisingly willing to answer so many questions in writing, to make himself vulnerable to mischief and abuse. He submits himself to an excruciating level of scrutiny and vulnerability to which few would consent—all to make it easier for the smartphone generation to receive answers to their religious questions.
Rabbi Gil Student, a member of the Jewish Action editorial committee, writes frequently on Jewish issues and is the publisher and editor-in-chief of TorahMusings.com.
1. See Rabbi Ya’akov Ariel’s study in his Halacha BeYameinu, p. 19ff.
2. I thank Rabbi Mordy Friedman for pointing this out.