Text-Message Halakhah

By Yoel Finkelman
Friday, July 13, 2012

From the ancient moment when the Sages began committing the Oral Torah to writing, through the invention of the printing press, all the way to searchable electronic databases of Jewish texts, each change in communications technology has had an impact on the Torah. So, once SMS (or "short message service") texting became available on everyone's cell phone, it was inevitable: Religious Jews now text their religious questions to their rabbis, and the rabbis text the answers back.

What was not inevitable is that people, as it turns out, are fascinated by reading—in black and white, on old-fashioned, actual physical non-virtual paper—the questions that other people have sent to their rabbis and the answers they’ve received.  Week after week, the most popular column in the free weekly pamphlets distributed in Israeli religious-Zionist synagogues is a printed version of the "best" of the previous week’s "Shut-SMS"—question-and-answer SMS, or text-message responsa.  According to Hebrew University researcher Sivan Leib-Jacobson, some of religious Zionism's most influential rabbis receive some 1,500 questions per week, generally (no surprise) from young people. Editors choose around 50 for publication each week.

The whole thing seems kind of retrograde.  Digital communication has eliminated the need for sloppy, expensive, time-consuming, hard-to-transport pieces of paper.  Yet editors translate the digital back into the material; and busy people who have better things to do with their Friday nights (me, for instance) find themselves eagerly checking out the written word on whether or not one must repeat the entire silent amidah prayer if one suspects that a few words got skipped.

Some questions involve straightforward halakhic technicalities: "Is one allowed to speak between leaving the bathroom and reciting the blessing asher yatzar [which thanks God for the proper functioning of the body]?"  (Answer: "Yes.") People have always asked rabbis these uncomplicated halakhic questions and received uncomplicated answers. They used to do so in face-to-face conversations with people they knew; now, they can do so in cell phone communications with strangers.

Yet these straightforward issues make up only a fraction of the traffic.  More often, the questioning drifts toward religious ideology and worldview, matters that would seem to strain the limits of the medium.  Question: "They say that if high-tech companies do not renew themselves, they die.  Does Judaism 'renew itself'?  Does Jewish law 'renew itself'?"  Now, that's a big-league question.  But R’ Shmuel Eliyahu, the outspoken and controversial chief rabbi of Safed, was up to the task—and didn't even need all of the 160 characters that SMS allows.  "Always," he answered tersely; "Judaism must renew itself."  That doesn't give us much to work with, does it? What the heck does either the question or the answer actually mean?

Plenty of questions get quite personal, at times embarrassingly so: "If I cry when I have problems, does that mean that I don't really have faith that everything God does is for the best?" R' Shlomo Aviner surely gets it right when he says, "There is no problem" with the questioner’s faith, "but you are in pain." Given the anonymity of the whole enterprise and the fact that the rabbi knows nothing about what, in particular, made the questioner cry, this is a caring, empathetic response, though the questioner might also have used a hug, a friend, a shrink—the kind of support that can only be offered in person.  Occasionally, the rabbis lose their temper with their questioners and the cell phone’s space limitations.  One person asked, "How do we know that Moses is a true prophet who was really sent by God?"  And R' Aviner responded, "You think that a text message is enough?  Either you are shallow, or, and this seems more likely, you already have perfect and simple faith."  In either case, this kid needs a longer conversation.  No amount of texting will provide that.

So what's the fascination with this odd genre?  Why do the weeklies spend valuable print space on them, and why do so many readers lap them up?

One factor is technical: Shabbat prohibits turning on our phones, so we’re stuck with print.  The trend might also reflect the shrinking attention span of the Internet generation, which prefers its Torah in 25 words or less. Perhaps these short texts have some of the appeal of a minimalist black-and-white photograph that just hints at an intriguing, complex story beneath.

But there is more.  There is the same voyeuristic fascination with other people’s personal lives that makes online advice columns popular: We get perverse pleasure from spying on other people's problems—while feeling pious, since we are learning Torah.  Some people like watching questioners egg the rabbis on, hoping to ask a provocative question and elicit a controversial answer.  Other readers enjoy the chance to chuckle silently at the rabbis' expense as they naïvely pontificate, in the space of a cell phone screen, on the meaning of history, weighty halakhic disputes, and complex interpersonal and geopolitical events.  ("Question: What will happen if the United Nations declares a Palestinian state?" Answer: "Nothing. The terrorists will continue trying to attack, which they do anyway, and the Eternal of Israel will protect us."  Well, now that we've got that settled . . . .)

But Shut-SMS also provides an opportunity for real-time participation in significant ideological and religious disputes, like the mini-crisis that ensued last year when R' Aviner spent several weeks trying to convince his virtual readers that women must absolutely not study Talmud.

Many families have their own Friday night Shut-SMS rituals. Around our table, we compete for finding the silliest question.  Winner: "Why will we have to go to school during the days of the Messiah?  What's the point?  How will studying math help me in those days?"  (With a question like that, the answer hardly matters.) I know another family in which someone reads the questions aloud at Friday night dinner and tells the family which rabbi responded; the family then has to guess the answer.  It can't honestly be said that Shut-SMS brings great honor to Torah, but, if nothing else, at least someone is having fun with it.

Dr. Yoel Finkelman lives with his wife and five children in Beit Shemesh, Israel. He is the author of Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy.

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