A new variety of She’eilot UTeshuvot (rabbinic responsa) have appeared in recent years, primarily from leading figures in the Religious Zionist community in Israel. Rav Shlomo Aviner, the Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim (formerly known as Ateret Cohanim), the Rav of Beit El and leading rabbinic figure in that community, recently published a work in English entitled Short & Sweet, a collection of some of Rav Aviner’s text message responsa. The jacket of the book states that Rav Aviner receives more than two hundred text message questions on an average day, five hundred before a Yom Tov, and eight hundred a day during times of war (Rachmana Litzlan). Rav Aviner responds to almost all of the questions with a very short and pithy response. While there are many very positive aspects to this innovative work, I find some of the responsa somewhat troubling, as we shall discuss.
Positive Aspects – Moderation in Inter-Jewish relations
The most impressive aspect of these Teshuvot is the breadth of topics that are covered. Rav Aviner deals with most Halachic areas and reveals a fine mastery of the basic corpus of the Halachic literature. Moreover, Rav Aviner does not shy from responding to even the most controversial of Hashkafic (Jewish worldview) questions. Thus, he does not leave questioners like “sheep without a shepherd” (see BeMidbar 27:17).
Most important, Rav Aviner expresses a moderate approach to some major Hashkafic questions such as relationships amongst the disagreeing sections of our people. For example, when he was asked, “How should we relate to extreme left-wing Jews who speak with the enemies of Israel?” he responded, “As people who are confused.” A similar question was, “Are the people in the group “Peace Now” considered traitors?” He responded, “They are considered confused.” Finally, he was asked, “Is it permissible to curse the extreme Left in Israel?” His response: “God Forbid!”
Rav Aviner applies the same approach to religious differences amongst our people. He was asked whether it is permissible to count someone from Neturei Karta in a Minyan, to which he answered, “Yes. Do not excommunicate people.” To the question, “How should we relate to the Satmar Rebbe and HaRav Elchanan Wasserman, who scorned Maran HaRav Kook?” He answered, “They erred severely in this area, but we are still obligated to honor them.” When asked why Chareidim do not serve in Tzahal, he wrote, “They are good and righteous people, but they err in this area.” Most poignantly, Rav Aviner shows great sensitivity in the following exchange:
Question: I became religious and am Chareidi. My sister became religious and is a Religious Zionist. This causes us to fight all the time. How do we reach some level of agreement?
Answer: Difference of opinion is permissible, but division of hearts is forbidden. You should know that what you share is much greater than what separates you.
Rav Aviner is most certainly an ardent Religious Zionist. He asserts, “Baruch Hashem, the Redemption began 130 years ago with the Return to Zion, the building of the Land, the establishment of the State and the return of the Torah to Eretz Yisrael…The greatest unity is found in Tzahal with the self-sacrifice of one for another.” Rav Aviner serves as a refreshing example of being passionate about one’s approach to Torah, yet retaining the love of those Jews with whom he does not agree.
Positive Aspects – Moderation in Jewish-Arab interactions
One need not question Rav Aviner’s commitment to developing the Jewish communities in what is called the West Bank, considering his long tenure as Rav of a “West Bank” community and his service as the head of a Yeshivah located in the Moslem quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. Nonetheless, he presents reasonable approaches to issues regarding relating to Arabs who identify themselves as Palestinians.
Here are three examples:
Question: How should we relate to an Arab who is definitely free of sin?
Answer: Do not hate. Treat with politeness, respect and humanity.
Question: How do we solve the problem of the Arabs in Israel?
Answer: We need to strengthen our own conviction that this is our Land. Then the Arabs will make their own decisions. The loyal citizens will remain and the rest will leave.
Question: Should individuals take revenge against the terrorists by attacking the Arabs?
Answer: No. We should not attack Arab B for an offense committed by Arab A. And even Arab A should be dealt with only by Tzahal, who is authorized by the Nation to wage war.
Many Responsible and Sensitive Responses to Human Dilemmas
Rav Aviner presents some clever, responsible, and sensitive responses to many questions. The following are four examples:
Question: I soaked a Book of Tehillim belonging to a hospital with my tears. Do I have to pay?
Answer: No, this is its use (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 340:1).
Question: Our debt continues to grow. Is there a Segulah to reverse this trend?
Answer: Certainly. You should spend less than you bring in and not rely on the miracle of overcoming the rules of mathematics. The Tur wrote that one should limit his expenses. And the Mishnah Berurah (Biur Halachah chapter 529) wrote that this is a harsh criticism against those who are enticed to spend money on luxuries without seeing the consequences, which will lead to theft and disgrace in the end.
Question: Should I wake my wife so I can go and daven with a Minyan so she can watch the children?
Answer: Only if this was agreed upon together beforehand.
Question: I am 15 years old and want to visit Ma’arat Ha Machpeilah but my parents do not allow it because of the security situation. Is it permissible for them to pressure them or should I just relent?
Answer: Try to convince them. If it is not possible, then go beyond the letter of the law and relent.
Indeed, Rav Aviner has excellent responses to many of the questions posed to him. However, some of his responses raise some concerns. These concerns are based on the limitations of text responsa and responding to people with whom a Rav does not have a personal relationship. One question read, “My family wants me to participate in a barbeque but I want to study Torah.” He responded, “In this matter, learning Torah is greater than honoring father and mother (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 240:25).” While in theory, Rav Aviner is correct that parents are not to be obeyed when they instruct their children to refrain from fulfilling a Mitzvah, in practice, the matter is not that clear-cut. Rav Aviner does not seem to know the questioner or be aware if there are any special circumstances surrounding the situation. Nor did he ask the parents for their perspective on the matter. Perhaps the barbeque was to celebrate a special milestone of grandparents and the absence of the grandchild could prove hurtful. Perhaps the event was designed to bring peace to a family coping with conflict. Perhaps it was intended to encourage a sick individual in his or her struggle with a difficult disease.
A more alarming situation is presented in the following case:
Question: I want to marry an Ethiopian man but my parents are opposed. They told me that they will not help pay for the wedding and will not attend. Am I obligated to obey my parents because of the Mitzvah of honoring father and mother?
Answer: No. You decide. There is no obligation to honor parents in order to perform a transgression – like baseless hatred (Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 240:14-15).
This response raises concerns. The very fact that a life altering issue is deal with in a text message exchange that probably lasts less than a minute is most troubling! Moreover, the Torah obligates rabbis to hear both sides of a dispute (see Devarim 1:16 and Sanhedrin 7b). One cannot issue a ruling about such a serious matter without hearing the parent’s perspective. Perhaps the parents have legitimate reservations about the young man, and the woman mistakenly misattributes racist motivations to her parents.
The following exchange is also problematic. Rav Aviner was asked, “Is it permissible for a son to summon the police if his father is hitting his mother? He responded, “Yes, but he should make sure beforehand that his mother will not deny it.” Such a troubling situation demands the involvement of a local competent Rav and a social worker to insure the safety and well-being of all involved. A brief text response serves a role in this instance but cannot bring the necessary healing so desperately needed. Only a competent professional devoting personal attention to this situation can bring hope to such horrific circumstances.
Rav Aviner presumably responds to complete strangers because he assumes the option of consulting a local Rav does not exist for those texting him the questions. While a very brief response is sometimes better than no response, there is no substitute for a relationship with a local Rav. Text Teshuvot are often effective for relatively simple and straightforward situations. Moreover, there is an advantage to having instant access to a leading Halachic authority. However, even a Gadol HaDor cannot properly resolve many complex situations in a thirty second exchange. Chazal’s dictum of “Aseih Lecha Rav” (Avot 1:6) refers to a Rav with whom one has a relationship. This cannot be replaced by texting, even to a Rav of great stature.