For over a decade, Rabbi Gidon Rothstein has been on a quest to objectively determine what constitutes the core of Judaism. This is no mere theoretical exercise, but an attempt to judge whether the Jewish community today is focused on the right priorities. If we find that the essence of Judaism is something often overlooked or treated as secondary, we can readjust our sights and reallocate our resources.
Rabbi Rothstein’s first attempt was in his book, We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It (OU Press, 2012), in which he analyzed the Biblical mitzvot. His latest attempt focuses on the responsa literature, the published letters of leading rabbis answering questions posed to them. On what issues do the posekim (halachic authorities) focus in their responsa? Rabbi Rothstein tried to collect a relatively random sample of responsa from a broad selection of posekim by choosing responsa based on the day of the year. In a project fittingly called “A Responsum a Day,” he taught the topic of a responsum written on that day of the year (these classes were hosted on my Torah Musings website and on OU Torah). He then classified each responsum and analyzed the collective data of the set, searching for the main topics, which presumably consist of the most important parts of Judaism. What he found surprised him.
In his first sample of 384 responsa, Rabbi Rothstein found that the three main issues discussed were marriage, money, and relationships with gentiles. He then took another random sample and found the same issues emphasized, along with Shabbat and holidays. If these represent the most important parts of Judaism, then we should ask ourselves—individually and as a community—how we are doing in following the Torah’s guidance on those issues.
While I greatly enjoyed Rabbi Rothstein’s exploration, I question whether he really found what he was looking for. He mentions many methodological concerns with his approach—e.g., how to choose authors and responsa, which he handles in a variety of ways. He used responsa from, for example, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Moshe Schreiber (the Chatam Sofer), who are obvious candidates, but at some point, he had to make subjective decisions on whom to include. However, at its very essence, I suspect what we are looking at is not the emphasis of the respondents but of those to whom they are responding. Generally speaking, rabbis write responsa when asked questions. They do not choose their topics; their communities, their correspondents and the times in which they live all influence the choice of the topics. If rabbis write a lot of responsa about divorces, for example, it is not necessarily because they find the subject important, but rather because either there are a lot of people getting divorced or there are unique circumstances that raise complicated questions.
In his fascinating investigation, Rabbi Rothstein found the Judaism of the people who care about what posekim have to say, not necessarily the Judaism of the posekim. But that in itself tells us so much about the lives of Torah-observant Jews, the challenges they face, and the guidance they need. As people who likewise care about what posekim have to say, perhaps this is our Judaism. Regardless of any conclusion that can be drawn from the exercise, Rabbi Rothstein offers a delightful view from a mile high of the responsa literature and its broad themes throughout the ages.