Rabbi Gil Student runs a carefully curated website called Torahmusings.com, that reaches approximately 6,000 people each weekday. A Manhattan finance manager by day, Rabbi Student spends his commuting time and evening hours writing, editing and communicating with collaborators, fellow writers, rabbis and other interested intellectuals at a considered pace, with remarkable alacrity. Rabbi Student, a frequent contributor to the Jewish Link who now lives in Brooklyn, grew up in Teaneck and attended the Frisch School and Yeshiva University. He is a member of the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America.
Torah Musings, which began life as the Hirhurim (Musings) blog in 2004, seeks to offer readable summaries of complex halachic issues in the news and explorations of Jewish thought from a Modern Orthodox perspective. The website aspires to be sophisticated, textual and interesting. One of the most popular features is the Daily Reyd, a list of links and news items that Rabbi Student believes will interest community leaders. “I receive a lot of feedback about that from busy rabbis who use the website to keep abreast of goings-on in the community,” Rabbi Student told the Jewish Link.
The site reaches many of the thought leaders in the Orthodox community—rabbis, educators, community leaders and educated laypeople. However, readers come from other backgrounds, as well. “I occasionally receive feedback from Reform and Conservative rabbis and a few Christians,” Rabbi Student said.
In 2013, when Rabbi Student changed the style of his website from a blog to a magazine format, he created an editorial board, with a number of regular contributors and more frequent guest writers. “The website now deals with more issues in a more comprehensive way, but still with the same clarity and accessibility,” said Rabbi Student. “For example, R. Prof. Joshua Berman of Bar Ilan has written extensively about why he rejects what we colloquially call “biblical criticism.” I have someone occasionally translate new essays by Rav Yaakov Ariel, one of the leading Religious Zionist rabbis in Israel. And, personally, I spend more time writing interesting essays on topics that are rarely addressed elsewhere, such as halachic issues of social media and cutting-edge technology,” he said.
Conceived in the age of pop-up ads and Google Adwords, one of the most striking attributes of Torah Musings is the high quality of material with no advertisements or promotional information, except for book-release information. It follows that Rabbi Student does not make money from the website, nor does he seek to. “I’m not interested in popularity. If I want that, I can easily pander to the lowest common denominator with emotionally evocative articles. I see that pandering elsewhere and find it disheartening. I’d rather be unpopular than change my message,” he said.
This past week, Torah Musings hosted the second in a series of symposia of interest to the Orthodox community, this one on Open Orthodoxy. (A previous symposium, in 2011, was on the halachos of brain death, and was extremely well-received, and is still available on the site, for those interested.)
Why would a clearly Orthodox/Modern Orthodox site host a symposium on Open Orthodoxy, one might ask. “We are witnessing a historic creation of a new stream of Judaism. Things are far from clear-cut at this point, but many observers see this happening right now, before our eyes. Open Orthodoxy has its own rabbinic seminaries—one for men and another for women, rabbinic organization and halachic decisors. The group is quickly drifting away from Modern Orthodoxy,” he said.
Rabbi Student, in explaining the decision to dedicate many hours to the project, explained that most of the discussion about Open Orthodoxy has been one-sided, both attacks and defenses. “I’ve done quite a bit of that myself in prior years. But while I think there is room for that kind of rhetorical style, we also need deep analysis that is charitable and nuanced,” he said.
To that end, his goal with the symposium was to explain what both sides believe and evaluate what makes the most sense in terms of truth claims and methodology. “We need to think clearly and carefully about these subjects, and show others our thought process. The essays in this symposiums are attempts to do that on a few topics. There is much to discuss and this is only a modest beginning,” said Rabbi Student.
The online symposium, which ran over four days, included an introduction from Rabbi Student, three presentations of various perspectives on Open Orthodoxy from Zev Eleff, Iran Bedzow and David Bashevkin, and finally a conclusion, or afterword, from Rabbi Menachem Penner, Dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) at Yeshiva University.
The main articles are written by up-and coming scholars with both semicha and PhDs in related fields, “who are well-poised to become the next generation of MO thinkers and leaders,” said Chaim Saiman, a law professor at Villanova University who was asked to share comments on the symposium. While Saiman stated that while one would expect to have seen one-sided arguments, “the articles were all well-researched and written in a balanced, informative style that brought new information and perspectives to the questions at hand,” he said.
Normally, Torah Musings essays are between 1,000 and 2,000 words, but articles in this symposium are much longer, some with more than 100 footnotes. The articles are not intended to be read quickly and then commented upon, as is the style of many websites. “I believe most readers will print out these articles to read later, which is what I prefer. The authors spent a lot of time researching and writing these articles. It is unfair for someone to leave a comment based on a gut reaction after briefly reading or skimming the essays. Absorb the material, think about it and only then add to the discussion,” said Rabbi Student.
Curation of content to prevent knee-jerk reactions, which is a hallmark of Torah Musings, is intended to raise the conversation and improve the tone of discourse. The symposium was carefully curated, not just in the presentation of the material, but in the presentation of reactions. “The website intentionally limits the ability of readers to leave comments. I reject the model of talkbacks, in which anyone can say almost anything. I have always moderated comments carefully...I instituted a policy two years ago in which comments are treated like letters to the editor of a newspaper or magazine. Each is individually reviewed and only approved if it adds substantively to the conversation. Sometimes comments are edited for style or content. Even intelligent readers can react angrily or in a chatty fashion. That is not something I want on Torah Musings,” said Rabbi Student.
When asked how his reactions were to the content of the symposium, Rabbi Student said he expected, and received, some angry responses by people who associate with Open Orthodoxy and take offense at their movement being evaluated. “Those comments do not add substance to the discussion and therefore do not survive moderation on the website. On Facebook, however, there is a more free-flowing conversation. People object that they are not creating a new movement but do not seem to be addressing the arguments of one symposium writer who suggests, based on historical examples, that they are. At most, they are attacking minor details with ambiguities, a typical debating tactic that diverts attention rather than adding to the conversation,” he said.
Asked if Open Orthodoxy is the “top issue” facing Orthodoxy today, Rabbi Student had an interesting answer. “I don’t see this as one of the top three concerns of the Orthodox community but it is still historically significant. In my opinion, the tuition crush and apparent institutional decay is more important today, but will be less important to future generations,” he said.
The symposium can be viewed and printed in its entirety at this link: http://www.torahmusings.com/2015/08/open-orthodox-symposium-pdf-and-links/.
By Elizabeth Kratz