How rabbis decide answers to contemporary questions

Dear Rabbi Fried,

Last week you wrote that, from an Orthodox perspective, a minyan does not count when it is held on an electronic platform. With all due respect and not even a hint of sarcasm I will ask this question. Were the people who made the minyan rulings arriving to the meeting riding a camel or a Tesla?  For my primitive and uneducated way of thinking it is very hard to imagine that God will be more upset with having a full-fledged minyan on an electronic platform versus skipping it


Yuri L. 

Dear Yuri,

Your thinking is not at all primitive, you are asking an excellent question!

Let me begin by explaining the way Orthodox rabbinical authorities approach new questions in Jewish law.

When ruling upon situations that did not exist during the time those laws were codified, it is with the understanding that these laws are timeless — they were not intended only for the times of old when they were given — but for all time. The question becomes how to apply them to the new, unprecedented situation.

The rulings are also not simply a matter of opinion. Emotional factors are not the foundation of the answer, such as, “I feel that God would certainly want this or that.” Rather, the rabbinical authority, with a profound grasp of the law in question understands not only what the law says, but its Talmudic source and depth. It’s with that depth that he approaches the application to the new situation. 

This is what you find in the vast library called “Responsa Literature” in Jewish law. In its untold thousands of letters discussing myriad issues you are struck with the realization that the Torah is not a static, rigid book of law. It is, rather, a living, breathing document constantly being expanded through the minds of Torah sages who adapt the questions of the times to the teachings of Torah. 

In the question we discussed last week, that of an electronic minyan, we cited the Talmudic sources which clearly state that the 10 Jews who form the minyan must physically be in the same room. Although they are interacting through an open window or just outside the doorway, they are still not considered a minyan. From here we derived that, although they may be electronically engaged and the level of engagement may be very advanced, there still are not 10 Jews in the same physical space. 

The required Heavenly presence, the Shechina, is simply not present in the way necessary for the recital of those prayers which require a minyan until 10 men are gathered in the same physical space.

This is not a question of what would “make God more upset.” It is a concrete, scientific question, if you will, in the science of Torah, of what creates a minyan. This is not a question of emotion, but of cold, hard logic based upon the sources. The same Talmudic sages who taught us there is a concept called a minyan have also defined what that minyan consists of. 

The sages who rode the donkeys of old continue to do well with the Teslas of today!

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