kosher bookworm

Finding meaning in Jewish texts


This is the story of the making of the book, “Search Engine: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts.” I don’t normally talk about myself but I find it hard to refuse a request from my good friend, Alan Jay Gerber.

In 2004, I started a blog on a whim. I saw a Conservative Jew offer a halachic analysis on his blog and decided to start my own with which to argue. I found the experience satisfying and continued writing on issues of halachah and hashkafah. In those days, blogs were cutting edge and contained fascinating arguments in the comments section. Because mine was among the early Jewish blogs, it took off. People kept coming back to discuss Torah.

I tried to vary the topic and style, usually writing at least three original essays a week plus some translation or quotation from a sefer. At the time, the blog was a form of social media and created a community of writers and commenters. As media tried to catch up with technology, they paid attention to blogs, perhaps too much. But in the world of technology, everything is a fad. The era of blogs ended as Twitter and Facebook took off. In recognition of this trend, I turned the blog into an online magazine.

What is the difference between a blog and a magazine? Both feature articles that are posted online. A blog can be prettied up to look like a magazine. The main differences are style, oversight and community. A blog is written casually, often in the first person. It has no editorial staff and emphasizes the conversation between readers. A magazine uses more formal language, has editors to keep the writers in check and emphasizes the writing, not the conversation. The Torah Musings website publishes formal essays, is overseen by an editorial board and limits comments to contributions material to the article’s subject.

My philosophy on writing is that the material has to be short and simple. Even complex issues have to be chopped into small components, each clearly explained. I’m not an original thinker. I popularize other people’s thoughts, particularly under-utilized Rishonim and Acharonim. I believe that halachah is inspiring; it has an underlying hashkafah, a meaning that can be inferred and generalized. When I write about halachah, I try to tease out that hashkafah.

In general, I try to keep safe. I don’t issue new halachic rulings but rather survey what respected authorities have said, pointing out some of the proofs and counterproofs. In hashkafah, I also avoid breaking new ground. That just isn’t my role. Instead, I bring Rishonim and Acharonim to bear on the issues under discussion. Over the past few years, I have been focusing on some great rabbanim of 150 to 200 years ago, like Rav Yaakov Ettlinger (Aruch La-Ner), Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson (Shoel U-Meishiv) and Rav Yosef Zechariah Stern (Zeicher Yehosef). I find their insights brilliant, deeply true and remarkably relevant.

Whenever possible, I use a clever or controversial title to draw readers into taking the time to read a full essay. Some people get offended by this practice but usually they have no experience spending hours writing an article that few people read because the title is boring — or maybe they have too much experience with this and think it is normal. I’ve been told that Torah doesn’t need marketing. They are right but I teach to people and people need marketing in order to pay attention.

I try to be an early adopter of new technology. Not too early, because I can’t keep up. But I experiment with new apps and websites to see whether I can use them to spread my message. I am fairly active on Facebook and Twitter. Instagram doesn’t really work for me because it is about pictures and I focus more on words. I don’t like Snapchat because it deletes things and I want to keep them. I have tried other, newer types of social media, but for now focus on Facebook and Twitter. I don’t use them socially. I keep my personal life off the web, particularly guarding my children’s privacy. I don’t believe it is fair to my children to share their pictures or information. I use social media to share ideas, find articles and useful thoughts, and even test ideas and sensitivities.

In 2010, I published a collection of essays about shul and prayer in a book titled Posts Along the Way. It was supposed to be the first in a series but life got in the way. It required too much editing and revision. However, with the transition to a magazine, the writing quality improved and the editorial process became much easier. A friend pointed out to me how easy it would be to collect articles from the new format. I looked at the articles and realized I had enough for three books so I separated them by topic. Volume 1, on Jewish life, has been published. I am already editing volume 2, which is about Jewish leadership. Then I will work on volume 3, on Jewish thought. All three should be out within a year.

Volume 1 contains essays on timely halachic issues, written in easily accessible style. Some essays deal with current questions (e.g., issues related to Skype), some with future questions (e.g., use of combat exoskeletons on Shabbos), some with theoretical questions (e.g., how halachah should guide super heroes), and some with questions from the past that reflect the long journey from the Talmud to today. Halachah has evolved in one sense, although not as religious radicals may wish. Questions that were once debated have been authoritatively concluded, creating new precedents with which future questions can be addressed. I find this fascinating, and include a few essays on how halachah has evolved (e.g., wearing pocket watches and extinguishing home fires on Shabbos).

In my day job, I work as an actuary. Outside of that, I am the publisher and editor-in-chief of I also write frequently in Jewish newspapers and magazines. I serve on the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, on the editorial board of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine, and as the magazine’s book editor.