Search Engine: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts

By Gil Student
Kodesh Press   |   New York, 2018
397 pages
Reviewed by Aryeh Lebowitz

Rabbi Gil Student has spent almost fifteen years articulating the finer points of our magnificent mesorah to the broader public in a sensible way. His Torah Musings blog/web site is a place where rabbis and intellectually inclined lay people can turn to find a nuanced and reasonable approach to both hot-button cultural issues and classic Jewish law and thought. [Full disclosure: Rabbi Student serves as book editor of Jewish Action.]

When approached to review Search Engine, Rabbi Student’s new compilation of essays in book form, I hesitated for two reasons. First, I was concerned that the adaption of blog posts to print would seem forced and unnatural. Second, I was concerned that the book would not showcase Rabbi Student’s most important contribution to Jewish scholarship by focusing solely on halachah, and not on broader societal issues or issues of Jewish thought—areas that truly distinguish his online writings.

Rabbi Student addressed my second concern on the very first page of his introduction, by informing us that “the next two projected volumes, already in draft form, address other issues. Tentatively, the next volume will be about Jewish leadership and the subsequent volume about Jewish thought.” Essentially, the best is yet to come.

As for my first concern, I have always been skeptical of attempts to cross over mediums. What works in one format doesn’t always work in another. Some of the greatest shiurim simply don’t translate well when put into print, and some of the most brilliant essays ever printed will fail to engage an audience when presented orally. So I was skeptical of the idea of taking blog posts, brilliant and thoughtful as they may be, and printing them in book form.

I was gratified to discover, however, that in this case, the adaption into print form actually enhanced the reading experience. When reading articles online we rarely finish them before being distracted by an incoming e-mail or another article of interest that appears on the margin of the screen (and is only one click away). These online distractions leave us with many half-read articles and knowledge of the existence of a discussion, but without any knowledge of its content. At other times, we begin to research a topic, only to be deterred by the overwhelming amount of material available and our inability to process it all.

In book form, however, Rabbi Student has managed to capture our attention in a way that brings the reader in and keeps him there until the end. Ever cognizant of the modern shrinking attention span, Rabbi Student expertly balances clear and thorough presentations with brevity.

Rabbi Student displays an uncanny ability to explain Orthodoxy in a way that makes sense to readers, regardless of their background or level of Jewish education.

While there are many books on Jewish law available in English, Rabbi Student has made a contribution in this area that is unique in two ways:

First, Rabbi Student doesn’t just write; he speaks to us and to our lives. In one essay (p. 254) Rabbi Student discusses the halachic obligation to tell the truth and the common tendency to claim to be unavailable or away from home in order to avoid an unwanted meeting. He addresses the issue by providing relevant classical sources and anecdotes of Torah giants that help us to properly navigate these potentially uncomfortable situations.

When dealing with areas of halachah in which the average observant Jew has no experience, such as the intriguing question of whether a convert must immerse all of his or her utensils after the conversion is completed, Rabbi Student not only cites the relevant halachic opinions, he also informs us of the common practice in our community—which we may be unable to ascertain on our own.

Second, Rabbi Student displays an uncanny ability to explain Orthodoxy in a way that makes sense to readers, regardless of their background or level of Jewish education. Certainly, one must be intelligent to appreciate Rabbi Student’s writings, but one need not be a talmid chacham.

It is rare to find a genuine talmid chacham such as Rabbi Student who is sufficiently familiar with academic sources and quotes from them freely while maintaining an absolutely traditional approach that remains loyal to our mesorah.

Rabbi Student takes on issues that can seem challenging to our modern sensibilities, such as the recitation of “Shefoch chamatcha” at the Seder, without engaging in apologetics or using forced explanations. Simply revealing the basis for each practice in clear and reasonable language helps to reveal the complexity and profundity of our Torah.

At other times, Rabbi Student explains what seem like the most mundane and unimportant practices (e.g., using the refrain “bli neder”; whom to pass challah to first at the Shabbat table) revealing layers of depth. Our great rebbe and OU Kosher Posek Rabbi Hershel Schachter, shlita, often tells his students how Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik would spend hours explaining each seemingly trivial minhag Yisrael, and in so doing revealed the beauty of halachah that had previously remained hidden. Rabbi Student does a similar service, providing context and meaning to ordinary, everyday practices.

If you are looking for a book that will provide you with an encyclopedic presentation of the topic at hand, Search Engine will not satisfy that need. If you are looking for a book that will provide a detailed analysis to fill an hour-long chavruta on a topic or to use as a basis for a lengthy lecture, this book is similarly not going to satisfy that need (though it is a good place to start if you can use the footnotes for further research, or if you’ve done research and would like a supplemental anecdote or opinion). However, if your interest is in finding a book that you can pick up for five to seven minutes and walk away having learned something new and interesting, or a book that can provide fodder for riveting conversation while providing clear direction on the Torah perspective, you need not consult any other search engine, because Search Engine is your perfect fit.

Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz serves as the mara d’atra of Beis Haknesses of North Woodmere in New York and senior maggid shiur at Beis Medrash L’Talmud-Lander College for Men, Touro College.

This article was featured in the Summer 2018 issue of Jewish Action.
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