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Hirhurim Blog Celebrates 20th Anniversary: An Interview with Rabbi Gil Student

This week, Hirhurim – one of the very first blogs in the Orthodox Jewish world – will mark its 20th anniversary.  Founded by Rabbi Gil Student, the blog was ranked as the best Jewish religion blog in 2005 by The Jerusalem Post and has attracted a very wide range of readers from all denominations in the Jewish world.

Rabbi Student is the book editor for the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action and serves as a member of its editorial committee.  He has served as the director of the Halacha Commission at the Rabbinical Council of America, and he has also served on the RCA’s executive board.

I had an opportunity to interview Rabbi Student about his blog, in which he reflects on the contributions he has made in the last two decades to Torah learning on the Internet.

Why did you start Hirhurim? What were your main objectives in developing the site?

I started Hirhurim in order to promote and argue in favor of Orthodox halachic positions in contrast to those promoted by non-Orthodox writers. There were non-Orthodox views in the blog space, and I wanted to add an Orthodox view. I found traction in discussing contemporary issues from the perspective of classical halachah and hashkafah, citing relevant sources throughout the generations in an accessible way. All along, I recognized that some readers do not share my yeshiva background, so I tried to write for a broad audience. The blog gained popularity, thanks in no small part to the passionate and educated commenters who joined the conversation. This encouraged me to continue writing, sometimes on current events, sometimes on issues that I think are interesting, all based on detailed sources and arguments. In 2010, I change the name to Torah Musings, but many people still call it Hirhurim, which is a name I chose on a whim. Over the years, some readers got offended by the focus on denominational issues — what is Orthodox and what is not? That was what the blog discussed from day one. Readership included Reform and Conservative rabbis and laypeople who found it interesting to think about what unites us and where we differ. We don’t have to agree with each other, but we all profit from an honest conversation of what we believe. Theology is important and should not be ignored out of fear of insulting people. People respect an honest and sensitive search for truth within a specific religious context. For many, Hirhurim-Torah Musings was a window into the center-right Orthodox world.

What were some of the topics that created the most discussion and controversy? 

Most of the content over the years has not been controversial and addressed issues of contemporary halachah. I remember one post about a new app.  However, what sticks out in people’s mind are the denominational conversations that people take very personally. For example, the debate over Torah and science that began with the ban on Rabbi Nosson Slifkin’s books. People who consider themselves fully Orthodox, even Charedi, were shocked to hear that some of their beliefs are rejected by leading rabbis in the harshest terms. This generated a lot of angst and argumentation. People, myself included, worked through their thoughts and disagreements, justifying these views textually and through consultation with our own rabbis. Personally, I had conversations on these topics with Rav Hershel Schachter, Rav Mordechai Willig, Rav Noach Weinberg, and others. This helped me find my bearings and even calm down from the controversy. When you are comfortable with yourself, you are more able to live and let live by focusing on areas of mutual agreement. Other topics of controversy over the years include women rabbis and more broadly women’s roles in Judaism. Another recurring topic is biblical criticism and the role, if any, it can play in the Orthodox community. While this has been an ongoing conversation as some scholars dip their toes in those forbidden waters, perhaps the most explicit instance was the publication of a book on the subject by a yarmulke-wearing Harvard professor. Additionally, we discussed many halachic controversies as they arose — such as the kosher status of water in New York City and wigs from India, to give two early examples.

As I recall, you only moderated comments on rare occasions and let things flow for the most part. Did you ever have to ban someone for posting inappropriate comments?

I moderated comments more than you might think because I generally did it quickly, before people noticed. It was a real challenge and I consulted with senior rabbis — particularly Rav Aaron Levine — for guidance on the subject. I immediately deleted spam and profanity that I found, often banning the commenter. I also tried to balance the benefit of conversation with the problem of lashon hara. This is never an easy balancing act, and a comments section makes it much harder. When the main attraction is conversation, it is hard to stifle that activity when ambiguous language is used. I was never quite happy with the results but I’m not sure that newspaper editors always do better. Over time, I developed very specific guidelines that Rav Levine reviewed and approved. I published a condensed version of them in Jewish Action magazine.

Who were some of the more well-known rabbis, scholars, and educators who posted regularly on Hirhurim?

 Many commentators used pseudonyms, including rabbis and educators. Some have only told me their true identity years later. The best way to find out who used to comment is to ask the public for those who read or commented on Hirhurim-Torah Musings to step forward and talk about their experiences. Here are a few examples, which necessarily omit so many people worthy of mention: A young Ari Lamm, now a Rabbi Dr., was a frequent commenter. Professor Lawrence Kaplan posted often, as did his brother Joseph. Some stranger named Michael Feldstein posted as well. Steve Brizel became famous because of his blog comments, along with his celebrated Parashah Roundups. Rabbi Natan Slifkin was a frequent commenter. Rabbi Ari Enkin was a frequent contributor of essays to the blog and a frequent commenter, eventually become the blog’s editor. These commenters, and many others, most going by pseudonyms, contributed greatly to very interesting Torah conversations. They offered important sources, interpretations, and perspectives that greatly enhanced the conversation.

Did you ever receive any criticism from the YU roshei yeshiva or other important rabbis who felt that what you were doing was not in the best interests of Orthodoxy?

On occasion, I reached out to some YU roshei yeshiva for guidance. Even though I left YU nearly 30 years ago, I look up to the senior YU roshei yeshiva and take my cues from them. I don’t want to exaggerate my reliance on them because most of what I do is not controversial and completely independent of them. Usually, I would only ask after I received critical comments questioning something I had posted. I remember one time when I stopped by the YU beis midrash and saw Rav Mordechai Willig. I took out my Blackberry to show him a post and ask him about it. He stepped out of the beis midrash and then took my Blackberry, saw what I had posted, and said it was perfectly fine. Certainly, in the early years, the technology and social context was completely foreign to the older roshei yeshiva. Occasionally I asked Rav Daniel Feldman, who is a childhood friend, for his thoughts. I also asked Rav Aaron Levine, who was a bit familiar with the technology. But again, I don’t want to exaggerate their input. In general, I take criticism seriously and ask rabbis I trust for guidance when I think I need it. At one point, I once got a call from Rav Hershel Schachter with specific complaints he heard from students in YU’s Kollel Elyon. I listened and agreed with the criticisms. That phone call was one of the main reasons I converted the blog into a website periodical with an editorial board. Starting in 2013, I had an editorial board consisting of Rav Moshe Schapiro and Rav Basil Herring, who over the years have been excellent sounding boards and have largely protected me from making mistakes that deserve criticism.

How did you come to distribute Rabbi Slifkin’s books?

After the books were banned, Rabbi Slifkin lost his distributors. He self-published the books, and I distributed them in the US. First, I consulted with several rabbis I respected, who told me that they wanted the books available in their communities. After the fact, I asked even higher levels of rabbinic authorities and received enthusiastic support. I don’t want to name names because they were advising me, not making public statements. If they want to take a public stand, they can make that decision on their own. As much as I believed in the cause, I also used this opportunity to try to grow a struggling publishing business. I still occasionally post arguments in favor of some of his main ideas, long after any financial incentive has passed, because I do believe in the cause. Most importantly, over the years many leading rabbis have supported Rabbi Slifkin’s views in subtle ways, expressing the hashkafah in ways that avoid controversy. Every time I see that, I feel vindicated.

Looking back, what do you feel were the main contributions you made with the Hirhurim site?

There is no question that the main contribution of Hirhurim-Torah Musings was the thousands of hours of high-level Torah learning it generated. While essays may have been controversial or ripped-from-the-headlines, they got people thinking seriously about Torah texts from across the generations. They offered access to great Jewish thinkers — Chazal, Rishonim, and Acharonim — in accessible language and contemporary applications. I believe that many readers grew in their appreciation for Torah and their knowledge of Torah. Hirhurim-Torah Musings was intentionally written in a language and style that is comprehensible to people with very limited Torah backgrounds. While the primary audience is yeshiva graduates who have studied Talmud at high levels, it also has readers from across the Jewish spectrum and among non-Jews as well. I know a few Reform rabbis who were regular readers. I once met a Christian activist who seemed to know me well, even though we had never previously met. He told me that he reads Hirhurim-Torah Musings daily. I know of a few other Christian readers.

One of my goals has been to show that ancient Torah texts apply to the problems we face today. I hope that readers absorbed that message. I have been gratified to see that a lot of what we have done on Hirhurim-Torah Musings over the past two decades has become standard fare for rabbis and writers. Many of our approaches and methods are now commonplace in Jewish newspapers and magazines, substacks and podcasts.

Another of my goals has been to promote a center-right Orthodox view, one that appeals equally to the right of Modern Orthodoxy and the left of the Charedi community. I believe these communities have much to learn from each other and benefit from collaboration. Over the past twenty years, I have seen real bridges built between these two worlds and the growth of enormous mutual respect. When I first moved to Brooklyn, I felt tolerated by the Charedi world despite my YU education. Nowadays, the same people welcome a YU graduate who fits into the community and celebrate YU roshei yeshiva.

When did you switch to Daily Reyd? Why did you switch?

When Hirhurim started in 2004, blogs were the big thing, and they continued to grow in prominence and influence. However, all modern technologies have a short lifespan. At first, Twitter was called “micro-blogging” because it was a small phenomenon in comparison to blogs. By 2013, it was clear that most of the interesting conversations had moved to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Blogs had become stale. That, in addition to other factors such as substantive criticism of the blog, convinced me that Hirhurim-Torah Musings had to change if it wanted to stay relevant. So in 2013, I consulted with a large number of writers and readers in order to decide the path forward. I put together an editorial board and converted the website into an online periodical with regular features and editorial oversight. One of the new features introduced at the time is the Daily Reyd, which collects daily links and news items that are important to Jewish leaders. It is hard to predict what will resonate with readers. I was surprised how popular the Daily Reyd has become and how far it travels in leadership circles.

What is your opinion of the online Torah discussions on Facebook and other social media sites, as they compare to what you were doing with Hirhurim? What changes do you see in the online world vis a vis Torah learning and discussion in the future?

At one point, the conversations on Facebook and Twitter seemed like the reincarnation of the Hirhurim comments section. The quality of thought and knowledge was high. However, as what happens to all technologies, Facebook and Twitter seem to have passed their peaks. The conversation has become diluted and stale. The center of gravity seems to have moved to podcasts and short videos on TikTok. Interestingly, the communal conversation has moved away from an open discussion towards a limited, controlled discussion. This indicates to me that perhaps we have grown tired of social media and the chaotic democracy it entails. We want more structure and stability, more calmness. I’m not convinced it is a step forward in quality and creativity. I don’t know what will come next, but I know it will be different. The appetite for debate has decreased and for entertainment has increased. Perhaps we can expect more infotainment in some form or another. Everything is still in its infancy, but perhaps it will enable more creative entertainment that offers a little inspiration and Torah content. I do not see any of this as beneficial to advanced Torah learning.

About the Author
Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford, CT, is the author of "Meet Me in the Middle," a collection of essays on contemporary Jewish life. His articles and letters have appeared in The Jewish Link, The Jewish Week, The Forward, and The Jewish Press. He can be reached at michaelgfeldstein@gmail.com
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