The following question was recently posted to a forum in which I participate. I’ve removed identifying information connected to the scholar who posted the question, his work, and the forum in question. I’m posting the question (the she’elah) so that I can get to my ‘teshuvah’:
We know that…Rabbi…invented a method of teaching young talmidei hakhamim how to compose a teshuva, and that this method was brought to Israel and is taught in Yeshivat…. But writing of responsa has been going on for over a millennium. Obviously, hundreds of scholars throughout the diaspora over the generations somehow acquired the skill of composing teshuvot. How did they acquire it? Mainly by trial-and-error? Or was this skill taught – and if so, how was this done, in various places and times over the centuries?
And here’s my answer:
Interesting question that gets to the heart of responsa as a literary genre. Responsa are generally written from one rabbi to another, or at least among people who were learned enough to assess the persuasiveness of the responsum and who already had a sense of the stature of the rabbi to whom they sent their query. Thus, a central feature of the genre, at least in its modern iterations, is that its goals are to persuade through argumentation and to convey or reinforce the expertise and thus the authority of the writer. If the skill of responsa-writing could be duplicated so that it would be impossible, from the product itself, to tell the experts from sub-experts, it would only be a matter of time before the true virtuosos find a new way to express their expertise. This would mitigate against the success of any attempt to standardize the training of responsa-writers, though there are certainly salient features of the genre (e.g., the deployment of honorifics to the respondent, self-deprecation, complaint of preoccupation with other matters, etc.) that can perhaps be taught.
A related question concerns the reception of responsa. Does the skill acquired in a program such as the one described translate into trust on the part of the audience? Of what value (other than forgery and parody) is the skill of responsa-writing when no one is asking?
Ultimately, I believe that the skill was developed through “shimush” – the apprenticing of young scholars under elder scholars. We know that the Geonim had others draft their responsa. Mordechai Akiva Friedman has shown from Genizah documents that secretaries often developed the shorthand of scholars and judges into full responsa, and Tamara Morsel-Eisenberg has written on how responsa and responsa-writing were used within circles of students in early modern Poland.
I would add an important exception to the above: the women who respond to questions for the Nishmat website. They are indeed trained not only in the relevant material, but are taught how to formulate answers with a specific manner and tone. It is worthwhile to look at their site (or at the collection of their responsa that have been published in Hebrew and English).