The Responsa Tradition
In times past, the Jews often sought guidance from their rabbi on matters of everyday life, ritual, and tradition. When local rabbis faced difficult issues in applying Jewish law to specific circumstances, they often wrote to the most respected rabbis to seek guidance. These queries included the particulars of each matter, references to the applicable Talmudic passages involved, and the rabbi's own interpretation.
In turn, an answer would be forthcoming from the rabbi whose opinion had been sought. His response would include the basis for his conclusion and a reasoned argument to substantiate it. Over the years, these responsa (Teshuvot) were collected into printed volumes, providing even more material to be read and studied.
The tradition of writing responsa continues in contemporary times. A number of rabbis have even issued responsa on matters pertaining to modern technology. Consider the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who wrote responsa on such topics as the permissibility of cosmetic surgery, how to make dishwashers kosher, and artificial insemination. No doubt the practice of issuing responsa will continue as Judaism faces even more complex issues, such as DNA cloning.