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I sometimes write answers and deliberately leave them somewhat vague/open-ended. I do this because at times I feel that by being more specific it actually diminishes the value of the answer. If the answer is just a quote from somewhere in Rabbinic Literature (with a translation or summary so that it is understandable to English speakers) it gives the reader the ability to determine how to use it to answer the question. If I, in the answer, directly state how exactly the quote answers the question it then limits the answer to the specific interpretation that I stated. There might also be times when I'm not sure exactly how it answers the question, yet I still know that it is relevant.

So, is it ever valid to write such an answer and allow the readers to decide how it answers the question, or should I always put as much information into the answer as possible even if it might then limit the scope of the answer.

There are several examples of such answers that come to mind, such as this, this, this, this, and this. Most of these types of answers generate comments stating that the answer does not answer the question, or asking for further clarification as to how it answers the question. I often respond with more information in the comments, and sometimes feel pressured to edit the clarifications into the answer, even when I fell that it hurts the answer.

For the record, in the above examples three of the answers have positive scores, one has a neutral score, and one has a negative score, indicating that at least some people find them useful.

So what do people think is the best way to answer questions?

Note, I am not looking for discussions about the particular examples. I am asking about the general concept, and those just happen to be some of the cases where this happened.

  • I don't see that the answers you link to are similar to one another in terms of the property you describe. yodeya.com/a/88315 & yodeya.com/a/90166 are quotes that claim to answer the Qs asked. yodeya.com/a/89607 is quotes that you claim answer the Q but that don't claim to do so themselves. The former is a valid answer IMO and the latter not. Then yodeya.com/a/89881 is not merely quotes at all but includes an explanation of how those quotes imply an answer so is if anything even more valid. I'm commenting not answering because I'm not sure what sorta answer you mean to ask about here. – msh210 Mar 7 '18 at 5:00
  • @msh210 They aren't necessarily similar to each other in the way that they generate my quandary; the common denominator is that these are all answers, where I deliberately did not elaborate because I felt that providing too much of an explanation weakens the answer. In one case it was because I didn't fully understand the answer myself (but it is still an answer because the quote claims to answer the question), while in other cases it was because I didn't want to limit the quotes to a narrow interpretation. In the Haggada case my whole point was to avoid presenting it as a direct answer. – Alex Mar 7 '18 at 5:13
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I don't really understand the problem. Certainly you should include information about how that source answers a question in an answer! Not everyone is as adept as you are at figuring out in what way your source does address the question and what its deficiencies are. It may be noble to want to think that if it's obvious to you it will be obvious to everyone else, but the fact is not everyone regularly thinks about things all that logically.

You are concerned that including your interpretation may be limiting by anchoring readers to your interpretation. That may be so, but you can work to prevent it by prefacing any interpretation with a basis ("It seems to me" "The footnote there suggests" "My teacher suggested" etc.) or explicitly hedging ("this might mean" "but CYLOR for a final ruling" etc.).

You are concerned that sometimes you don't know how your source answers the question. In that case, do not post it as an answer. Leave a comment that says "This source may be relevant" and let someone else put it all together. Answer posts are for answers.

Ambiguous answers are dangerous since people can easily gloss over a lengthy source and misunderstand which position exactly it supports. The fact that questions are often posed multiple ways compounds this when working with an ambiguous summary ("Is it permitted because of X? Maybe not?" "This source agrees with you: ") Since our approval system is based on random people voting, it's imperative that we ensure they all are voting on the same thing.

Too much information in an answer is only a downside if it affects interpretability of the post. That you should have such a problem is exceedingly rare and can usually be solved with a "TLDR" section or some editing and/or peer-review (as with any written composition).

  • Regarding your third paragraph, I think it can still be considered an answer. Take my example of the Rambam about marrying the rapist. It is clear that the Rambam is providing an answer to the question, so quoting the Rambam's words is an answer. The fact that I can't quite explain exactly what the Rambam means (see the comments there) doesn't mean that it no longer answers the question. – Alex Mar 8 '18 at 5:46
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Both/and.

A good answer both answers the question that was asked and provides support in the form of quotes with citations. Bringing sources as you've done is very important and often the larger piece of the work, so please also add the part that addresses the question. Remember that askers come here from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of skill levels; do give them the raw material, but also give them the conclusion.

The very best answers go beyond the specific question and teach a broader principle that readers can then apply to other, related questions. I've learned a lot from answers that addressed things I didn't ask about directly. If you are concerned about being too specific, consider this approach. Here's one example of this approach.

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