Sunday, September 12, 2010

Portrait of a Gadol

When I was a sophomore in high school (1961-62), I had an opportunity to personally meet Rav Moshe Feinstein (pictured here with Menachem Begin). That took place in my ‘home town’ of Toledo, Ohio. My earliest memories of life are from that small city. That city did not contain even a Minyan of observant Jews – although it boasted 3 Orthodox Shuls - each with a Kosher Mechitza.

My father was the Chazan, Baal Koreh, and Gabbai in one of them. He was seen as the defacto Rabbi of his Shul by its members even though he was not ordained. There was only one Orthodox rabbi in Toledo, Rabbi Nehemiah Katz . Although officially the Rav of one Shul - he rotated as Rabbi among the 3 of them.

What was Rav Moshe doing in Toledo? He used to often visit Rabbi Katz who was his brother in law. Rav Moshe’s wife was Rabbi Katz’s sister. It was Rabbi Katz who facilitated R’ Moshe’s immigration to America.

My meeting with Rav Moshe was a brief one. I was home from Telshe Yeshiva for Shabbos Chanukah and my father and I walked over to visit R’ Moshe that Friday night after the Seudah (Shabbos meal). R’ Moshe asked what Yeshiva I was learning in and what I was learning. After I answered him he wished me much success in my studies. That is what I remember of the meeting in Rabbi Katz’s kitchen.

I consider that one of my prized memories. How many people at age 15 get to meet - one on one - with a man who was already then considered the Posek HaDor by vast numbers of Jews and shortly thereafter (upon the death of Rav Ahron Kotler) became the Gadol Hador to hundreds of thousands of Jews all over the world.

This memory came to mind as I read an article in the Yeshiva University (YU) student publication Kol Hamevaser. It was a superb interview by Shaul Seidler-Feller of Rav Moshe’s son in law, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler. I would urge everyone to read it in its entirety. Among the variety of topics he discusses - a huge portion of the interview is dedicated his father in law, Rav Moshe Feinstein.

It is an eye opener. Or it least it should be to those who have been weaned on ArtScroll type biographies. I am not personally surprised by what Rabbi Tendler said about Rav Moshe. A little over 20 years ago Rabbi Tendler was the ‘Scholar in Residence’ at an HTC (Skokie Yeshiva) Shabbaton. At the Melave Malke he was asked to speak about his father in law and said many of the things then he did in this interview - adding some things now.

The picture he painted of R’ Moshe is the way I have always imagined true Gedolim to be. They were as human as they were spiritual. They were not saints born holy from the womb. They were simply human beings who accomplished great things.

What was R’ Moshe really like? Was he all Torah all the time? - 24/7/365? The answer is yes, of course he was. But not in the way many people now define it thanks to revisionist attitudes that have gained currency in the Yeshiva world.

For example Rav Moshe enjoyed reading Yiddish newspapers like ‘Der Tag’ so as to know what was going on in the world. He enjoyed lively conversation with his peers that did not necessarily contain words of Torah. He enjoyed ‘escaping’ to Toledo to visit his brother in law even though it meant spending Shabbos in a city and a Shul without a Minyan of observant Jews. A Shul that had a low but Kosher Mechitza that would be a shunned – even boycotted by many of today’s rabbinic leaders. He Paskined Halacha the way he saw it, based on Emes, not Frumkeit.

Here are some eye opening excerpts about one of the greatest religious figures of the 20th century by Rav Moshe Tendler – a man who was closer to him than most anyone alive today.

My shver (father in law) was uniquely sensitive to society. Despite what they write in all the books about him, my shver never failed to read the Yiddish newspaper – either the Tog in the early years or the Morgn-Zhurnal later on – cover-to-cover every single day. People publish that he would walk down the street and avert his eyes when he passed by newspaper stands.

There are a thousand talmidim of his who will testify, “I bought the paper and handed it to him in the lunchroom in the yeshivah,” but it does not make a difference for some people – they do not want to hear that. Even when he was not well and the doctor insisted that he must lie down to sleep for an hour, he would go home, put on a bathrobe, and smuggle a newspaper into the bedroom so that his wife would not see it. He sat there reading the whole time, rather than sleeping.

I used to ask him, “Why do you read this chazeray (junk)?” He would respond to me, “Dos iz mayn vinde” – this is my window [to the world]. He understood society and his piskei Halachah show that. He used to say, “People think that because I’m aware of society, I became a meikel (lenient decisor). What do they want me to do – paskin incorrectly? I’m not a meikel – I paskn the way it has to be. The Halachah takes into account societal factors.” This willingness to be exposed to society made his teshuvos more meaningful and more acceptable.

What do you feel about the nature of pesak in the U.S. since R. Moshe’s passing in 1986?

If he were alive, it could not happen. Pesak today is unrelated to Halachah and is instead completely dominated by societal factors. There is an agenda that has to be maintained. For instance, my grandchildren go to Bais Yaakov schools. The rabbanim in Bais Yaakov ruled this year that no father could attend graduation. A few years ago, they ruled that only fathers and brothers could attend – no strangers. Already for several years, the girls’ valedictorian has been reading her speech behind a screen. That kind of shtik would never go if my shver were around.

What has happened? Chasidic communities, in which, if I may put it bluntly, lomdus (learning) is not looked upon as an asset, began exerting significant influence on schools and institutions. As a result, frumkayt – whatever that means – has displaced Halachah. People are trying to recreate something that never was. But that is not the proper way. Halachah has to be dominant; if it is not, everything will go.

At my shver’s children’s weddings, families sat together, husbands sat with wives. Have you every heard of such a thing – that a husband and wife come to a wedding and the husband sits in one place and the wife in another?

Was it that way in Europe? My shver had only one hang-up that I know about: she-lo lehotsi la’az al ha-rishonim (not to give earlier generations a bad name). You think you are frumer than the last generation? They were the shkotsim (non-Jews) and you are the frum people? That attitude bothered him to no end. Respect for tradition includes an awareness that earlier generations of Jews knew what they were doing and how to practice properly. My shver upheld societal tradition in that way as much as possible.

There is so much in this interview. It should be read by every single Ben Torah. Unfortunately it probably won’t be. YU is Pasul/Treif to most of them. Frumkeit has supplanted Emes among many of the Bnei Torah today. That is the fault of the Chinuch they get. Many if not most have been indoctrinated to hate YU.

Rabbi Tendler has become a target of their vitriol of late because of his strong opposition and campaign to ban Metzitza B’Peh – a ancient but controversial component of a Bris Milah -ritual circumcision. He considers it a matter of Pkuach Nefesh and not essential to the Mitzvah. That doesn’t matter to his detractors. He is now completely vilified by the Yeshiva world. But his detractors are wrong.

Rabbi Tendler is an honorable man - a great man. He is the man R’ Moshe came to for information about the human body when it related to his Teshuvos (responsa). He should therefore have complete Ne’emanus (trust in his words) by those who claim Rav Moshe as their own.

Rabbi Tendler has a unique perspective on the truth of history and it is my hope that the true history of the previous generation of Gedolim is not overwhelmed by the hagiography that passes for biography coming out today. In my view it contributes to Frumkiet instead of Yiddishkeit – Sheker rather than Emes. And Emes (not Sheker - no matter how Frum the motive) - is what Torah is all about.