Thursday, September 30, 2021

Rav Moshe Tendler, ZTL

R' Moshe Tendler, ZTL (Jewish Press)
I’m sorry to report the passing of a giant of the Torah world. Rav Moshe Tendler passed away on Tuesday, September 28th  (Shemini Atzeres).

I had the Zechus to meet Rabbi Tendler a few times on various occasions, but never had the opportunity to discuss the issues he became famous for. Many years ago he was a scholar in residence at HTC. I was chairman of the Melave Malka that weekend where he spoke about the relationship he had with his illustrious father in law, Rav Moshe Feinstein, ZTL. Which in my view is one of the things that made R’ Moshe the Posek Hador.

As Rabbi Tendler then noted - a lot of Poskim of that time issued Halachic rulings in what I would call a ‘shoot from the hip’ fashion. Although those Poskim were well educated in matters of Halacha, they would often rule on matters about which they had incomplete knowledge of their inherent physical nature. They just assumed they knew all there is to know abut it it.  And as a result issued an erroneous Halachic rulings. 

This was not the case with R’ Moshe. Very few people had his encyclopedic knowledge of Torah. However, R’ Moshe knew that this wasn’t enough. As a man of impeccable intellectual honesty, R’ Moshe knew that his knowledge about the physical nature of the subject at hand was limited. He therefore never issued a Halachic ruling until he clearly understood exactly what it was. (Let me hasten to add that that were other Poskim that also did their due diligence. They did not shoot from the hip. But there were a lot that did not.) 

R’ Moshe did not hesitate to consult with an expert about the exact physical nature of the issue at hand. Most often that expert was his son in law, Rabbi Tendler. Especially in matters of human biology. Rabbi Tendler was an expert in these matters having earned a PhD in microbiology from Columbia University.

As the Jewish Press points out in their own obituary this relationship resulted in one of R’ Moshe’s most controversial rulings. A ruling that (if I understand correctly) was rejected by most other Poskim:

The most controversial ruling by Rabbi Feinstein Zt’l, the one that stands out to this day concerns brain death and the allowance to remove a beating heart from a patient whose brain death was verified, for a transplant to another patient.

The reason it was controversial is because – until brain death – the way death was determined was by the cessation of breathing or the cessation of a beating heart. That was also the way Chazal determined death. The condition of the brain was never considered to be a factor by Chazal. But after Rabbi Tendler educated R’ Moshe about the exact nature of brain death and how it was determined, R’ Moshe reasoned the following: 

In my humble opinion, it seems that a patient who needs a transplant in the United States may not be committing murder (by benefiting from a heart transplant – DI) because according to Rabbi Tendler’s description, the donor receives a radioactive injection … to see if the bloodstream reaches the brain … And if the doctors really do that, my humble opinion is that this would depend on the results, since if it turns out that there is no brain at all…

 Therefore, I think that if the doctors maintain and make the above injections, it seems to the above-mentioned patient is considered as if he has been decapitated, or he is like an old man whose neck was broken, who is considered dead even when most of his flesh is intact.”

Unfortunately Rabbi Tendler had his share of critics. Some of which vilified him!  I can’t say for sure, but I think the reason for that was a combination of factors beginning with his association with Yeshiva University from which he received his Semicha. And that he straddled both sides of the Torah/Science divide with great proficiency: 

He served as a senior Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s RIETS and the Rabbi Isaac and Bella Tendler Professor of Jewish Medical Ethics and Professor of Biology at Yeshiva College.

Those critics simply did not trust him. Making matters worse was their belief that he misled his father in law to accept brain death as a determining factor in an individual’s death. Nor were they pleased with his strong opposition to Metzitza B’Peh because of the dangers of a herpes infection being transferred to the baby from an asymptomatic Mohel during circumcision. Rabbi Tendler strongly condemned the practice suggesting instead that the procedure could be accomplished a lot more safely by using a pipette instead of direct contact by the mouth. 

Rabbi Tendler was a pioneer - a revolutionary even - considering the strong opposition he had. But he always stood his ground. I don’t know how all that criticism affected him. But it could not have been pleasant. He exposed and publicized the ignorance of many Poskim resulting in their erroneous rulings. Hopefuly that exposure has caused a lot more of them these days to actually do the research necessary before Paskening. 

May his memory be a blessing.