This Day in Jewish History / Birth of an Orthodox Rabbi Who Let the 20th Century In

Can a man sit next to, and in direct contact with, a woman on the subway? How about drinking milk produced on a Gentile American farm? Asked, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein would answer.

March 3, 1895, is the birth date of Moshe Feinstein, the Orthodox rabbi widely recognized as one of the great rabbinic decisors of the 20th century.

Moshe Feinstein was born and raised in Uzda, near Minsk, Russia (today Belarus), the son of the town’s rabbi, David Feinstein. He studied with his father until the age of bar mitzvah, after which he was sent to a series of yeshivot in other Belarusian towns before becoming the rabbi of Luban, a position he held for 16 years.

In 1936, Rabbi Feinstein, now married with four children, left Europe for the United States in response to pressure from the Soviet communist regime. After a brief period in Cleveland, he settled with his family on the Lower East Side of New York, where he became head of the Mesivta Tiferet Jerusalem yeshiva. He remained in that position for the next five decades, until the end of his life.   

By the 1940s, Feinstein was recognized as a great Talmudist. His willingness to address a wide range of halakhic questions about contemporary life – contact between the sexes, medical and technological issues, and business and commercial disputes -- made him an address for petitioners from all over. Beginning in 1959, Feinstein’s responsa were gathered into what eventually became nine volumes (two of them edited and published posthumously), called Igrot Moshe.

Among the thousands of questions Rabbi Feinstein addressed over the years were the following:

Could a man sit next to, and in direct contact with, a woman on the subway? (Yes, if there was nowhere else to sit).

Could milk from Gentile-owned farms be consumed if a Jew had not been present when the cow was milked? (Yes, since the United States had strict supervision of farms that would prevent the milk from being tampered with).

Can a divorced woman leave her hair uncovered while she is dating? (Yes, but she must tell suitors as soon as possible that she is divorced.)

He was uncompromising on not recognizing non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, to the extent that he ruled that one could not say “Amen” in response to a blessing said by a Reform rabbi. And he was very strict about the need to separate the sexes in contexts, such as at school, where the males could become aroused (apparently the subway was not one such venue).

Feinstein’s Orthodoxy was considered beyond reproach, but he did bring a sensitivity and realism to his rulings that suggested a willingness to recognize the contingencies of modern life. Jews were to be separated from non-Jews, Orthodox Jews were to be kept separate from non-Orthodox; and men and women were to be kept apart as much as possible, even so far as not shaking hands in greeting – but he did not perceive women as second-class Jews, nor was he opposed to their undertaking Jewish learning (and even insisted they have a formal public education).

And although he was adamantly opposed to heart transplants when these began in the 1960s, by the end of his life, he came to accept the necessity of organ transplants in general and the definition of death as correlating to the cessation of activity in the brain stem. (Feinstein’s son-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a medical doctor and expert on medical ethics, is one of the principal sources of testimony on his state of mind on such matters.)

Rabbi Feinstein – known affectionately in the Orthodox world as “Rav Moshe” – died on March 23, 1986 at age 91, and was buried in Jerusalem.

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