Responsibility and Compassion: A Eulogy for Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l

Adapted by Aviad Hacohen

Translated by Kaeren Fish


[This year marks the 30th yahrzeit of Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, who passed away on Taanit Esther, 13 Adar Bet 5746. What follows are Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s impromptu remarks to the yeshiva upon learning of Rav Moshe Feinstein’s passing. We thank Prof. Aviad Hacohen for making his notes available to the VBM.]

Woe to us for we are shattered.

Rav Moshe is most deserving of being properly eulogized in the yeshiva. This is not the appropriate time, nor am I worthy of the task. Nevertheless, I wish to say a few words, not out of a desire to speak, but rather because at such a time one cannot remain silent.

Just last week I eulogized Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky zt”l, and expressed deep regret that he was not sufficiently known in Eretz Yisrael. Not so R. Moshe Feinstein. Anyone with any connection to Torah knew of R. Moshe. And anyone who is familiar with the Torah world in the United States understands the enormity of the loss. The entire world of pesika (halakhic decision-making) rested, directly or indirectly, upon him.

This was true not only in the United States. When a difficult question arose here in Israel and there was a need for guidance, it was R. Moshe who was consulted. There were two reasons for this: one was the tremendous scope of knowledge and authority that characterized him. One of the most prominent features of his greatness in Torah was his ability to deal with any and every sphere of Jewish law. If we deal with an individual teshuva of his in isolation, perhaps we might be able to dispute it. But the totality of his responsa is extremely impressive and quite unique.

He was consulted not only because of his status and the breadth of his knowledge and his pesika, but also because of another quality that was deeply embedded in him. Anyone who saw him only from the outside might have gained the impression that he was a pushover – a contrast to, for example, R. Aharon Kotler, zt”l, who projected an intensity and dynamism that are difficult to describe. R. Moshe was different. He sat in his corner, quiet and tranquil. But behind that gentle and even fragile appearance, his courage in issuing halakhic rulings was unparalleled in our generation.

There were two aspects to this courage. First, he dealt with every question posed to him, displaying a sense of responsibility to decide the matter, knowing that if he balked or demurred, others – perhaps less proficient than himself – would issue rulings. For him, no question was too big or too small: it could involve the status of an aguna, or an unshelled egg left exposed overnight. Perusal of his sefarim reveals the scope of his responsa, from the most difficult and convoluted to the simplest and easiest. R. Moshe was an address for so many, and anyone who appealed to him could rest assured that his question would be referred no further. There was no subject that he avoided addressing.

However, his courage found expression not only in his willingness to deal with and rule on difficult issues. It was expressed also in the manner of his rulings, in his approach. He had very broad shoulders and was bold, sometimes to the point of real audaciousness.

Here and there he was active in the public sphere, but that was not his “playing field” (once again, in contrast to R. Kotler, who joined the struggle on almost every issue and on almost every front). On these matters, it was his quiet and tranquil character that came across. But in the realm of pesika he was a lion. His remarkable boldness flowed, on the one hand, from the depth of his knowledge, and on the other hand, from his profound compassion.

R. Moshe managed to build, within the halakhic world, an edifice of compassion, a torat chesed, that is manifest every step of the way. This torat chesed was so genuine that no one ever suspected that his compassion overcame the attribute of “din” in his rulings. Had another posek issued some of his rulings, he might have been stoned by opponents. But here, everyone knew, a giant of pesika had spoken, a halakhic sage with a rootedness in Torah that awarded every one of his rulings real backing. Even if it sometimes seemed that he was broadening the world of Halakha and breaking new ground, his steps were illuminated by the light of a Torah of truth.

These two qualities – rootedness in Torah and independence of thought and ruling – accompanied him throughout his life.

Once someone commented to me that R. Moshe tended to ignore the Achronim. “What about the Pitchei Teshuva?” he demanded. This approach had characterized other poskim in the past. In this sense, R. Moshe was the Noda’ bi-Yehuda of our generation.

R. Moshe personified compassion. He was profoundly pained, to the depths of his soul, by the anguish of an aguna and was willing to work for years to solve the problem, until he could relieve her suffering. But every solution that he found had backing in the world of Torah, in the truth of Torah.

In this sense we have lost a rare combination of broad shoulders, willingness and ability to deal with any halakhic issue, scrupulous adherence to the truth of Torah, and a strong sense of compassion. This combination is unrivaled.

There are some poskim who, unfortunately, are sometimes irresponsible when it comes to the truth of Torah; these scholars seek “leniencies” or “stringencies” that have no backing in the world of Torah. There are also halakhic scholars who see a clear-cut and simple path before them, with no compassion, none of the pain and anguish for the fate of the questioner that should accompany the halakhic authority in his ruling. There are no other halakhic authorities who equal R. Moshe in their ability to combine responsibility and compassion.

Someone once commented wisely, “There are poskim who are willing to slay every Jew for the sake of the law, while others are willing to slay every law for the sake of a Jew.” A great posek has to know the proper balance between concern for the truth of Torah and concern for the human dimension of the ruling. This balance was the secret of R. Moshe’s greatness.

We will have the opportunity to pay our respects to this great man when his coffin arrives in Israel for burial. I ask – and please view this as a personal request – that you show honor to this great man. If the yeshiva followed its regular schedule on the day of his funeral, we would all attend together. However, since the funeral will take place on Shushan Purim, each one of you is scheduled to be somewhere else; we will be scattered and divided. R. Moshe’s funeral should unite us all and bring us together. We must show honor to a man who is deserving of so much more.

The Gemara, in Mo’ed Katan, states that a mourner does not follow the customs of mourning during a pilgrim festival, because the public joy takes precedence over his private sorrow. The death of R. Moshe, of course, has a private dimension for his family. (And here I should mention that when one of his dozens of grandchildren celebrated a birthday, he would always call and convey his ‘mazal tov’ wishes.) But for us, his death is a matter of public mourning. It is therefore important to ensure that those who celebrate Shushan Purim (i.e., residents of Jerusalem) should hold their se’uda early, in order to be able to come and participate in the funeral. R. Moshe deserves that.

It is unavoidable that this harsh and heavy blow will cast a shadow on our celebration of Purim this year. But while taking halakhic criteria into account, we should at least ensure that we can be counted among the many Torah scholars who will accompany his funeral procession.

May it be God’s will that this month, a month in which two great luminaries were taken from us, will be transformed into a time of joy and gladness, a time when God shows us His wonders.