An Interview with Rabbi Dr. Moshe D. Tendler

An Interview with Rabbi Dr. Moshe D. Tendler

BY: Shaul Seidler-Feller.

What was Orthodox Judaism like in the early part of the 20th century in America? What were the difficulties and/or opportunities presented to Jews coming over to the U.S. from Europe?

I grew up in a small, isolated, ghettoized European town called the Lower East Side of Manhattan. All the adults were first-generation immigrants. They dressed as they had in Europe, they spoke as they had in Europe, but all lost their children to assimilation. America was a treyfer land (a country unsuited to Jewish religious life), and they knew that going in. They were dying in Europe and did not have any hope of continuing there so they came to the U.S. with the understanding that there would not be Judaism here. On Yom Kippur, people bought kibbudim (honors during the service) and came up wearing leather shoes. On Shabbos, the president of my father’s shul, Mr. Rosen, would get upset if the chazzan for Musaf was kvetching around a little bit because he had to get out of shul and go open up his store on 33rd St. They just gave up on observance. It was a complete defeat.

Furthermore, they did not expect their children to be Jewish. I attended the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School (RJJ), which was the first yeshivah in New York; before that, there was nothing. Rare families, like that of my grandparents, hired a melammed (teacher) to teach their children enough so that when they grew up, they could be sent off to a European yeshivah to get a real education. But these were yechidei segullah (a chosen, self-selecting few). Public school education was available for free, and so most people chose to send their children to public schools. There were some Machazikei Talmud Torah schools that opened up and started classes at 4:00, 5:00, or even 6:00 at night, after public school, but even these did not always save the children from assimilation. For instance, Rav Elya Keller, z”l, the first person to bring shemurah matsah to America, lived in my building. He was a talmid chacham and a tsaddik and he had a big family, but none of his children ended up being shomer Shabbos.

The difficulties of Jewish life in that period are perhaps best appreciated by examining what followed the initial “settling in.” Once upon a time, I gave a lecture in my shul in which I said that we fell victim to the three A’s – “affluence,” “acceptance,” and “assimilation” – but, unlike the AAA, these A’s did not protect us. Nowadays, after being in Yeshiva all these years and watching what is happening, I have added an I for “irreverence.” There is nothing that is kadosh (sacred), nothing that is out of bounds for discussion.

In order to appreciate the losses on the Lower East Side, you have to understand the cultural milieu at the time. My mother, a”h, would ask me every Friday to go get vegetables for Shabbos. On Clinton St., which was close by, there were many pushcarts that sold vegetables. Far away was the Essex St. Market, which also sold vegetables. In the beginning, I would naturally walk to Clinton St., because it was closer. After a while, though, I switched to Essex St., because on Clinton St. there was a fellow who would always grab me by the ear and ask me, “Nu, vos hostu haynt gelernt?” (What did you learn today?) He was a talmid chacham but he made a living by selling vegetables. (We all knew to avoid Clinton St. after that and go to Essex St. instead.) Similarly, my father, z”l, who was the rav in the Kaminetzer Shul and a rosh yeshivah at RJJ for 43 years, gave a Chummash class in the shul every Friday night, and so many people would come that there were police assigned to direct the crowds. Many of these people were truly learned and interested in Torah (by aldridge). Over time, though, all of this petered out. Affluence took over, people moved to the suburbs, the Jewish community changed and really was no more.

What was the denominational scene like back then? Were there major problems between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews? Were the communities able to come together on any issues?

As a talmid here in Yeshiva, there were five other people at my table. My chavrusa, Rav Chaim Bodek, and I were the only ones to stay here, though; the other four left for Schechter’s Seminary [JTS]. We were bleeding, hemorrhaging, because we had no functional community service division at RIETS. These people did not leave for ideological reasons, i.e. because they wanted to be Conservative/Traditional rather than Orthodox, but rather because they were well advanced in their studies and they realized that RIETS could not offer them the same job opportunities that the Seminary could. As a result, they remained the so-called “traditional rabbis” in liberal/Conservative shuls. Baruch Hashem, the flow today has reversed. I think that you probably have more instances of people coming in with semichah from them to study privately and get a real semichah here than the opposite. For this change I must credit two forces – the Young Israel movement and our yeshivah.

When I was growing up, a term of opprobrium and disdain was that a person was “a Young Israel boy,” meaning that he carried his keys in his pants pocket and wore a handkerchief in his lapel pocket on Shabbos. But then, the movement as a whole moved to the right and became more serious religiously. I give much credit to the Lower East Side Young Israel, which was a flagship Young Israel, and its rabbi, Rabbi Stern, who was a very effective keiruv worker.

I think time-wise, that also coincided with our yeshivah moving out of its own four walls and into the community. When Dr. Revel, z”l, was in charge, he was innovative in one way – he allowed an English teacher to come to the yeshivah and teach here – but he was basically inward-focused. Dr. Belkin, in his greatness, saw that, for YU to survive, it needed to be reaching out to the community at large. Under him, the YU Community Service Division (CSD) opened up and went out doing “Kuzari work” – arguing our point of view against that of the Conservative movement. In every new community in New Jersey and Long Island, we competed with them and we did well. I personally was involved in this work with Victor Geller, who wrote a book about Dr. Belkin’s years at Yeshiva,[i] and Abe Stern, who prepared Shabbaton booklets that people use to this day. This effort, I think, has been the major force in changing the face of American Orthodoxy.

In terms of cooperation, the Synagogue Council of America was an example of one such effort, but it was held in disdain by most of the rashei yeshivah here and by my father-in-law [R. Moshe Feinstein], zts”l, as well. This was the one area in which he disagreed with the Rav, zts”l, who was supportive of the organization, and as a result my shver (father-in-law) expelled his own cousin [the Rav] from the Agudath Harabonim, a now-defunct institution which used to be very popular and powerful because it controlled kashrus until organizational kashrus, headed by the OU and OK, took over. (Baruch Hashem, today we only have three kinds of hashgachos: frum, frumer, and frumest. When I came to Monsey, we also had only three types of Jews: frum, frumer, and frumest. The frum and frumer have disappeared, though – now all we have is the frumest.) The Synagogue Council died because the denominations could not cooperate at that level; the Rav’s instructions to talk about everything but religion were not followed, so the institution fell apart. Overall, I would say, there was much animosity in both directions. The non-Orthodox looked upon us as dinosaurs and we looked upon them as goyim.

How would you say the major Orthodox leaders of that period helped European immigrants transition into their new homes here?

I think that most of the Orthodox leaders at the time did not have any hope for the masses; they were also despondent about the future and did not focus at all on outreach. They concerned themselves with getting a small group of the muvcharim (best ones) as a kind of a holding-action for Torah. The idea that Torah would blossom in America – I do not think they had such a hope.

Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu had other plans, though. When my father-in-law and Rav Aharon Kotler, zts”l, came over and after the yeshivos of Telz and Torah Vodaath were founded, things began to change. Rabbanim started reaching out to the small number of families that wanted to send their children to yeshivah and gathered a group of talmidim around themselves. And then, after the horrors of the Holocaust, America was flooded with people who had strong traditional backgrounds from Hungary and Romania, for instance. They came and they fructified Judaism in America. We became large enough to hate each other also; we could not afford that luxury beforehand.

As a son-in-law of the great R. Moshe Feinstein, zts”l, can you reflect on his role in 20th-century America? How did he become the almost universally-recognized halakhic decisor of traditional American Jewry? What about his teshuvot (responsa) showed him to be uniquely sensitive to the challenges of Jewish life in America?

My shver, zts”l, is often called “the Rosh Yeshivah.” Rav Soloveitchik, zts”l, on the other hand, is known as “the Rav.” Nothing could be further from the truth, though. Rav Yosher Ber [the Rav] did not know what kind of a berachah you make on rabbanus, but he was a great rosh yeshivah. My shver did not know what it means to be a rosh yeshivah, but he was the great rav. Of course, crazy America switched the titles for them.

In any event, my shver never had a yeshivah of much consequence. He gave his so-called “big shi’ur” on Friday, which I attended since I lived on the East Side. (That is how I managed to get into the family.) That was a summation shi’ur from the whole week. Oftentimes, MTJ [Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem, R. Feinstein’s yeshivah] would be learning the same massechta as we were learning here in Yeshiva.

My shver 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 – paskn 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.

His success as a posek, I think, also stems from how hard he worked on every teshuvah. He first wrote a given teshuvah on a piece of stationery, then recorded it in a composition notebook, then copied it into a big ledger, and finally reviewed it and sent it in for publication with notes and additions in the margins. His hard work paid off. During the last months of his life, he said to me, “Baruch Hashem, I’ve never had to retract a teshuvah.” He did a better job than most in that respect.

Also, he was a very nice man. There was a lady upstairs where he lived who would often receive letters from Russia, but she did not read Russian. So she would come down and knock on the door while Rav Moshe was writing a teshuvah and asked that he please translate the letter, and he did so. Similarly, one Erev Shabbos, a neighbor criticized him because she saw him being picked up by car and taken to the yeshivah for davening after she had already bentshed licht (lit Shabbat candles). So he wrote in a teshuvah subsequently that even though it was muttar, he promised, beli neder, not to do it again.[ii] He was just a very nice person with virtually no hang-ups, no shtik, and was extremely accessible.

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.

Of course, he had his detractors. There was a sefer that was published by Satmar entitled Ma’aneh la-Iggeros which tried to take apart over 160 of my shver’s teshuvos.[iii] But he was so immune to personal attacks. His perspective was: I publish, they publish, you read and decide who is right. Attacks did not bother him. In addition, Satmar’s Ha-Ma’or attacked him regularly, but he would never respond. Only if you wrote to him or called him up with a shayle would he respond. The one time I ever saw him reply to something someone published about his stance on an issue was when Ha-Ma’or criticized his take on the question of artificial insemination and whether the child was considered a mamzer (illegitimate child) or not. He felt that he needed to defend his position publicly and in print, so he responded in the back of the Dibberos Moshe on Kesubbos, which was being printed at the time, with three teshuvos devastating them and showing their amaratsus (ignorance).

How did Yeshiva University fit into the landscape of Orthodox yeshivot in early 20th-century America? How has that relationship changed since?

The relationship has changed for the worse. In the early years, before RIETS had a college attached to it, Yeshiva was considered a rightist institution and respected as much as any other yeshivah. Once we got a college, it was still acceptable to the older rabbanim. Even when Dr. Revel, z”l, passed away and the Agudath Harabonim wanted to take control of the yeshivah and get rid of the college, they were still fine with the yeshivah itself. Not today. Today, we are really the outcasts of the Yeshivah World, despite our obvious success financially. Those in Torah Vodaath, Chaim Berlin, and Ner Yisrael are considered the frum people and we are the shkotsim. The truth, of course, is that our talmidim are better than theirs, our rashei yeshivah are more learned than theirs, our success in communities is greater than theirs – but still, that is the reality of our relationship. I speak from experience because there is no major American yeshivah in which I do not have at least one grandson or nephew.

MTJ is a slightly different story because it is a much smaller yeshivah. In fact, my shver had a shi’ur of only twenty people or so, four or five of whom were his students and the rest of whom were just waiting there to ask him for money. They were on pretty good terms with YU. My shver said a shi’ur here once or twice.

Rav Ya’akov Kamenetzky, zts”l, was also an interesting case. He was a neighbor of mine and, you will pardon the expression, a liberal Jew. He just loved everyone. My shver would come to us in Monsey on Motsa’ei Yom ha-Kippurim and stay until two weeks after Simchas Torah. That was his time to himself, when no phone calls or visitors were allowed in. Only one person was allowed into the house on Chol ha-Mo’ed Sukkos and that was Rav Ya’akov. He would come in and sit with my shver for two hours chatting and laughing the whole time like two little boys – not talking about Torah or politics, but rather reminiscing about the Old Country together. Then, twenty minutes after Rav Ya’akov left, my shver would come to me and say, “M’darf geyn bazuchn Reb Yankev” (We have to visit Rav Ya’akov). We drove over and my shver would come in and wish him a gut yontef and then leave. Why? It was part of rabbinic protocol: you came to me, so I have to go to you in turn. Hitler did not kill all the Jews, but he destroyed our culture. There is no remnant of that old-time European ethos in this generation.

What was Yeshiva’s relationship like with the Jewish Theological Seminary back then, and how did that relationship change over time? At what point was it possible to see a clear theological/denominational distinction between RIETS and JTS?

That distinction was present from the very outset. It took time, however, for people to realize that there were major theological differences between RIETS and JTS. As I mentioned earlier, many of our bachurim left Yeshiva for the Seminary because they were largely similar institutions on the outside, and the Seminary offered better rabbinic training. But eventually everyone came to understand that they really were different and so there is not much crossover today. In fact, Conservatism and Orthodoxy as a whole came into sharper focus with time, and now everyone recognizes them as separate movements.

I first started in the rabbanus when Herman Wouk decided to open up an Orthodox shul in Great Neck. In the beginning, we only had five balabatim; I had to bring four boys from my high school class to complete the minyan. A year later, we had a hundred people in shul. But when it first opened, Rabbi Waxman, the local Conservative rabbi, wrote an article in a newspaper entitled, “Bargain-Basement Judaism Begins in Great Neck.” Rabbi Rudin, the local Reform rabbi, was much more of a mentsh and wrote, “The Rebirth of the Jewish Spirit in Great Neck.” Why the difference? I was Waxman’s competition, not Rudin’s. That is just a personal example of the conflict that existed at the time between the movements.

There was really competition on every front, in fact. They knew they were in trouble when Conservative Judaism spun off a “traditional” element with no mechitzah but a more traditional davening. As soon as Conservative Judaism began to ordain women as rabbis and approved of things like the “Shabbos Bus” in Cedarhurst to pick up old worshippers, they had broken with Torah Judaism and they knew it.

And yet, no one wants to recognize what I have been saying all along: we had a second Holocaust here in America. The first was physical, the second spiritual. We are in the process of losing six million Jews again, but no one wants to do anything about it. To really make a difference, you cannot just do outreach with a Shabbaton or a lecture; you have to compete. That is the only way to win back all the lost Jews out there. We have to go out on campus and vie for the Reform and Conservative kids. We cannot afford this kind of hemorrhage in our people. I am not prepared to give up on the Conservative and Reform Jews: Yisrael, af al pi she-chata, Yisrael hu (A Jew, though he sins, is still a Jew).[iv] They are our people but they are not going to be our people if we do not move to bring them back to observance. I am enough of a biologist to know that we have a lot of trouble determining scientifically what is alive and what is dead. Is a virus alive or dead? I do not know. All I know is that if something can reproduce, it is alive; if not, it is dead. The other movements cannot reproduce, but we can go ahead and save their families.

We had a neighbor in Monsey who was not religious. I knew when it was time for Kedushah on Yom Kippur at Musaf when he turned on his lawn mower. We often invited him for kiddush on Shabbos and he came over for Sukkos, but he never became observant. Years later, he came over to me in tears because his daughter wanted to marry a goy. That bothered him. Yom Kippur did not bother him, kashrus did not bother him. But he wanted to be a Jew; he did not want to die out. Being Jewish gives you a claim to eternity, but only if your children are Jewish, too.

You have been learning and teaching at YU since the tenure of Yeshiva’s first president, Dr. Bernard Revel. How would you say you have seen Yeshiva change over the years? Is there room, in your opinion, for improvement, on either the General or Jewish Studies sides? How so?

We have mentioned that the Conservative movement and JTS no longer have any appeal to us. But there is something else as well. Over the years, the behavior, dress, and general outward appearance of our talmidim has changed – in many cases, I think, for the worse. I see how some of the boys talk, the types of haircuts they have, and the kinds of clothes they wear and it is simply unacceptable, by any standard. To belong to any society, and especially the society known as Am Yisrael, outward signs are critical. Our yeshivah should insist that they modify their behavior. We just need a little more attention from the administration to make it happen. There is no reason for a fellow to show up to shi’ur or class with filthy jeans with holes cut out in them. At no high-level college would that happen – not because of orders coming from above, but because the society would not allow for it; that is simply not the dress you wear in college.

I once met with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zts”l, from 12:00-7:00 AM because he was interested in having me write a textbook in Biology al taharas ha-kodesh (with sacred purity), and I was interested in talking about other things with him. During the course of the conversation, I asked him, “Why is it that your sheluchim (emissaries) take a fellow and make a Chasid out of him by putting a kapote (long black coat) and hat on him – even though he knows nothing at all about Judaism?” The Rebbe answered me, “But it works this way. If we tried it any other way, it would not work.” A person has to know that he belongs to the rest of his community before he can actually become part of it, and these outward signs allow him to do so.

The rate of Jewish assimilation in America is estimated at over 50%. Do you see any way that our community can counter this phenomenon?

I think the assimilation rate is closer to 80% in some places in America. Unfortunately, there is really only one way to bring Jews back, and that is to reach out to them on campus and sell them on what it means to be a Jew. We are simply not competing with what the rest of society has to offer, and that is a problem. I think we in keiruv sometimes have a bit of a sense of triumphalism: we think we are more successful than we really are. But the movement between observance and lack thereof is usually only measured in one direction – we have statistics on the number of chozerim bi-teshuvah (newly religious Jews) but not on those who are chozerim bi-she’eilah (newly irreligious Jews), and that should give us pause.

There is a Midrash, I think, which demonstrates this point well. On the pasuk, “Ve-Osi azavu ve-es Torasi lo shamaru” (They abandoned Me and did not observe My Torah),[v] the Midrash says, “Halevai osi azavu ve-Sorasi shamaru! Mi-Toch she-hayu mis’assekin bah, ha-ma’or she-bah hayah machaziran le-muttav” (Would that they would abandon Me but observe My Torah! Through their involvement in it, the light within it would return them to the proper path).[vi] What does that mean? Look further in the Midrash. It says that there were 365 cults in Damascus, each with a day of the year assigned to it for worship, and the Jews adopted all 365 foreign gods but could not find a single day on which to worship Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu.[vii] The two parts of the Midrash tie together. Hashem is saying, “Give up on believing in Me, but at least let My lifestyle compete. Put My Torah down, and put down next to it Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, etc., and see which one provides the most spiritual fulfillment. If you do that, you will undoubtedly see the beauty of Judaism, and then ‘ha-ma’or she-bah machaziran le-muttav’ – you will realize that nobody but God could have written the Torah.”

I feel that we are too gentlemanly in our inter-denominational relationships. That is not the way to attract Jews to Orthodoxy, because the other Jewish movements have the voice of society on their side, and we are simply not competing well enough with that.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing American Jewry today?

I think we have to see God in other places than we see Him now. We are not teaching our children, Mah rabbu ma’asecha Hashem! (How great are Your deeds, O God!). In the old days, a mother would make a berachah with her child over thunder, lightning, or a rainbow, so that shem Hashem yishama al picha (the name of God should be heard on your lips).[viii] Today, we have relegated religion to ritual activity without allowing it to really become part of our lives. A type of compartmentalization has developed that never used to be. We have not lost the 20th-century American ghetto psychology: we are still afraid to identify ourselves as Jews in all our activities. But that cannot continue – there is no way that we can impact on society unless we are identified as Jews. We should not be embarrassed to mention Hashem in conversation and speak about religious matters with others. Only then can people ask us questions about religion and God. That is the lesson Chazal tried to convey in the Mah Nishtannah on Pesach – ask me a question and I have caught you already, because you have made contact with me and I know what to do with that contact. So I think that we have to reach out more in that way in order to bring religion into public discourse. We have to do more than just sermonizing to the church choir and talking to ourselves; we have to learn to talk to other people as well.

Rabbi Dr. Moshe D. Tendler is the Rabbi Isaac and Bella Tendler Professor of Jewish Medical Ethics at YU, a Professor of Biology at YC, and a senior Rosh Yeshivah at MYP/RIETS. He also serves as the spiritual leader of the Community Synagogue of Monsey.

Shaul Seidler-Feller is a senior at YC majoring in Jewish Studies and is the outgoing Editor-in-Chief for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] Victor B. Geller, Orthodoxy Awakens: The Belkin Era and Yeshiva University (Jerusalem; New York: Urim, 2003).

[ii] Iggerot Moshe, Orah Hayyim 1:96.

[iii] Yom Tov ha-Levi Schwartz, Sefer Ma’aneh la-Iggerot (New York: Yom Tov ha-Levi Schwartz, 1973).

[iv] See Sanhedrin 44a.

[v] Yirmeyahu 9:11.

[vi] Midrash Eikhah Rabbah, Petihta 2. See a similar version in Yalkut Shim’oni to Yirmeyahu 9:282.

[vii] Midrash Eikhah Rabbah, Petihta 10. See a similar version in Midrash Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 1:6.

[viii] A play on Shemot 23:13.