What We Can and Can’t Learn from our Data on Rav Moshe Feinstein

Several readers have pointed out, in Facebook threads and private messages and via email (keep commenting!), that whatever data we have on Rav Moshe Feinstein is incomplete; not all of Rav Moshe’s responsa have been published, and Rav Moshe answered untold numbers of questions orally—in person or by phone. Both of these points are true and important. We alluded to this a bit in “Zoom In”, but, in light of these comments, we will flesh out what we think can and can’t be learned from the table that shows the shape of Rav Moshe’s career, especially since this addresses some of the underlying assumptions of our project.

Rav Moshe’s responsa were not the first to undergo a process of editing and curation; that distinction may belong to Terumat Ha-deshen (possibly resulting in the claim that its author, Rav Yisrael Isserlein, “made up” the responsa therein). The idea that a volume of responsa can be something other than a dropbox for a rabbi’s halakhic correspondence is a crucial one—and one that is just now being studied (in, for example, Dr. Tamara Morsel Eisenberg’s recently completed dissertation; several insights in this discussion are based on her work). Our hope is that HaMapah becomes a tool to further that study.

To take a specific example, after one of our earlier posts a reader asked about responsa written by Rav Moshe to R. Meir Kahane. It turned out that there are two such responsa—Oraḥ Ḥayim vol. 2 no. 32, and Oraḥ Ḥayim vol. 4 no. 36. The first was published in 1963, and the second in 1979. The most interesting thing is that both are dated to 2 Sivan, 5719 (May/June 1959). Clearly, Rav Moshe answered both of these questions at the same time, probably in the same letter. However, the editorial decision was made to publish one part of the letter and hold on to the other part.

The part of the letter published in 1979 is the most lenient of all of Rav Moshe’s responsa on the celebration of a bat mitzvah. Though he retains his generally negative attitude toward such celebrations even in this responsum, he allows the girl to speak before the congregation at a kiddush, and even, if the family had already been so promised, from the pulpit.

It seems clear, and has been subsequently confirmed in discussions with members of the Feinstein family, that Rav Moshe indeed waited until later in his career to publish some of his more surprising and controversial positions. This is one sense of the famous Talmudic dictum, “ko’aḥ de-heteira adif”: the authority needed to issue a lenient ruling and have it be accepted is much greater than what is required for an audience to accept a stringent ruling. In 1979, Rav Moshe spoke from a different place of authority than in 1963. Looking at the various editorial phases of the work can yield a great deal of insight about phenomena like these.

We will circle back to this, but first we have to answer the phone.

Israel L. Shenker’s 1975 New York Times article on responsa includes the above picture of Rav Moshe on the phone. It begins:

Tradition has it that young rabbis completing their training are given an ordination certificate and the telephone number of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. He is the closest that Orthodox Jewry comes to a court of last resort.

During much of the day he sits plumped atop a fat cushion in a chair in his study on the Lower East Side, great volumes of religious law and opinion stacked from floor to ceiling behind him, his telephone in hand.

Shenker’s article places Rav Moshe’s answers by telephone within the tradition of responsa-writing, but in truth it is something new and different. Every posek, and every rabbi, probably answers more questions orally than in writing. However, until relatively recently, the questioner was limited by distance and modes of communication. Rav Moshe was one of the first great poskim who was instantly accessible to people anywhere on earth. The work Masoret Moshe consists of Rav Moshe’s laconic oral rulings, faithfully recorded by his grandson. We were told that there is enough material to fill twenty volumes.

Therefore, when trying to understand, measure, and describe Rav Moshe’s halakhic authority and how he accumulated it (his own answer in that NYT article: “If people see that one answer is good, and, another answer is good, gradually you will be accepted”), we must acknowledge that we are operating under limitations that do not exist with respect to other halakhists. In any given period, Rav Moshe received a certain number of questions. Of those, he answered a certain number. Of the answers he gave, only some were written. Of the written answers, only some were published. We are therefore looking only at the tip of a 4-tiered pyramid. What can we hope to learn from this? After all, it is possible that Rav Moshe received and even answered the same number of questions in 1947 and 1967 as he did in 1957.

It turns out that we can learn a great deal once we accept the basic assumption that Rav Moshe, like all great halakhists, was very deliberate in crafting his public persona.

It is clear that between 1957 and 1963 Rav Moshe made a huge effort to both write and publish his answers. Of the 101 responsa in the second Oraḥ Ḥayim volume of Igrot Moshe, all but four were written before 1958. The same pattern holds for Even Ha-ezer. In all, during the seven years between 1957 and 1963, he published the first four volumes of Igrot Moshe and also penned close to 400 (c. 21%) of his published responsa.

We may now return to the question of why there is such a marked spike in these years, and we believe that Rabbi Berman’s hypothesis is a good one. Rav Moshe recognized that Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin was aging, had too many other commitments, and in general could no longer shoulder the burden of being America’s leading halakhist. Rav Moshe, stepped into that breach by beginning a seven-year frenzy of responsa-writing and publishing. By the time the dust settled in 1963, Rav Moshe had cemented his status as America’s leading halakhist.

It is true that we still do not know how many questions Rav Moshe answered in a given year, though we suspect that his peak was in the late-60s and 70s, the period described in the NYT. Since he had a telephone, his published responsa cannot tell us as much about all the ways he communicated.

However, for that very reason, the responsa that he took the time to write and publish can tell us even more about how he shaped his public image and how he became Rav Henkin’s successor. In short, how he “became” Rav Moshe.

This, in turn, opens up new ways to hypothesize about Rav Moshe’s career and to test our hypotheses. This, ultimately, is our vision for HaMapah.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *