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.

The Shape of a Rabbinic Career: Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yaakov Ettlinger

Until now we have mainly been looking at the distribution of responsa through space. In this post we will begin looking at their distribution through time.

What would we expect a typical respondent’s career to look like? When I (Elli) started, I imagined a relatively steep incline in the number of responsa written per year as the rabbi’s reputation grows, then a plateau, then a decline, either gradual or abrupt, at the end of the rabbi’s life.

Of course, the shape would not be completely smooth. Any number of factors over which the respondent has no control could affect his output during any particular period. Nevertheless, over the long run, we would expect the chart to look something like this:

The above chart has nothing to do with responsa or rabbis. It represents what Joe Posnanski imagines the typical baseball player’s aging chart should look like. There’s a slow start, then a “breakout” to stardom, followed by a peak, followed by decline.

Note from Moshe: I expected to see roughly the opposite shape – basically this chart flipped on the X axis. I think this was based maybe on my first-hand experience with R. Aharon Lichtenstein – slow ascent, then rise, peak, and precipitous decline. In baseball terms: the steroid aging curve. A grafting of two equations – “chashuv” increases as a function of age, but infirmity takes its toll at some point. I think this may loosely approximate a couple poskim, but it’s also not accurate too broadly. Back to Elli.

At this point, we have very good bar charts chronicling the careers of five major halakhists. Not a single one fits the pattern outlined above. Nothing is even close. We will look at two of them now and think about what they can tell us about their careers. The other three we will save for another time.

The chart below (once again, based on Michael Pitkowsky’s data) gives us the tally of responsa written by R. Moshe Feinstein broken down by year (as well as volume, which can be toggled).

plot from API (1)

 

We see that Rav Moshe wrote a significant number of responsa in the 1920s, but then, at the beginning of the 1930s, there a dip that lasts until the late 1940s. A gradual rise spikes in the late 50s and early 60s, followed by a decline and plateau that lasts until the early 80s and a short period of decline before his death in the mid-1980s.

What does this mean?

A full answer will require a much deeper dive. A lot has been written on Rav Moshe, and this could provide a good place for the next generation of research to start. In broad brush strokes, this is what we think we are looking at —

Rav Moshe began to emerge as a significant halakhist in the 1920s in Russia. Many of the responsa he wrote then were “recreational,” but there were rabbis to correspond with and real halakhic questions to answer.

All that changed in the 1930s, the height of Stalin’s campaign against religion. Rabbinic communication by mail became a dangerous endeavor. This campaign played a significant role in Rav Moshe’s immigration to the United States, where did not yet have much of a reputation as a halakhist. That changed after World War II, with the influx of (mainly observant) Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe, who both knew of Rav Moshe from Europe and were more likely to ask questions of rabbis.

By the late 1950s, the leading American halakhist before Rav Moshe, Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, began to slow down the pace of his halakhic output as he aged and took on more communal leadership responsibility (this was suggested to us by Rabbi Saul Berman). It was at that point that the number of responsa written by Rav Moshe spiked dramatically, and it is also when he began to publish Igrot Moshe. If one were to ask, “When did Rav Moshe become the poseik of America,” the answer is quite clear: between 1957 and 1963.

The subsequent decline and plateau can be attributed to several factors. One is that he, like Rav Henkin before him, began to take on more communal leadership roles. Another is that the growing Hasidic communities in America began to turn to their own poskim, like Rav Menasheh Klein (this, again, was suggested by Rabbi Berman). It is also possible that once he had cemented his status, he did not see as much need to write and publish responsa at such a breakneck pace. Poskim are very conscious of the public personas they create, and there is no doubt that the writing and publication of responsa help to curate and project that persona.

Let us now turn to Rav Ettlinger. Here is a bar chart of his responsa output by year:

BZ - by year

 

This dataset is somewhat incomplete as many of Rav Ettlinger’s responsa are not dated, but we do have 310 out 362 – 86% of the his responsa – and also, we are confident about what we will find in the additional data, because most of the undated responsa were initially published in the same place as many of the dated responsa: in the rabbinic journal Der Treue Zionswächter, or Shomer Tziyon Ha-ne’eman, which Rav Ettlinger edited.

Consider: the majority of Rav Ettlinger’s responsa were written between 1847 and 1856, precisely when he was editor of the journal. The nature of the journal was that one rabbi would write in with a question or idea, which was then “peer reviewed.” Rav Ettlinger had control over whose answers and responses were printed, and, unsurprisingly, he often published his own answers, which were then collected in Binyan Tziyon. Once he stopped editing the journal, the number of answers he was writing (to questions that were not asked of him specifically) dropped off dramatically.

Stay tuned, Moshe will post about Chatam Sofer later this week (both dates and locations). You can follow us on Facebook or subscribe to email updates.

Zoom In

Last week we used the Maharsham to take a look at some large scale phenomena, especially cultural boundaries. Now we’re going to zoom in on some of the things we noticed that are going on within those boundaries.

One of the major questions we are trying to help answer with this project is whether rabbinic authority can be quantified. Can we use metrics to give a sense of how important Maharsham is? And if so, how?

We have already looked at number of responsa and geographical spread. Those are important data. But are all responsa created equal? If a gabbai asks a rav whether the congregation should skip tachanun on Erev Tu BiShvat, and the rav sits down and writes a lengthy treatise in response, does it really tell us anything about his authority? There are certain types of questions that demonstrate real influence. If people carry on Shabbat based on an eruv approved by a particular rabbi, over and against competitors, it indicates authority. The higher the stakes, and the more lives the question affects, the more important the responsum, and the more authority demonstrated by the responding rabbi.

Let’s take a more concrete example. Through volume 8 of Igrot Moshe, there are 1805 published responsa of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (RMF). Of those, 48 are written to Rabbi Yaakov Kantrowitz (h/t Michael Pitkowsky). R. Kantrowitz was hardly submitting to RMF’s authority, as he was at least 20 years older than him. Moreover, almost all of these responsa are what we might call “recreational”. These are not responses to halakhic questions, but long letters written by a severely underemployed rabbi in the early years of the Soviet Union (there is not much for a rabbi to do when religion is effectively banned). These 48 responsa to not evince much rabbinic authority.

As for spread, RMF’s responsa are very clustered. He runs up his score in particular cities and with particular people–about 90 are to Memphis (mainly to Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt), for instance, or 5% of the total (we’re still working on quantifying how many to NYC, and whether to count different boroughs as different cities, but we will get there).

Note just how many questions the top few generate – there are 318 by the top ten alone.
Top questioners in Igros Moshe. [Click to enlarge.] Note just how many questions the top few generate – there are 318 by the top ten alone.
Now let’s go back to Maharsham. Of more than 1600 responsa, very few are “recreational.” They are all based on real, practical questions. Moreover, the top destination is Krakow, which received 29. In total, he wrote to 437 different places (out of the 1427 addresses we’ve identified). That is simply a mind-boggling number. And no more than 2% of his responsa come from any one place or person, except perhaps for his hometown of Berezhany. Nothing like RMF’s 5% to Memphis.

The point of this exercise is not to minimize the greatness of RMF. Rather, it is to show what a big deal Maharsham was, and he was a Big Deal. This has largely been forgotten over the course of a century of Lithuanian supremacism. Hundreds of community rabbis from hundreds of communities asked him their questions. His influence in his time and place was massive. There’s even a book called Maharsham: The Last Posek.

Yet for all his influence, there are certain places that his authority simply did not penetrate.

Drohobych was a huge Galician community in Maharsham’s later years. In 1910 it had over 15,000 Jews. Yet Maharsham addressed not a single responsum there. It’s not due to a regional lack of influence–he has 19 responsa to Stryi, which is less than 20 miles away and two-thirds the size. Another glaring hole is Przemyśl (Pshemyshl in Yiddish; vowels are overrated). Przemyśl’s Jewish population was slightly larger than Drohobych’s. Again, there’s no broader regional absence, as many nearby villages and towns have responsa addressed there, yet the big city is missing.

A final example: On the eve of WWI, the community of Sighet numbered c. 8,000 Jews–a sizable community–while nearby Bychkiv had just over 1,000. Yet only 5 responsa were addressed to Sighet, while seventeen were addressed to Bychkiv. In contrast to the other examples, Bychkiv is punching well above its weight.

We can posit explanations for the three cities with low (or nonexistent) numbers. Przemyśl was the seat of Rabbi Yitzchak Schmelkes, author of Beit Yitzhak and probably Maharsham’s main rival in Galicia in the generation after R. Yosef Shaul Natansohn. He was rabbi of Przemyśl for a long time, whereupon he was succeeded by his nephew and disciple. So Przemyśl remained under his “jurisdiction”, so to speak, even after his departure to Lviv.

As for Drohobych, we note that Rabbi Yitzhak Leib Sofer (1848-1907) was the city’s rabbi, and he had other influences: he was the son of Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer (Ktav Sofer) and thus a scion of the greatest rabbinic family in Western Hungary. If anything, his presence in Drohobych indicates that the Sofer family’s sphere of influence was expanding into Galicia.

As for Sighet, by this time its rabbinate was firmly controlled by the Teitelbaum family.

To understand what’s going on here, we borrow a concept from astronomy. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) defines a planet as: “a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.”[1]

A major posek like Maharsham exerts a massive gravitational pull on the entire region. He vacuumed up the questions from hundreds of towns and villages in Galicia. However, there were a few cities whose rabbis “cleared the neighborhood”. They remained the dominant gravitational force in those cities. It seems that there were cultural institutions–like a family rabbinate, for example–that were able to resist outside influence, or individuals with enough authority. In turn, Galicia’s cultural identity and rabbinic tradition is powerful enough to clear its neighborhood and monopolize questions from within its territory, in contrast to regions like Volhynia and Podolia, which send a large chunk of their questions to Galicia. Another example of a city that cleared its neighborhood might be Prague, which seems to have sent very few questions elsewhere over an extended period of time.[2]

These observations are tentative. We need a lot more research before we have anything conclusive, but we would not have even known to ask the question without the data. And we think it holds promise.

For now, think of this post as a study aid and as a way to quantify (and appreciate) rabbinic authority. We will tweak the methodology as we have more data to work with and as we are able to use more advanced metrics and software. This is really just the beginning.

That, in turn, brings us back to a feisty little Carpathian town that punches above its weight: Bychkiv, to which we will return in the next post.

[1] For those wondering at home, Pluto lost planethood over (c).

[2] Expect more on this later, but, in short, we’ve come near completion on a few more poskim, starting from 1800 or so, and we’ve seen virtually nothing to Prague and fairly little to Czechia as a whole.