In the towering apartment complexes on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the second half of the twentieth century, lived hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Jews. Among them was a distinguished and elderly gentleman, diminutive in physical stature, but a giant in intellect. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ZT”L became the leading halachic authority of his generation, and his p’sakim (halachic rulings) were accepted worldwide.
Rav Moshe was born in Uzdan, near Minsk, Belorussia, where his father was rabbi. He became rabbi of Luban, also near Minsk, as a single bochur. Later he married Shima Kustanovich in 1920, and he entrusted all material decisions to his lifelong partner. They had three children in Russia: Faye Gittel (who would marry a distinguished rav, Rav Moshe Schisgal Z”L in America), Shifra (who later would marry Rabbi Dr. Moshe David Tendler, Mora D’Asra of Community Synagogue in Monsey, as well as Magid Shiur and professor of biology at YU), David (who would succeed his father as Rosh Yeshivah of Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim), and one in America, Reuven (currently Rosh Yeshivah of the Staten Island branch of MTJ).
Rav Moshe remained in Luban until 1937, by which time the exit gates from Russia were locked shut. By a combination of hard work by the rav for several earlier years to obtain papers, plus some American political influence instigated by family already in this country, papers finally arrived, and he emigrated with his family to the United States.
Here he became Rosh HaYeshivah of Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim, that became world-famous because of his presence. Rav Moshe’s halachic decisions have been published in a collection called Igros Moshe (The Letters of Moshe). An idea of his attitude regarding the rendering of halachic decisions can be gleaned from his introduction to the Igros: He writes that he feels suspended and torn between two verses cited by Rav Huna bar Abba in the name of Rav Huna – “ ‘She destroyed multitudes’ – This refers to a talmid chochom who did not reach the level to render decisions, who nevertheless renders halachic decisions. ‘And vast was the number of those she killed’ – This refers to a talmid chochom who has reached the level of rendering halachic decisions, but does not issue them. And all the more so for one such as myself who does not know sufficient Torah and wisdom, perhaps I should have refrained from rendering decisions and certainly from publishing them…”
But Rav Moshe writes that he came to the conclusion that if the talmid chochom invests all his effort and deliberates with all his mental energy, combined with fear of Heaven, he is not required by HaShem necessarily to arrive at the absolute truth, although he is helped by Heaven to accomplish that.
The following is a minute sample of the responsa that he wrote:
1. regarding the partial covering of the head when walking in the street or reciting a blessing
2. regarding the matter of the paralysis of the left hand in connection with Tefillin
3. regarding whether a kohen who desecrates the Sabbath publicly can bless the congregation with the other priests
4. regarding the mechitzah, the physical separation between men and women in a synagogue, and its required height
5. regarding a synagogue in which American and Israeli flags have been set up – does this constitute a problem?
6. regarding establishing a partnership with a Jew who desecrates the Sabbath
Rav Moshe says that he is only providing his opinion with respect to the halachic questions raised, that he indicates all his sources, and that he welcomes and encourages all readers to check his sources and question his conclusions.
The selflessness and modesty of this Torah scholar only magnify his greatness. And the fear of Heaven that underlay all his thoughts shows how great a “gadol,” a Torah giant, he was.