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Rabbi Moses Feinstein

by Norma Baumel Joseph

Rabbi Moses Feinstein (1895–1986), one of the great Jewish legalists of the twentieth century, wrote numerous legal decisions responding to and affecting women’s lives. These decisions (responsa, pl.; responsum, sing.) reflect a wide range of halakhic possibility and expertise. They are, first and foremost, non-transferable responses to specific questions from individuals concerned about their proper conduct. This woman may use birth control for two years; this man should use public transportation in order to get to work; that widow may remove her head covering at work; that rabbi cannot force his wife to renounce her mother’s style of head covering; a particular rabbi’s widow may be a mashgiah (kashrut supervisor); another woman who has had an affair with her employer may go back to work. The assortment is intriguing and suggestive, but its specificity cannot be overlooked. Having turned to a recognized expert, the women, as well as the men, intend to accept his authority and follow his ruling.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Feinstein is well aware that responsa function to produce and reflect a shared reality, since publication of the decisions leads to their becoming precedent for future cases. Thus, he uses this mode to reinforce and sustain his vision of a circumscribed religious community. Born and trained in Eastern Europe, he emigrated to America in 1936 and became the Rosh Yeshiva (head) of the Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem in New York City. From there he was able to exercise great authority through the vehicle of his legal decisions. Initially, his decisions were personal communications, answers from a rabbi to a student or supporter. With the publication of Iggerot Moshe (IM), the seven-volume collection of his responsa (1959–1985, an eighth volume was published posthumously in 1996), his decrees entered the public realm and he was increasingly referred to as a significant leader in the Orthodox Jewish community (a gadol ha-dor). His expertise in classical rabbinic Judaism combined with his pragmatic approach to modern conditions made him a popular and sought after advisor and adjudicator. He wrote about ritual matters such as kashrut as well as business questions, relations between Jews and non-Jews, medical procedures, marriage, divorce, conversion and synagogue practice. His work expressed his deep commitment to traditional categories of law but was not isolated from an appreciation of contemporary norms of work, marketplace and education. Rabbi Feinstein’s purpose was to ensure the survival of a particular group with a distinctive traditional lifestyle.

Given that context, Rabbi Moses Feinstein appears to focus his responsa upon three areas that, in his view, require special effort and jurisdiction in modern times. Jews must be distinct from non-Jews and protected from the pervasive influence of modernity; men and women must be separate in specific environments; and Orthodox Jews must be isolated from Conservative and Reform Jews. There is a proper pattern for all interactions, which must be maintained, and his role as decisor is to guarantee the integrity of these distinctions. His method is to erect boundaries that create social distance in very controlled situations. Consequently, his map of the world consists of a series of concentric circles whose circumferences are sometimes, but most often not, permeable. The largest circle separates Jew from non-Jew. Its perimeter is a veritable wall when it comes to matters of marriage, worship, education and worldview. Equally rigid is the dividing line between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, but the arena of gender difference is much more complex. Everywhere in R. Feinstein’s responsa it is clear that women are Jews, even “keepers of the Torah.” In rare instances, he includes women in the inner circle of those who “fear the Lord” (IM YD 3:75, 78, 80). These are some of the ways in which the distinction between men and women in no way approximates that between Jew and non-Jew or Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Yet from another perspective women are the quintessential “other.”

Rabbi Feinstein operates with a specific and distinct set of assumptions concerning the nature of women, their proper position in Jewish society, their motives, and the effects of modernity on them. He emphatically believes that they are “equal,” that is in no way inferior or less important than men. He forcefully argues this position in one particular responsum (IM OH 4:49). Yet, he also treats them separately from men in ways that at times intimate fear and mistrust and, at other times, in ways that intimate second-class treatment. Thus, in some cases, he doubts women’s intention (IM OH 4:49), positing unsubstantiated motives that render their requests unacceptable. In IM OH 4:49, he notes that even though the women are faithful to the ways of the Torah, if their motives emanate from the women’s movement, their request is invalid and he therefore labels them heretics.

Some decisions emanate from his acceptance of both a “natural” distinction and a functional distinction between men and women. Men and women are created by God differently and with distinct missions. His clearest statement and defense of this position is in IM OH 4:49. He elaborates the differences, allows that there have been social transformations, and insists that, nonetheless, the halakhic distinctions must be maintained. The practical repercussions of these distinctions are never enumerated. In fact, women are encouraged to perform rituals originally reserved for men, such as shofar and lulav. The distinction appears to be maintained in only a few ritual realms such as aliyah, minyan and tefillin. The impact of these decisions is to encourage women’s greater participation in the ritual life of the community, but to maintain a male face to leadership, authority and representation. Paradoxically, in this same responsum, Rabbi Feinstein clearly indicates that women are not outsiders, unlike non-Jews or even non-Orthodox. He specifically claims that in matters of kedushah, sanctity, women are equal to men. Unlike his stance towards non-Jews and non-Orthodox, he definitely includes women in the community of believers, of insiders.

Many of Rabbi Feinstein’s responsa follow this pattern of distinctions emanating from the concept of different natures. His decisions regarding diet (IM HM 2:65), clothing (IM EH 4:62.4, OH 4:75.3) and even the purpose of education fit this mode. Men diet for health, while women diet for good looks. Men are more easily attracted to and distracted by women. Ironically, the consequence of this latter distinction traditionally depends upon restricting women’s clothing and behavior rather than men’s. Significantly, while all agree that boys are obligated to study Torah, Rabbi Feinstein maintains that girls must be formally educated for faith and good deeds. Their nature and mission, however, dictate a distinctive curriculum and allow all kinds of variation in the educational program. Notably, Rabbi Feinstein does not contend that the difference between boys and girls is a qualitative one. Women are not less capable as students or teachers; they just need to know different things. Thus, although the purpose and content of their education differs, their capacity for knowledge, particularly Torah knowledge, is not disparate. He even accepts women as teachers; and not just teachers of girls or young boys, but women who can be expert enough to teach limmudei kodesh, sacred subjects, to males (IM YD 3:73). Despite that equation, in practical terms, women are certainly denied the kind of training that would render them halakhic authorities. Hence, Bais Ya’akov schools are praised for their commitment to educating girls (IM YD 3:80), but they are forbidden to teach even Mishnah to them (IM YD 3:87).

Rabbi Feinstein’s main educational concern, found in his earliest responsum as well as his last, is the necessity for segregating the sexes (IM YD 1:137, 2:104). Boys and girls must be in separate buildings while they are studying. The only exception permitted is for the very young when financial strain might result in no school at all for girls (IM YD 1:137, 2:104, 3:73, 3:78, 4:28). In all the various arguments and discussions the basic unquestioned premise is that girls must receive a formal public education no matter what their talent (IM YD 2:104). The convention of educating females is so self-evident for him that it needs and receives no justification. Fathers must pay for their daughters’ education (IM YD 2:113), women can be teachers, and women can aspire to Torah knowledge (IM OH 4:67), all radically new precepts issued in the name of preservation and tradition.

Despite his support for the education of girls, the negative consequence of their educational distinctiveness is seen in the ritual arena. Thus, Rabbi Feinstein maintains that although girls must be Torah-educated, they are not obligated in talmud Torah (IM YD 2:106). Hence, they cannot have a Bat Mitzvah in synagogue because they cannot deliver the traditional Torah lesson that would render the festivity a se’udat mitzvah, an obligatory festive meal. He opposes a Bat Mitzvah ceremony (IM OH 1:104) on many grounds, especially because it emanates from branches of Judaism that he does not recognize. He calls it worthless. But in a different responsum (IM OH 4:36), he calls the Bat Mitzvah a simhah and permits a kiddush and a speech in the synagogue proper, thus extending male ritual patterns to females and creating a vehicle for a Bat Mitzvah celebration in an Orthodox context. While dissimilar from the male pattern, it proclaims a full recognition of the juridical shift in the girl’s status. Although not egalitarian, it testifies to the fact that in educational and ritual arenas women have a greater level of participation and responsibility in contemporary Orthodoxy than previously.

There are times when Rabbi Feinstein’s claims for equal treatment in Jewish law are fitting. His purpose is to maintain distinctiveness, not subservience. In marriage-related responsa, he focuses primarily on the legal structure. Concerned that the process be unquestioned, he denies any validity to non-Orthodox ceremonies. Clergy, witnesses and procedure must be Orthodox or there is no marriage (IM EH 1:74–77, 85; 2:19; 3:23, 25; 4:32). Yet, even though he does not allow the double ring ceremony, he does concede that if such a rite transpires within an Orthodox setting the wedding is legal and the couple are married according to halakhah (IM EH 3:18; 4:13, 32). He does not understand or sympathize with the claim that some women need to participate verbally in their wedding ritual. But, when it comes to enumerating specific responsibilities, there is room for greater mutuality or female involvement. The traditional norm requires that a woman accept the customs of her husband (IM OH 1:158). If she is used to Sephardic ritual, but he is Ashkenazi, she must adapt to his pattern. Significantly, in some instances, such as her desire to follow the custom of her mother and wear a wig, Rabbi Feinstein allows her to do so despite the husband’s disapproval and the rabbi’s own qualms (IM EH 2:12). On the other hand, he does not allow her to shave her hair if her husband disapproves since, according to Rabbi Feinstein, that specifically infringes on her husband’s prerogative (IM EH 1:59). He defends the consistency of these decisions in Iggerot Moshe EH 4:32, always insisting that these rulings are not indicators of inferiority or lack of respect. In fact, at times wives are granted authority over husbands, such as in naming a baby (IM YD 3:101). At the end of one remarkable responsum dealing with the nature and frequency of the obligation for sexual intercourse incumbent on a Jewish male who is a religious scholar, Rabbi Feinstein agrees with his colleagues that the requirement has changed to twice a week rather than the talmudic once a week (IM EH 3:28). In that document he explains that the original obligation was dependent upon the woman’s desires. Because of the immoral climate today, her desires have increased. Therefore, the talmid hakham (Jewish scholar) is “advised and obligated” to satisfy his wife twice a week. Rabbi Feinstein uses the word meshu’bad—compelled—to describe the relationship: “He is bound to her.” Her desires and needs are the deciding factors of the necessity to accommodate social reality.

Similarly, in matters of birth control the woman is central. Birth control is a very complex matter in Jewish law. Rabbi Feinstein’s many decisions take into consideration medical data, personal histories and legal principles. In these responsa, we learn of women who are in need of help, whose nerves are frayed, for whom having another child represents an unbearable burden (IM EH 4:64, 67–69). Notably, his decisions routinely focus on the woman’s condition rather than on the father’s. Whether Rabbi Feinstein gives permission to the woman to use birth control or not, his compassion and concern for her are ever-present (IM EH 4:73). He takes a more rigorous and uncompromising stance in matters of abortion. As in all Jewish law on the matter, the woman is still central but he is less permissive here than in cases of birth control. His use of words reflects this orientation: along with other decisors, he uses the word rezah (murder) to define abortion rather than the talmudic category (hapalah) reserved for abortion and miscarriage (IM HM 2:69, 71, 73.8). Given the nomenclature, only in extreme cases, where the mother’s life is at stake, could abortion be permissible. Although he was rigorous in his halakhic judgment, he was personally compassionate to each woman who approached him with a problem.

As in marriage, Rabbi Feinstein’s decisions on divorce focus on the legal process and structure. Again, everything must be done strictly according to the law, but he is more willing to see the existing disparity between men and women and to stretch for solutions, even allowing pre-nuptial clauses (IM EH 1:106, 107). In a series of ground breaking decisions, he cites the rarely used tool of annulment in order to free women from defunct marriages (IM EH 1:69; 3:48–49; 4:113 ). In denying Reform marriages, he concomitantly declares that where these occur there is no need for a Jewish divorce, thereby freeing many women (IM EH 1: 76–77). In addition, he is concerned for the divorcée who needs to get on with her life. In one text, he gives a divorced woman permission to uncover her hair for dating purposes (IM EH 4:32.4). The young woman wants to be able to meet men for matrimonial purposes. She is afraid that a head covering will automatically indicate that she is currently married. Rabbi Feinstein is persuaded that her motive is legitimate and so allows her to remove her head covering. But, he warns, there are conditions. She must inform the man as soon as possible that she is divorced. He will not allow her to mislead a man just to dispel an incorrect first impression so that she might eventually marry. Notably, Rabbi Feinstein decides that a man cannot divorce his wife for refusing to cover her hair (IM EH 1:114, 4:32). In these decisions, Rabbi Feinstein is responsive to women and clarifies their halakhic significance.

Nonetheless, men are the primary performers in Rabbi Feinstein’s ritually circumscribed world. Although he refers to biblical women such as Hannah and to women’s presence in Temple worship, he does not establish a world of balanced participation. The divisions between men and women, especially in the realm of synagogue, which has come to be regarded as the locus of religion, express a male supremacy. The mehizah, the prime symbol of the separation of men and women, is grounded in the mandate to maintain awe and eliminate frivolity during prayers. Significantly, the mehizah applies both to public behavior and to men and women equally (IM OH 1:43). In the synagogue male and female separation is inviolate and even biblical, having nothing to do with sexual impropriety or female inferiority. Nonetheless, it remains the symbol of women’s limited participation and restriction.

Optimally, he believes, the only way to prevent adults from breaching sexual boundaries is to keep men and women separate in all possible formats. He consistently cautions against any contact, even handshaking. In a series of responsa, he states that one cannot shake a woman’s hand in the customary form of greeting (IM OH 1:113; EH 1:56, 4:32.9). Even in cases where the law might permit contact, such as at school or at a wedding, he advises those capable of a more pious lifestyle to refrain from all possible encounters. Consistent with talmudic sources, Rabbi Feinstein accepts the notion that men have a greater capacity for distractions and need more restraint. Women may see men in synagogue; it is better if men do not see women (IM OH 1:43). The laws guarding against sexual temptation are applied differently for men and women because their “natures” differ.

The only place these considerations are not found in Rabbi Feinstein’s world is in the marketplace. Contrary to past standards, Jewish men and women as adults today have constant contact in the workplace and school environment. The business world is rendered neutral and behavior that is elsewhere prohibited is permitted there. Female-male propinquity, so feared in the synagogue, is not a problem on the subway. Mistrust of the moral degeneracy of America is replaced by an appreciation and acceptance of the American work ethic. For the sake of business Jews may wear American-style clothing (IM YD 1:81); men may remove their head covering (IM HM 1:93; OH 4:2); widows may remove their head covering (IM EH: 157); and men may dye their hair (IM YD 2:61). Men and women may travel together on the subway to work (IM EH 2:14); men may be lifeguards where women swim (IM EH 4:62); and women can continue to work in offices where sexual transgressions have occurred (IM OH 4:117). In one responsum (IM YD 2:44), he justifies hiring a woman as a mashgiah, a position usually reserved for men. When criticized for that permissive ruling, he responds with a strong defense (IM YD 2:45). And in that document, he develops sources that would allow women to assume leadership roles in the political or business world. Concerns for the potential of sexual intimacy seem to disappear in the public realm of the marketplace as he accepts women’s full and equal presence there. There are no apologies, few distinctions and no special warnings.

Rabbi Moses Feinstein does not consciously or purposefully discriminate against women. Unmistakably, he does not intend to treat them as “other.” He responds to individual women with compassion and even great respect. Yet his decisions emanate from a patriarchal culture and evince a pervasive and implicit standard of gender distinction and sexual segregation. In his eloquent argument in defense of Judaism in IM OH 4:49, he reveals his acceptance of the notion of gender equality coupled with a strong commitment to the ideal of separate but equal.

SELECTED WORKS BY MOSES FEINSTEIN

Feinstein, Moses. Iggerot Moshe (IM). [Letters of Moshe] (Hebrew). 8 volumes. New York: 1959–1996. Vol. 1 Orah Hayyim (OH 1), 1959; vol. 2 Yoreh De’ah (YD 1), 1959; vol. 3 Even ha-Ezer (EH 1), 1961; vol. 4 Hoshen Mishpat (HM 1), OH 2, EH 2, 1963; vol. 5 YD 2, OH 3, EH 3, 1973; vol. 6 OH 4, YD 3, 1981; vol. 7 EH 4, HM 2, 1985; vol. 8 OH 5, YD 4, 1996 (posthumous); The Jewish Observer 9 (1973); Idem. Interpretations of Moshe (Hebrew). New York: 1988; Idem. Darash Moshe: A Selection of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s choice comments in the Torah. English version. Translated by Rabbi Avrohom Yosief Rosenberg. New York: 1994; Idem. Sayings of Moshe. (Hebrew). New York: 1992 [1946–1984]; Soloveitchik, Haym. “A Time for Action – Adapted From An Address by Horav Moshe Feinstein.” The Jewish Observer 9 (1973).

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How to cite this page

Joseph, Norma Baumel. "Rabbi Moses Feinstein." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 23, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/feinstein-rabbi-moses>.

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