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Rabbi Moses Feinstein

1895–1986

by Norma Baumel Joseph

In Brief

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the great Jewish legalists of the twentieth century, wrote numerous legal decisions responding to and affecting women’s lives. His pronouncements regarding women generally followed the belief that women and men should be separated, especially to prevent the breaking of sexual boundaries. He also believed that boys and girls should be educated separately, and that boys should receive a more thorough Talmudic education. Feinstein’s views of women were often conflicting; he always argued that the genders are equal but were subject to different sets of rules. Overall, he aimed to respond to women’s issues with respect and careful consideration, while also establishing a system in which the roles of men and women were distinctly imbalanced.

Rabbi Moses (Moshe) Feinstein, one of the great Jewish legalists of the twentieth century, wrote numerous legal decisions responding to and affecting women’s lives. These decisions (Halakhic decisions written by rabbinic authories in response to questions posed to them.responsapl.; responsum, sing.) reflect a wide range of The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.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 (The Jewish dietary laws delineating the permissible types of food and methods of their preparation.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, intended to accept his authority and follow his ruling. Nonetheless, Feinstein was 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 used this mode to reinforce and sustain his vision of a circumscribed religious community.

Biography

Born and trained in Eastern Europe, Feinstein 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. Feinstein’s purpose was to ensure the survival of a particular group with a distinctive traditional lifestyle.

General Beliefs about Judaism and Gender

Given that context, Moshe Feinstein appeared to focus his responsa upon three areas that, in his view, required 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 was a proper pattern for all interactions, which must be maintained, and his role as decisor as to guarantee the integrity of these distinctions. His method was to erect boundaries that create social distance in very controlled situations.

Consequently, Feinstein’s map of the world consisted of a series of concentric circles whose circumferences were sometimes, but most often not, permeable. The largest circle separated Jew from non-Jew. Its perimeter was a veritable wall when it came to matters of marriage, worship, education, and worldview. Equally rigid was the dividing line between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, but the arena of gender difference was much more complex. Everywhere in Feinstein’s responsa it is clear that women are Jews, even “keepers of the Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah.” In rare instances, he included 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 approximated that between Jew and non-Jew or Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Yet from another perspective women were the quintessential “other.”

Feinstein operated 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 believed that they are “equal,” that is in no way inferior or less important than men. He forcefully argued this position in one particular responsum (IM OH 4:49). Yet, he also treated them separately from men in ways that at times intimated fear and mistrust and, at other times, in ways that intimated second-class treatment. Thus, in some cases, he doubted women’s intention (IM OH 4:49), positing unsubstantiated motives that rendered their requests unacceptable. In IM OH 4:49, he noted that even though the women were faithful to the ways of the Torah, if their motives emanated from the women’s movement, their request as invalid, and he therefore labelled 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 was in IM OH 4:49. He elaborated the differences, allowed that there have been social transformations, and insisted that, nonetheless, the halakhic distinctions must be maintained. The practical repercussions of these distinctions were never enumerated. In fact, women were encouraged to perform rituals originally reserved for men, such as Ram's horn blown during the month before and the two days of Rosh Ha-Shanah, and at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. shofar and lulav. The distinction appears to be maintained in only a few ritual realms such as Lit. "ascent." A "calling up" to the Torah during its reading in the synagogue.aliyahThe quorum, traditionally of ten adult males over the age of thirteen, required for public synagogue service and several other religious ceremonies.minyan and Phylacteriestefillin.

The impact of these decisions was 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, Feinstein clearly indicated that women were not outsiders, unlike non-Jews or even non-Orthodox. He specifically claimed that in matters of kedushah, sanctity, women are equal to men. Unlike his stance towards non-Jews and non-Orthodox, he definitely included women in the community of believers, of insiders.

Many of Feinstein’s responsa followed 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. Significantly, while all agree that boys are obligated to study Torah, Feinstein maintained 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.

Beliefs about Education

Notably, Feinstein did not contend that the difference between boys and girls was 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 accepted 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 were certainly denied the kind of training that would render them halakhic authorities. Hence, Bais Ya’akov schools were praised for their commitment to educating girls (IM YD 3:80), but they were forbidden to teach even Codification of basic Jewish Oral Law; edited and arranged by R. Judah ha-Nasi c. 200 C.E.Mishnah to them (IM YD 3:87).

Feinstein’s main educational concern, found in his earliest responsum as well as his last, was 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 was 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 was that girls must receive a formal public education no matter what their talent (IM YD 2:104). The convention of educating females was so self-evident for him that it needed and received 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 was seen in the ritual arena. Thus, Feinstein maintained that although girls must be Torah-educated, they were not obligated in Lit. "study of Torah," but also the name for organizations that established religious schools, and later the specific school systems themselves, including the network of afternoon Hebrew schools in early 20th c. U.S.Talmud Torah (IM YD 2:106). Hence, they cannot have a Lit. "daughter of the commandment." A girl who has reached legal-religious maturity and is now obligated to fulfill the commandmentsbat mitzvah in synagogue because they cannot deliver the traditional Torah lesson that would render the festivity a se’udat A biblical or rabbinic commandment; also, a good deed.mitzvah, an obligatory festive meal. He opposed a Bat Mitzvah ceremony (IM OH 1:104) on many grounds, especially because it emanated from branches of Judaism that he did not recognize. He called it worthless. But in a different responsum (IM OH 4:36), he called the Bat Mitzvah a simhah and permitted a Lit. "sanctification." Prayer recited over a cup of wine at the onset of the Sabbath or Festival.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 proclaimed a full recognition of the juridical shift in the girl’s status. Although not egalitarian, it testified to the fact that in educational and ritual arenas women have a greater level of participation and responsibility in contemporary Orthodoxy than previously.

Beliefs about Marriage, Contraceptives, and Divorce

There were times when Feinstein’s claims for equal treatment in Jewish law were fitting. His purpose was to maintain distinctiveness, not subservience. In marriage-related responsa, he focused primarily on the legal structure. Concerned that the process be unquestioned, he denied any validity to non-Orthodox ceremonies. Clergy, witnesses, and procedure must be Orthodox or there was no marriage (IM EH 1:74–77, 85; 2:19; 3:23, 25; 4:32). Yet, even though he did not allow the double ring ceremony, he did concede that if such a rite transpired within an Orthodox setting, the wedding was legal and the couple married according to halakhah (IM EH 3:18; 4:13, 32).

Feinstein did not understand or sympathize with the claim that some women need to participate verbally in their wedding ritual. But, when it came to enumerating specific responsibilities, there was room for greater mutuality or female involvement. The traditional norm required that a woman accept the customs of her husband (IM OH 1:158). If she was used to Sephardic ritual, but he was 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, Feinstein allowed her to do so despite the husband’s disapproval and the rabbi’s own qualms (IM EH 2:12).

On the other hand, he did not allow a wife to shave her hair if her husband disapproved since, according to Feinstein, that specifically infringed on her husband’s prerogative (IM EH 1:59). He defended the consistency of these decisions in Iggerot Moshe EH 4:32, always insisting that these rulings were not indicators of inferiority or lack of respect. In fact, at times wives were 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, Feinstein agreed with his colleagues that the requirement had changed to twice a week rather than the Talmudic once a week (IM EH 3:28). In that document he explained 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) was “advised and obligated” to satisfy his wife twice a week. Feinstein used the word meshu’bad—compelled—to describe the relationship: “He is bound to her.” Her desires and needs were the deciding factors of the necessity to accommodate social reality.

Similarly, in matters of birth control, a very complex matter in Jewish law, the woman was central. Feinstein’s many decisions took into consideration medical data, personal histories, and legal principles. In these responsa, we learn of women who were in need of help, whose nerves were frayed, for whom having another child represented an unbearable burden (IM EH 4:64, 67–69). Notably, his decisions routinely focused on the woman’s condition rather than on the father’s.

Whether Feinstein gave permission to the woman to use birth control or not, his compassion and concern for her were ever-present (IM EH 4:73). He took a more rigorous and uncompromising stance in matters of abortion. As in all Jewish law on the matter, the woman was still central, but he was less permissive here than in cases of birth control. His use of words reflected this orientation: along with other decisors, he used 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 was 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, Feinstein’s decisions on divorce focused on the legal process and structure. Again, everything must be done strictly according to the law, but he was 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 declared that where these occurred there is no need for a Jewish divorce, thereby freeing many women (IM EH 1: 76–77). In addition, he as concerned for the divorcée who needed to get on with her life. In one text, he gave a divorced woman permission to uncover her hair for dating purposes (IM EH 4:32.4). The young woman wanted to be able to meet men for matrimonial purposes. She was afraid that a head covering would automatically indicate that she was currently married. Feinstein was persuaded that her motive was legitimate and so allowed her to remove her head covering. But, he warned, there are conditions. She must inform the man as soon as possible that she is divorced. He would not allow her to mislead a man just to dispel an incorrect first impression so that she might eventually marry. Notably, Feinstein decided that a man cannot divorce his wife for refusing to cover her hair (IM EH 1:114, 4:32). In these decisions, Feinstein was responsive to women and clarified their halakhic significance.

Beliefs about Women’s Role in Jewish Society

Nonetheless, men were the primary performers in Feinstein’s ritually circumscribed world. Although he referred to biblical women such as Hannah and to women’s presence in Temple worship, he did 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 believed, the only way to prevent adults from breaching sexual boundaries was to keep men and women separate in all possible formats. He consistently cautioned against any contact, even handshaking. In a series of responsa, he stated 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 advised those capable of a more pious lifestyle to refrain from all possible encounters. Consistent with Talmudic sources, Feinstein accepted 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 were applied differently for men and women because their “natures” differ.

The only place these considerations were not found in Feinstein’s world were 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 was 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 justified hiring a woman as a mashgiah (the person who ensures a kosher food service environment), a position usually reserved for men. When criticized for that permissive ruling, he responded with a strong defense (IM YD 2:45). And in that document, he developed sources that would allow women to assume leadership roles in the political or business world. Concerns for the potential of sexual intimacy seemed to disappear in the public realm of the marketplace as he accepted women’s full and equal presence there. There were no apologies, few distinctions, and no special warnings.

Moshe Feinstein did not consciously or purposefully discriminate against women. Unmistakably, he did not intend to treat them as “other.” He responded to individual women with compassion and even great respect. Yet his decisions emanated from a patriarchal culture and evinced 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 revealed 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

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).

Interpretations of Moshe (Hebrew). New York: 1988.

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.

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." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 25, 2022) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/feinstein-rabbi-moses>.