I didn’t know Rabbi Moshe Dovid Tendler, of blessed memory, very well. I met him personally three, maybe four, times. There are certainly many of his students and colleagues who are better suited to write a tribute to him than me … and in fact many of these tributes appeared in last week’s issue of The Jewish Link.
However, Rabbi Tendler did influence me in a major way, a story that is worth sharing.
Let me explain.
When I was six years old, I was playing in my backyard on the jungle gym, and decided to try to jump from the top rung. Unfortunately, I landed on the bottom rung and ruptured my kidney, which was removed during emergency surgery.
Fortunately, one can live a full life with one kidney, which is exactly what I have done for the past 50-plus years.
Fast forward a couple of decades from the time of my accident. After I got married, organ transplantation became safer and more common, with organs being removed from people who had died (brain death), but whose heart kept on beating because they were connected to a ventilator. It occurred to me that if, God forbid, anything happened to my one kidney, I would require a kidney transplant to stay alive.
However, like many folks my age, we were taught that Jews don’t donate organs, because recovering an organ from a brain dead person was equivalent to murder. This bothered me greatly. It seemed halachically problematic and ethically repugnant for a recipient to be halachically allowed to take an organ from someone who is brain dead, but it was not halachically allowed to donate organs after one has been declared brain dead.
In 1999, Rabbi Moshe Tendler was invited to our shul in Stamford to speak about organ donation and Jewish law. Being interested in this subject, I eagerly awaited his talk.
Rabbi Tendler gave a fascinating lecture in which he discussed, in layperson’s terms, the science behind brain death, and explained why halacha viewed brain death – as opposed to cessation of heartbeat – as the true definition of halachic death. Any why it was therefore permissible for a Jew to donate organs upon brain death.
Not only was it permissible to donate organs, according to Rabbi Tendler, but it was actually a mitzvah, because you are saving lives by your action. An individual can potentially save eight lives by donating his heart, kidneys, lungs, intestines, corneas, and liver after death.
Needless to say, it was an eye-opening experience for me. I still remember Rabbi Tendler’s slides that he presented on an overhead projector. (This was pre-PowerPoint.)
A couple of years later, I read an article in The Jewish Week about a brand new organization called the Halachic Organ Donor Society (HODS), which was started to educate Jews about organ donation and Jewish law and encourage them to become organ donors. I called the director, and told him that I wanted to get involved in helping the organization.
The story of HODS is quite remarkable. When I joined the board of HODS, there were two Orthodox rabbis who had organ donor cards. Today there are more than 350 Orthodox rabbis who carry cards and who support halachic organ donation.
Hundreds of lives have been saved because of successful organ transplants from Jewish donors who otherwise might not have donated their organs because they originally thought it was against halacha.
I can safely say that if it were not for the fact that Rabbi Moshe Tendler – a respected posek and world class scientist –and his father-in-law, Rav Moshe Feinstein, declaring their halachic support for organ donation, HODS would never have been successful.
And had it not been for the presentation that I heard Rabbi Tendler deliver in our community, I might never have become involved in HODS.
But I digress. The main point I want to make here is about Rabbi Tendler – and the revolutionary halachic rulings that he made during his lifetime and his ability to stand firm in his halachic findings, even in the face of strong opposition.
Organ donation is just one example of his many halachic decisions. He wrote extensively on euthanasia, Infertility, stem cell research, and other complex scientific matters as they related to halacha. And once he felt that he fully understood the science behind these complicated subjects, he wasn’t shy about expressing his opinions.
He also wrote an open letter to the Moetzes of Agudas Yisrael, pulling no punches after Rabbi Nisson Wolpin denigrated the Rav, zt”l, with a very parve obituary after the Rav’s death that appeared in the Jewish Observer.
In addition, he felt there was no reason why one could not walk on the grounds of Har haBayit, and he made multiple trips there himself to demonstrate his allegiance to his belief.
Rabbi Jonathan Muskat of the Young Israel of Oceanside articulated Rabbi Tendler’s gadlus as a Torah giant in a social media post he wrote after Rabbi Tendler died:
“One thing that stood out for me about Rav Moshe Tendler, zt”l, was that he was a first-rate posek who was fiercely independent and courageous and was unafraid to take a stand in halacha even if others disagreed with him. There are some in the Orthodox Jewish community who issue halachic rulings on important issues when they don’t have broad enough halachic shoulders to do so. There are some in the Orthodox Jewish community who do not issue halachic rulings on important issues even though they have broad enough halachic shoulders to do so. Rav Tendler, zt”l, was someone who had broad shoulders and used them for the betterment of Klal Yisrael.”
Unfortunately, there is a culture of fear that exists in the Orthodox community – with many of us afraid to articulate our real beliefs for fear of how we might be judged by others.
Although there have been a few exceptions (the courageous halachic rulings vis-à-vis COVID-19 by Modern Orthodox poskim come to mind), there has generally been a dearth of discussion on the more controversial issues facing the Orthodox community – because it is often easier to be silent about these matters rather than taking a halachic position.
Rabbi Tendler offered a refreshing change to this practice, as he was never fearful of how his positions might be viewed by others in the community. In some ways, this was his greatest legacy.
May his memory continue to be a blessing.