Humble Rabbis

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (of blessed memory) opened the introduction to his collected responsa, Iggrot Moshe, by apologizing for publishing his decisions in Jewish Law.  After all, the Talmud records the claim that an unqualified student who issues decisions in Jewish law effectively kills people (a saying of Abba bar Rav Huna at Sota 22).  Rabbi Feinstein doubted that he himself had the stature to issue decisions in Jewish Law, much less to publish his decisions.

He excused himself by explaining that even if he has come to the wrong conclusion, he has tried to his utmost, and “if he worked and exerted himself with all his strength to make the law clear, then he must issue his decision, and he receives reward in any case.”

Furthermore, he explained, he had to answer questions, because “it is forbidden for a sage to send a questioner to some sage; since the questioner has come to him, it is his mitzvah to respond, if he is permitted to do so.”

On this I relied to issue decisions and to respond with what appears to my poor opinion, after I have clarified the Halakhah with great effort for those who wish to know my opinion, and I have specifically written the reasoning and everything that I have examined so that I am in this way merely a teacher of the Halakhah, so that the one who asks may look into the matter by himself, and investigate and choose,

Rabbi Feinstein also thought that this book would make his father proud.

One day, a New York Times reporter decided to interview Rabbi Feinstein.  Israel Shenker asked Rabbi Moshe Feinstein how he earned his title. Rabbi Feinstein said that no one conferred the title of “posek” on him.  When Rabbi  Feinstein came to America, people began asking him questions, and he answered, because no one else seemed eager to answer, and because the questioners had specifically asked him. They must have liked his answers, because they kept coming back with new questions.  Rabbi Feinstein told the reporter, “If people see that one answer is good and another answer is good, gradually you will be accepted.”  (Israel Shenker, “Responsa: The Law as Seen by Rabbis for 1000 Years.” New York Times, May 5, 1975.)

Rabbi Feinstein did not seek authority over people.  People asked his opinions.

I remember the humility of my teacher, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein.  At a memorial at his sheloshim (30 days after his death), one of the speakers identified a peculiarity of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s rhetorical style.  When asked to choose between alternatives, Rabbi Lichtenstein characteristically began his response with the attractive features of one alternative—the one he did not favor. Though he would make the other choice, he strove to give full credit to the other option.  He showed respect for those people who disagreed with him, and strived to consider their arguments fairly.

This characteristic style seems to me the diametric opposite of political spin. Rather than distorting reality to make his own reasoning seem more attractive, Rabbi Lichtenstein struggled to make his opponent’s reasoning attractive.

The eulogist properly compared that rhetorical style to the students of Hillel, who presented the opinions of the students of Shammai before they presented their own (Eiruvin 13b).  They did so out of humility. Their opponents deserved careful, respectful consideration.

Public figures face the temptation to use a witty phrase or a humiliating epithet to crush those who dare to disagree with them.  These public figures might even see great value in displaying their righteous anger against people who err.

Rabbi Feinstein and Rabbi Lichtenstein spoke gently.

May remembering them inspire us to do likewise.

About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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