For some time now I have taught classes and posted write-ups on landmark Teshuvot of Rav Moshe Feinstein under the header “My All-Time Favorite Moments in Iggerot Moshe” (link). But it has occurred to me over time that that title is a bit of a misnomer, because while these might be his most significant Teshuvot – on Chalav Yisrael, Mechitza, Mikvah and others – they are not truly my “all-time favorite moments.” That designation belongs to a special class of Teshuvot that would not be worthy of shiurim on their own, but in which we find the topic ostensibly unbecoming of the Gadol Hador, or we find Rav Moshe trying to understand an American milieu with which he was not entirely familiar, or unabashedly did not want to be. Here, then, in no particular order, are my truly all-time favorite moments in Iggerot Moshe. If you have any suggestions of your own, feel free to add them in the comments – I’d love to hear from you!
1) Can You Daven In a Shul with a Flag In It?
Iggerot Moshe Orach Chaim 1:46
My favorite thing about this Teshuva is how he turns on the questioner in the middle. In 1957, Rav Moshe was asked by a Chassidic Rebbe, Rav Yissachar Halperin of the Bronx (link), whether it was permissible to Daven in a shul with an American or Israeli flag in it. After pointing out that even committing a carnal act in a shul would not lower its level of holiness, Rav Moshe pivots to wonder what exactly would bother the questioner about the flag to begin with: All of our shuls are built על תנאי (on the condition that they can be used for non-holy purposes), and the Israeli flag is merely a symbol created by “רשעים” who never intended to invest it with any holiness, either Jewish or secular. Its purpose in the shul is merely “לסימן על מנהלי בית הכנסת שמחבבין מדינה זו ומדינת ישראל, וחפצו להראות זה במקום רואים,” “to signify that the administrators of the shul love this country and the State of Israel, and that they desire to show this in a public way.” In the end, Rav Moshe shows his keen eye for perceiving machloket and spends the final paragraph dressing down the erstwhile congregants for not being sufficiently aware of their own moral shortcomings:
ולכן אלו שרוצים לעשות בשביל זה מנין במקום אחר וחושבים שעושים בזה דבר גדול, אין עושים כהוגן, ורק הוא ענין פוליטיקא מצד כח היצר הרע והשטן אשר בענונותיהם הרבים מרקד בינן.
And therefore, those who, because of this, want to make a Minyan in a different place, and think that they are doing something monumental because of that, are not acting appropriately, and this is just a political matter powered by the strength of the Evil Inclination and the Satan who, due to their great sins, is dancing among them.
2) “Nusach” Sefard Is No Such Thing
Iggerot Moshe Orach Chaim 2:24
Try this one out on your Chassidic friends. To a questioner who wanted to know whether he should retain his family’s Nusach Sefard or adapt to the Nusach Ashkenaz of his shul, Rav Moshe professed to not understand why anyone would Daven Nusach Sefard at all:
הנה ידוע שכל אנשי פולין ואונגארן ורוסלאנד לבד מקומות הרחוקים הקרים וקאווקאז וכדומה, הם בני אשכנז, אף החסידים! ועד שנתפשתה שיטת החסידות, התפללו כולם בנוסח אשכנז … ונמצא שאין להחשיב שינוי מנהג, מה שהתחלת להתפלל נוסח אשכנז, אף שאביך ועוד ב’ וג’ דורות התחילו להתפלל בנוסח החדש, שהרי אדרבא – הם שינו מנהג אבותיהם, ורבותינו אדירי עולם חכמי צרפת ואשכנז. ואין ידוע טעם ברור במה שהתירו לשנות נוסח הקבוע …
It is well known that everyone from Poland, Hungary, and Russia – except for the faraway, cold places, and Caucasus and places like that – are all Ashkenazi, even the Chassidim! And until there became widespread the viewpoints of the Chassidim, everybody Davened Nusach Ashkenaz … So we see that beginning to Daven Nusach Ashkenaz is not considered changing one’s custom, even though your father and the past two or three generations began to Daven with this new Nusach. Because just the opposite is true – they changed the custom of their fathers and of our sages, the great Rabbinical luminaries of France and Germany. And it is not known what specific reason allowed them to change the established text of the prayers …
In other words, it is impossible to “change” one’s Nusach from Sefard to Ashkenaz, because the innovation was having ever changed to this sham “Nusach Sefard” to begin with. The questioner is simply returning to his roots and should feel no guilt in doing so. Reading between the lines, Rav Moshe is relegating Nusach Sefard to a מנהג טעות, a mistaken minhag which should never have been established to begin with and therefore can be discarded with ease. Quite a statement against the many Jews and Kehillot which follow Nusach Sefard.
3) Rav Moshe on Baseball – Is It Permitted to Play? Is It Permitted to Attend a Game?
Iggerot Moshe Choshen Mishpat 1:104 and Yoreh Deah 4:11
Rav Moshe wrote two Teshuvot on baseball, from what I can find, with very different attitudes to the national pastime of his adopted homeland. In an undated Teshuva in the first volume of Choshen Mishpat (the volume was published in 1963), Rav Moshe responds to the question of “אם מותר להתפרנס ממשחק הכדורים שיש בזה חשש סכנה רחוק טובא,” “whether it is permitted to earn a living from the game of the balls which has an extremely small likelihood of causing danger.” He responds that given that the unlikelihood of danger in playing “משחק זריקת הכדורים שנקרא באל בלע”ז,” “the game where you throw the balls which is called “Ball” in English,” which causes injury to only “one out of many thousands of people,” it is permitted to play the game. Indeed, this is the case whether the potential danger is to others or only to oneself, “דמאי שנא מחשש דליהרג בעצמו? דגם להרוג את עצמו יש איסור לא תרצח,” “because why should this be any different than killing oneself? For killing oneself is also included in the prohibition not to kill.” However, you can tell your old camp counselor that it is forbidden to force someone else to play baseball, ,דודאי אין לו רשות להכניס, אף בספק הרחוק כזה, את אלו שלא ידעו, או לא רצו להכנס אף בספק רחוק כזה, “because it is certainly forbidden to enter someone – even in such an extremely unlikely event of danger – who does not know or who does not want to enter into even such an extremely unlikely event of danger.”
Rav Moshe took a much dimmer view of baseball when it comes to watching it as a spectator, according to a Teshuva dated 1981 dealing mainly with the prohibition of ובחוקותיהם לא תלכו, not following in the ways of the non-Jews. In the first section of the Teshuva, dealing with going “לתיאטרון ואיצטדיון ספורט בימינו,” “to theatres and sporting events nowadays,” Rav Moshe first brushes away the possibility that we are in fact dealing here with an issue of ובחוקותיהם לא תלכו, using a similar pattern of thought established in connection with Thanksgiving, namely that if there is a clearly stated reason why the non-Jews are doing a certain thing (in this case, “frivolity and licentiousness”), that excludes the possibility that it is a violation of ובחוקותיהם לא תלכו. However, given that the reason non-Jews go to such events is ליצנות, fool-mockery, this fact in itself establishes a solid reason for Jews to be prohibited from attending. Other reasons given here to avoid such locales are איסור מושב לצים, “the prohibition of sitting among fools,” and ביטול תורה, “wasting time from Torah study,” which Rav Moshe goes on to clarify: “לא רק על זמן זה, אלא שגורם לו להיות בטל לגמרי מהתורה,” “not only the time wasted right now, but additionally that such a person will invariably become completely lost from a life of Torah.”
4) What’s Wrong with Teenage Dating?
Iggerot Moshe Even Ha’ezer 4:60
How about a lot? In 1975, ידידי הצעירים, a friend of the children, sent in a letter on behalf of one of his protegees asking what exactly is wrong with dating outside of the context of marriage, and the boy probably got more of an earful than he was expecting. We already know that the boy is in trouble when Rav Moshe tells us that he is interrupting his summer vacation (the byline is “במעון קיץ סמוך לנוא יארק,” “in my summer home near New York”) to answer the young man in all due haste: “אינו רוצה לשמוע דברי מוסר ותוכחה אלא כשישמע ממני הדבר על פי הלכה פסוקה, ואם כן מוכרח אני תיכף להשיב, שהרי נוגע למעשה תיכף,” “He does not want to hear words of rapprochement or rebuke, but rather he will only hear from me the matter according to the final Halacha, and if so it is incumbent upon me to answer immediately, as this matter is related to a practical, urgent need.” Indeed, Rav Moshe does not spare on the lomdus, quickly deriving from a qualifier in the Rambam (“כלומר”) that even things which will lead to the prohibition of avoiding contact with forbidden relationships – itself a protective fence – are likewise prohibited, thus prohibiting “דברים בטלים,” “worthless things” (i.e., hanging out) as much as kissing, hugging, and touching. Furthermore, while actions which are entirely of the boy’s choosing (such as smelling her perfume) may only be a Rabbinic prohibition, a conversation, which is mutual on the part of both the boy and the girl, would be a Torah prohibition. Rav Moshe worries about the consequences of this meeting on actions which might take place later in the day, and he professes that the prohibition of לא תקרבו, not coming close to a forbidden person, is in full force because the only reason he would possibly want to spend time with her – and not his male friends in whose company he would not be punished – is that she is a woman: “וזה ברור, שקשרי רעות עם נערה הוא מצד חבת אשה ולא רק רעות בעלמא, שלזה יותר היא ניחא לו עם חבריו הבחורים, ולמה לו הנערה הזה? ובפרט שאין לו כבוד ושם טוב מזה, הרי ודאי שהוא מצד חבת הנערה מצד שהיא אשה.” Finally, Rav Moshe points out the prohibition of Yichud in such a situation would be stricter because לבו גס בה, he is already strongly attracted to her, which mitigates the usual exception of being alone where there is an open door to the outside of the building. All in all, although this young man quite likely kept up his relationship with the girl, he at least could not say that he had not been warned by the Gadol Hador not to do so. Who knows – maybe they read the Teshuva together on the next date.
5) A Glass Mikvah in a Bad Neighborhood
Iggerot Moshe Yoreh Deah 2:91
A mikvah with glass windows in a neighborhood of voyeuristic non-Jews? What could go wrong? Spoiler alert: Rav Moshe feels this would be a bad idea. In a 1964 Teshuva to “הגאון הצדיק מפורסם במעשיו הגדולים לטהרת בנות ישראל,” “the sage, the Tzaddik, one famous for his great actions in the area of the purification of Jewish women,” Rav Moshe addresses the question of whether a mikvah could be built “במקום נכרים שהם פרוצים ורואים בהחלונות כשהנשים טובלות,” “in a place of non-Jews who are licentious and look in the windows when the women are immersing.” Rav Moshe is clear that this is a problem, even in a place where it is not definite that the non-Jews will in fact peer through the windows. In fact, to add insult to injury, a woman’s immersion in such a situation may in fact not even be valid (imagine telling her that when she gets home!). This possibility is based on a situation discussed in Tosafot and Shulchan Aruch in which a woman may not immerse in a river near a port where people may see her, because this may lead to her immersing too quickly due to her legitimate fear at that moment. Therefore, in the case of the port, “רק בדיעבד, באומרת ברי לי שטבלתי כראוי, עלתה לה טבילה,” “only post-facto, if she says she is sure she immersed properly, is the immersion considered valid.” Meanwhile, Rav Moshe rules, the community should find some method whereby it will become impossible for the non-Jews to peek inside the mikvah.
Honorable Mention: Do Chassidim Really Need to Dress Like That?
Iggerot Moshe Yoreh Deah 1:81
No, they don’t. In 1953 Rav Moshe was asked whether Polish immigrants or their descendants need to maintain Polish garb, rather than dress like their Americanized counterparts “שאין חלוק בין ישראלים לנכרים,” “who make no distinction [in dress] between the Jews and the non-Jews.” Rav Moshe points out that the Maharik and Rama allow Jews to dress in the manner of non-Jews if the non-Jews themselves dress modestly and in a manner which does not make their dress distinct enough that it will be obvious that the Jews are copying them if they dress the same way. Even in the latter case, it might have to be stated or known definitively that the Jew intends to copy the distinctive non-Jewish garb for there to be a problem. Moreover, Rav Moshe wonders how we are even to know that our American garb is more non-Jewish than it is Jewish: “ומדוע לא נאמר שמתחילה הם גם מלבושי ישראל? דלא נקבע כלל מתחילה להנכרים ואחר כך גם להישראלים,” “And why should we not say that at first, these were also Jewish clothing styles? For these forms of clothing were in no way established originally as non-Jewish styles and only afterward copied by the Jews.” Thus, Polish immigrants who adapt to wearing Americanized garb are simply exchanging the clothing of Jews in one country for the clothing of Jews in a different country. Which may not have convinced too many Chassidim to run out to Macy’s, but it is another wonderfully colorful example of what makes Iggerot Moshe so unpredictable and engaging for those who take the time to read it – and occasionally be entertained by it.