A Conversation with the Legendary Sons of Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztz”l,
Rav Dovid and Rav Reuven Feinstein, shlita
My choice of parking space that Wednesday evening on East Broadway was far from well thought out. Just a day earlier, on Tuesday of Lag B’Omer, I had made my way to New York City’s Chinatown, which boasts the largest concentration of Chinese in the western hemisphere, to visit Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem and meet with its eminent Rosh Yeshivah. In the hallowed, brown-paneled offices at 145 East Broadway, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztz”l,’s virtuous presence is still felt in almost every corner, I sat with his eldest son and successor, Rav Dovid, shlita, as he patiently shared penetrating insights and lessons on Shavuos and Ruth and, with great kindness and his hallmark humility, shared biographical vignettes of his father.
Dressed in his staple non-rabbinical garb and a black yarmulke that covers most of his head, this revered Torah scholar and outstanding halachic authority sat in his office off the beis hamedrash — where time seems to have stood still since the famed building was inaugurated on the week of Shavuos in 1922 — giving me clear instructions as to which aspect of his father I should emphasize. “Regarding the Rosh Yeshivah’s Torah scholarship,” he was telling me, “one page will suffice, perhaps even one short sentence. The world will gain nothing by knowing how many times he completed Shas or that he was fluent in all of Torah SheBaal Peh, like Rav Akiva Eiger and the Chasam Sofer.” The specific and clear message that Rav Dovid wanted to relay to Klal Yisrael through these pages was authoritative and awe-inspiring, while his insights and guidance were piercing and unambiguous.
Yet the following night, in order to obtain an additional viewpoint and acquire perhaps another perspective on Rav Moshe, my destination was Bialystoker Place off Grand Street, which unbeknownst to me was three-quarters of a mile and a fiftee-minute walk away from the parking spot I’d chosen. I had scheduled an appointment for seven in the evening to see Rav Moshe’s younger son, Rav Reuven Feinstein, shlita, the Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivah of Staten Island, who resided at that address on the fifth floor of a multi-family building.
When I spoke to Rav Reuven over the phone and conveyed to him my interest in meeting, his first statement was: “You have to understand that when I was growing up, I never thought that the Rosh Yeshivah, ztz”l, was unique. I believed that all fathers were like him.” I knew right then that the few hours I would subsequently spend with him in person would undoubtedly be, along with the astounding audience I was privileged to have with his older brother, among the most memorable moments of my life. The fifteen-minute walk from my vehicle to his home therefore seemed endless.
Rav Reuven welcomed me warmly. In his unassuming and unpretentious comportment, Rav Reuven shared with me his impressions of his father, often relaying intimate details of his saintly ways as we sat together in his dining room. I had to repeatedly remind myself that before me was a world-renowned gaon and Rosh Yeshivah, since his relaxed and humble mannerisms made our encounter seem much like a casual visit to a friend. The facial resemblance he bears to his father was somewhat helpful, though, in prompting me to maintain the proper respect and decorum.
When discussing the Lower East Side, I described my unfamiliarity with the neighborhood by pointing out how far I had mistakenly parked my car from his home. In response, he insisted on driving me back to my vehicle. There, as a passenger in the front seat of his car, riding through the darkened and drowsy streets of the Lower East Side, Rav Reuven continued sharing with me stories about Rav Moshe, ztz”l. As he turned onto East Broadway, he ended our conversation by telling me that the gadol whom his father held in the highest regard was Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky, ztz”l. Rav Moshe had told his son that if he ever needed advice on a matter, he should seek the counsel of Rav Yaakov, since “Rav Yaakov is a pikei’ach [an incisive mind],” as he put it.
With the end of that ride, this foray into the past life of Rav Moshe and into the present lives of his eminent sons came to an abrupt end. Thanking him for his kindness, I bade Rav Reuven good night and pensively headed back to Brooklyn over the near-empty Manhattan Bridge, reflecting on my unforgettable and humbling visits to Rav Moshe’s two very prominent sons.
Though just a short drive from Brooklyn, which too has its fair share of Jewish history, the Lower East Side has an identity uniquely its own. Being one of the oldest neighborhoods of New York City, and having once been a center of Jewish culture, it somehow divulges its storied past and throws it straight at you. And what a storied and complicated past the Lower East Side indeed has.
From the late 1800s through the early part of the twentieth century, the Lower East Side was the most densely populated area in New York City. Teeming with pushcarts and Yiddish-speaking immigrants struggling to make a living, its streets were congested with walk-up tenements, with the average of only one room per apartment having a window with access to light and fresh air. The primary residents of this part of the city were Jews, who constituted at the time the largest ethnic group in New York City, totaling 29 percent of the population.
Even as they saw America as an escape from the pogroms, anti-Semitism, and poverty they had experienced in Russia and Eastern Europe, many of the immigrants saw it as an escape from Judaism as well. Legend has it that the Jewish immigrants would throw their tefillin overboard when they reached the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, their port of entry to the “Goldeneh Medinah.” Due to the deficiency and lack of interest in Jewish educational facilities, the youth attended public schools and colleges, portals to rapid assimilation into American society. While the scores of shuls and shtieblach that lined the streets of the Lower East Side were still full on Shabbos, many congregants would attend an early minyan so that they could arrive on time at their workplaces. Torah-true Judaism in America seemed to be doomed.
The tide could be turned only by the establishment of after-school Talmud Torahs and full-time yeshivos, and one of the most important of the Talmud Torahs established then was the institution called Tifereth Jerusalem. In 1907 a group of prominent members of the East Side Jewish community met to discuss the need for better after-school educational facilities; the result of that meeting was the founding of Talmud Torah Tifereth Jerusalem, the forerunner of the present institution, in a small building on Eldridge Street. As the student body grew, new quarters were required, and in 1922 Tifereth Jerusalem dedicated a new building at its present address. In 1923 Talmud Torah Tifereth Jerusalem became a full-fledged cheder and yeshivah, providing intensive Torah education from kindergarten through eighth grade. Six short years later, in 1929, Tifereth Jerusalem added a mesivta/high school division.
Then, in 1937, a new era began. One of the seminal Torah giants and geonim of the twentieth century, Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztz”l, accepted an invitation from Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem to serve as its Rosh Yeshivah. Rav Moshe, who was world-renowned for his diligence in Torah study, encyclopedic kn owledge, compassion and piety, was pivotal to the subsequent development of Torah and halachah in America. Though he was humble and self-effacing, the needs of the generation impelled him to undertake leadership not only of the mesivta, but also of the renowned organizations of Agudath Israel, Torah Umesorah, Chinuch Atzmai, Ezras Torah, and Agudath HaRabbanim.
Rav Moshe was born in 5655, on the seventh day of Adar (the date of birth of Moshe Rabbeinu), or March 3, 1895, in Uzdan, near Minsk, Belarus, then part of the Russian empire, to his father, Rav Dovid Feinstein, ztz”l. He studied Torah with his father and also in yeshivos located in Slutsk, Shklov, and Amstislav. He became Rav of Uzdan at the age of eighteen, as a single bochur. When he was twenty-seven, he married Shima Kustanovich, to whom he entrusted all material decisions. Following his marriage, he became Rav in Luban, also near Minsk. The Feinsteins had three children in Russia: Faye Gittel, who would marry the distinguished Rosh Yeshivah Rav Moshe Schisgal, ztz”l; Shifra, who would marry Rabbi Dr. Moshe David Tendler, mara d’asra of the Community Synagogue in Monsey, as well as maggid shiur and professor of biology at Yeshiva University; and Rav Dovid, who would succeed his father as Rosh Yeshivah of Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem. One child was born in America, Rav Reuven, who is currently Rosh Yeshivah of the Yeshivah of Staten Island.
Under increasing pressure from the Stalinist Soviet regime, Rav Moshe accepted Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem’s invitation to join the faculty, and after obtaining an American visa in 1936 at the American consulate in Riga, Latvia, he immigrated to New York with his Rebbetzin and children. His son Dovid was eight years old at the time, while his younger son, Reuven, was born in New York a few months later.
During the five decades that Rav Moshe served at the helm of Tifereth Jerusalem, it was to his study table in the beis medrash that countless people came with their halachic questions and personal problems. Until his passing on March 23, 1986 (13 Adar II 5746), Rav Moshe was also the last word for many of the world’s halachic authorities. His voluminous sefarim serve as the basic texts for halachah today for many.
In addition to Rav Moshe’s own personal legacy is the quality of the students he groomed for Torah greatness and halachic responsibility, many of whom serve today as Roshei Yeshivah and rabbanim, the most prominent being his two illustrious sons — both of whom still reside in the neighborhood in which they grew up, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
The gentrification that the Lower East Side has undergone in recent years prompted the National Trust for Historic Preservation to place the neighborhood on its list of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places. But it seemed far from endangered to me during my visit there.
It is a most pleasant Tuesday in May, with the sun unobstructed by clouds or the Manhattan skyline, as I press the buzzer in front of the old, wooden, carved door at the entrance of Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem. After waiting a moment or two, I am buzzed in and ask to see Rabbi Yisroel Eidelman, the executive vice president of Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem and longtime secretary of its Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Dovid Feinstein, shlita. After navigating my way through various cubicles enclosing wooden chairs and cluttered desks, which serve as the executive offices for both Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem, headed by Rav Dovid, and Yeshivah of Staten Island, located on the other side of the Verrazano Bridge and headed by Rav Reuven, I meet Rabbi Eidelman, who leads me to the Rosh Yeshivah’s office.
The many responsibilities and communal pressures that Rav Dovid carries on his shoulders are readily apparent in his demeanor. Rav Dovid delivers two shiurim every day: one for bochurim of the yeshivah, and a blatt shiur for the alumni. And like his father before him, laypeople and leading rabbinical authorities turn to him at every hour of the day with complex halachic questions, and accept his opinion and decisions even when fortunes and lives are at stake. Rav Elyashiv, shlita, and Rav Dovid frequently confer regarding pressing communal and halachic matters. Rav Dovid is also a prolific and erudite author, having penned at least nine sefarim on such topics as halachah, Torah, and the Jewish calendar, as well as some popular Haggados. Without much fanfare, he signals for me to sit down and begin. As ArtScroll Publications recently published Kol Dodi, a commentary by the Rosh Yeshivah on Megillas Ruth, I find that topic to be a convenient opening.
“What is the significance of Ruth?” I awkwardly ask. It seems that the question is well received, as the animated answers that follow are never cryptic or esoteric, but loaded with depth and insight.
“There is always a temptation for a leader to be arrogant. Therefore, pursuant to Chazal [Yoma 22b], every leader had to be burdened by ‘a box of vermin suspended behind him,’ i.e., aspects of his lineage that would leave him with no choice but to remain humble. Ruth, being a Moabite woman, was that box of vermin for David HaMelech. The marriage of Boaz and Ruth, David’s great-grandparents, was a marriage that many people criticized — even claiming it to be a violation of the halachah — because of Ruth’s Moabite lineage. Ruth was thus a mitigating factor to keep King David humble and was therefore an indispensable link in the Davidic lineage.
“But there is more than just this negative aspect of Ruth that made her the ‘Mother of Royalty.’ As a convert who was inspired to become Jewish, she brought along with her an exceptional freshness and vitality that is oftentimes missing in a person who is born a Jew. This sparkle and vivacity is what inspired David as well, spurring him to become the great psalmist and author of sefer Tehillim. Ruth’s very name alludes to her descendant, King David, of whom the Sages say that ‘he satiated (literally, “rivahu,” from the root of “Rus”) the Holy One, blessed be He, with songs and praises [Bava Basra 14b].’ If not for Ruth, perhaps David’s tefillos would have been like ours, lacking feeling and neshamah, devoid of everything. In addition to David, Ruth inspired Shlomo as well, as the Sages teach that Ruth lived so long that she saw Shlomo on the throne of Israel [ibid. 91b].
“One must strive to always keep this inspiration toward Yiddishkeit alive, as Ruth did; to forever have Hashem before him, as Ruth had. Oftentimes one’s liveliness wanes with time, but he must learn from the convert Ruth how to retain that freshness. Of course, to be inspired at all times is a very high level of spiritual attainment. It is not a simple thing for one to achieve. We all tend to become somewhat complacent with time. But she showed that it is possible to preserve that initial spark and inspiration forever. That is the lesson and purpose of Megillas Ruth.”
I ask the Rosh Yeshivah that it seems from the Rambam that one of the halachic requirements and essential laws of conversion is that it should be undertaken lishmah, solely for its own sake, and not because of any self-interest. This requirement of lishmah is always encouraged, so why is it not an integral part of any other mitzvah?
“Lishmah and to be inspired solely because of G-d are one and the same thing. A non-Jew who converts to Judaism knows that he will have no tangible benefit or gain from being Jewish, since the Jewish nation is downtrodden today. Nonetheless, and notwithstanding all the gas chambers and persecution that the Jews have encountered, one joins this nation and accepts Torah and mitzvos because he finds in Yahadus the truth. That is the meaning of lishmah — and that is the level of inspiration that is required of a convert.”
Our conversation leads to Rav Zeira’s proclamation (Ruth Rabbah 2:14): “This scroll [of Ruth] contains neither [laws of] ritual impurity or purity, nor what is forbidden or permitted, so why was it written? To teach you the great reward of those who perform deeds of kindness.”
The Rosh Yeshivah explains: “The Torah is called Toras chesed, the teaching of kindness, and the book of Ruth revolves around stories and lessons about acts of kindness. It is therefore imperative that we read the book of Ruth on the day we accepted the Torah, since its primary lesson is that of chesed. Of course, the book of Ruth is the source of many teachings, both ethical and legal, and I enumerate them in my sefer. Even the rule that one should dress in Shabbos clothing when meeting a prospective shidduch , we learn from Ruth. Nevertheless, we would have known all these teachings from the mesorah even without the book of Ruth, and these teachings are not the reason it was written. The book was written to inspire us to perform extraordinary acts of generosity and kindness, as Boaz and Ruth did, to see these extraordinary individuals as our role models.”
I tell the Rosh Yeshivah that through Mishpacha magazine he can potentially reach a few hundred thousand people around the globe. “What message,” I ask, “would the Rosh Yeshivah like to convey to Klal Yisrael for Shavuos through Mishpacha?”
Without hesitation, he tells me that he would like to convey the message that being a talmid chacham is no excuse for being arrogant. “Oftentimes, one thinks that because he is a scholar, he is excused from helping his fellow human being. He starts thinking that the world was created for him, and that being the case, he questions the whole business of chesed. Indeed, because of his scholastic attainment, he becomes conceited and starts believing that ‘what’s yours is mine.’ However, Torah study and compassion go hand in hand. The bigger one is, the more chesed he has to do. There was no bigger Torah scholar than Rav Chaim Brisker, ztz”l, and yet he was the most altruistic of people, performing acts of kindness day and night. When people wish to describe the gadlus of my father, ztz”l, what do they say? They speak of his chesed, that he was a compassionate person having time for every child and each heartbroken individual. That’s how we know that they were true talmidei chachamim — because they implemented what the Torah says, because they reached the pinnacle of Toras chesed. There are many halachos in Yevamos that are based solely on the concept of compassion, on the principle that ‘The ways of Torah are pleasant, and all its pathways are peaceful.’”
When I ask him to give me an illustration of his father’s acts of chesed, he’s at first reluctant. “My father had endless time for every person; that’s the way he conducted his life. What else can I say? I’m sure you’ve heard the story that my father would take the time every day to write a letter at the behest of a woman, no matter what time of the day she showed up. He had exceptional patience and compassion to help others. Some think that this constitutes bitul Torah. But no; it is a mitzvah to assist a dispirited person.”
When I persist that he illustrate his father’s benevolence with some stories, he first tells me that he recalls a story only as it is needed. He then thinks for a moment how he can satisfy my request.
“Let me tell you this story. My father was walking with a talmid to an Agudath Harabbanim meeting, which was being held a few blocks away from the yeshivah. He kept on quickening his pace, as he didn’t want to arrive late. Suddenly a person stops him to share his troubles with the Rosh Yeshivah. As if he had all the time in the world, my father is now standing still while listening patiently to the man’s problems for fifteen long minutes. As soon as the man is done, my father goes rushing down the street again, while explaining that the fifteen minutes he spent with the forlorn person was but his ethical obligation. Now that the person has left, his obligation is to make sure that the other rabbanim are not kept waiting.”
Rabbi Eidelman, who is sitting with us, shares a story of his own. “I once came to the Rosh Yeshivah, ztz”l,’s apartment, and I heard someone singing. I started wondering why I was not aware that the Rosh Yeshivah was celebrating some simchah. The Rebbetzin, z”l, opened the door for me and showed me to the study. The Rosh Yeshivah was sitting there listening to a chazzan perform. When the chazzan was done, he asked the Rosh Yeshivah what he thought of his singing abilities. The Rosh Yeshivah assured him that he sang wonderfully.”
Now it’s the RoshYeshivah’s turn. “Perhaps I should tell you the story of the Bergman girl. For a few summers my father used to go to Hartford, Connecticut, and spend a couple of weeks in the home of the shoichet Bergman. There was another guest there at the time who liked to follow my father and see how he spent his day. One morning, he sees my father sitting in the study, tossing a ball back and forth with the little Bergman girl. Shocked at this strange scene, he asked the Rosh Yeshivah what this was all about. ‘Until I arrived here,’ the Rosh Yeshivah explained, ‘this little girl got all the attention in the world. She was the queen of the household. Now she’s forced to share the spotlight with me, and I believe she may be upset with me that I’ve taken away her kingdom. I therefore feel obligated to play with her and try to console her.’”
Gathering some courage, I up the ante and respectfully make an additional request. “Perhaps you can share something about the Rosh Yeshivah, ztz”l,’s strengths in Torah? Of course, everyone knows what a tremendous scholar he was. But perhaps you can tell us something so that we may feel it as well?”
“If you want to write a biography of what a gadol he was, how much Torah SheBaal Peh he knew, and so on and so forth, I think it would take one page. You can write the same about other gedolim, be they Rav Akiva Eiger or the Chasam Sofer. But when it comes to writing a biography, and giving people a sense of the gadol’s greatness, that’s not what you write about. You include only the types of stories that illustrate the great chesed that he did. Even the stories about his blessings, whether they were fulfilled or not fulfilled, are irrelevant. Everyone knows that the brachah of a chacham has power, and every talmid chacham has his fair share of brachos that were fulfilled. But again, that’s not what you write about. Only the stories of his chesed and loving-kindness have the power to affect an individual.
“We had a story here a few years ago, when a man who looked like a schlepper came into my office before Shavuos, stating that he would like to meet with me. He sees a picture of my father, ztz”l, on the wall, and he tells me that he has the same picture. I say fine, and he tells me that he would like to give me a donation. A donation for the yeshivah I’m ready to take anytime. He takes out a check and he makes it out for $500. It was considered a nice sum in those days.
“Then he starts telling me his life story. He says that he’s a wholesaler in electronics, and had he known me a little while back, he could have covered the yeshivah’s entire budget. But now he’s not doing that well. Nonetheless, he’ll be back before the Yamim Noraim and will give another donation of $500. He then tells me that he wants me to know that he has previously been a secular person. The only thing he kept was Pesach. Then someone gave him an ArtScroll book called Reb Moshe, which has stories of my father. After completing this book, he said, ‘This is a person. This is the way a human being is supposed to be.’ He didn’t say, ‘This is a gadol,’ or ‘This is an angel’ — he said, ‘This is a bar nasch, a mentsch.’
“Here is but a simple person. By reading about my father’s chesed, he became frum. He can’t emulate my father’s strength in Torah, surely not at this stage of the game, not at the age of sixty. But he can try to be as altruistic as my father was. He ended up giving a lot of tzedakah, and he left a nice inheritance to the yeshivah. You see, by reading a book about my father’s chesed, this man changed his ways and became frum.
“To tell people that the Rosh Yeshivah finished Shas 10,000 times, which is of course a fairy tale, nobody will gain anything from that. People will say, ‘That has nothing to do with me.’ But by talking about his gentle manners and his charitable deeds, people will say, ‘I can do that as well.’ If you want to write that he finished Shas fifty times, a hundred times, a thousand times, that can be said in one sentence.
“People say that Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, of Eretz Yisrael finishes Bavli and Yerushalmi every year. I can’t compete with him. I’m not even going to try to emulate him. It’s out of my league. What can I do? If he has such a fantastic mind, gezunterheit. But I can’t compete with him. I have to do my job. But if you’ll tell me that although time is so valuable for Rav Chaim, he still gives of himself to others, now that is something I can do as well.
“That is the lesson we get from Shavuos and Ruth, to be compassionate and kind to others, and such kindness is a necessary component to malchus, Jewish royalty. In truth, unless a king fears a revolution, why should he give of himself to others? He is living comfortably in a palace, and he can be a tyrant, an Ivan the Terrible or a Henry VIII, if he so desires. What difference does it make to him how his subjects are living? But the answer is that if he’s a true king, then he’s full of chesed, and he is concerned about the welfare of his citizens because of his charitable and benevolent nature.”
The connection between kindness and malchus and the relationship between benevolence and gadlus clearly occupy Rav Dovid’s thoughts, and this relationship is this gadol’s paramount message to Klal Yisrael. For him, Torah and chesed are intertwined and eternally linked. Torah without chesed is a Torah that has never been wholly fulfilled or realized. There is only one Torah, and that is Toras chesed. That is to him what Rav Moshe was all about, and that is what Shavuos stands for.
Awestruck and spellbound, I thank the Rosh Yeshivah for his time. He wishes me hatzlachah and immediately immerses himself in some writing. Stepping back outside onto the noise-filled street of East Broadway, I see the young cheder students of Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem walking under the Chinese-lettered signs that hang from the façades of the buildings as they return from their Lag B’Omer outings. The students shuffle politely past us, and Rabbi Eidelman turns to me and says: “You should know that the Rosh Yeshivah omitted a major element of the story about that person who read the biography of his father. When he first came into the beis hamedrash, he said that after reading about Rav Moshe, he felt that he had to get to know Rav Moshe’s children, since they must surely resemble him. And indeed, akin to his father, the Rosh Yeshivah has not only a phenomenal memory, but also a very keen understanding. Over forty years ago, the Rosh Yeshivah, ztz”l, said of him that ‘not only does Rav Dovid learn Shas, he knows it as well.’”
I notice that the student body, which consists of approximately 250 children, bochurim, and kollel members, varies from more chassidishe types, with long curly peyos, to those with a more modern appearance. Rabbi Eidelman continues: “Everybody who wants to come here is welcome here; we will always manage to get someone in and find him a chavrusa. We do not demand that someone be the biggest lamdan before accepting him. Bochurim come here from all over, and everyone finds a place. Everything here, everything you see here, is Toras chesed.”
Mrs. Chani Yampolsky, a resident of the Flatbush section of Brooklyn and daughter of the late Tenker Rav, ztz”l, has been working in the offices of Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem since graduating from school close to thirty years ago. Before departing, I stop at her desk to obtain a copy of the hardcover journal that the Mesivta published in 2007 in commemoration of its hundred-year history and the forty-year history of its resident campus, the Yeshivah of Staten Island.
“The walls of this building are hallowed,” she tells me, “not only by the Rosh Yeshivah, ztz”l, and the present Rosh Yeshivah but also by all those G-d-fearing individuals who in 1922 raised the necessary funds to construct this beautiful edifice, so that Torah in America would flourish.”
I ask her to tell me something about the Rosh Yeshivah, ztz”l, and for some reason I’m not all that surprised when she responds by pointing out his vast kindness and compassion.
“Every Friday before leaving the beis hamedrash, he would make it his business to come over to my desk to wish me a gut Shabbos. Upon my return from a vacation, he would come over to me and softly ask in a fatherly manner: ‘Chanele, how was your vacation? How’s your father?’ I had the zchus to grow up among giants, yet I never saw anything like it. For me a gadol is defined by the courtesy and mentschlechkeit that he has. It’s a small point, but it is a huge point.
“The present Rosh Yeshivah, shlita, is a world posek — it’s a given. Yet he will speak to a young girl who needs his advice for a shidduch with the same patience, dignity, and respect that he bestows upon a scholar or a dignitary. His unbelievable chesed and tzedakah are boundless and daily, both inside and outside the community, and with total disregard of where or to whom the needy person or family is affiliated.
“I will refrain from identifying adjectives, but not long ago a prominent young chassidishe Rebbe, a relative of several prominent Rebbes, needed to marry off a child who was a special case. In order to so, he needed close to $90,000, so he turned to the Rosh Yeshivah, shlita. Quietly, without any fanfare or letters, with the greatest dignity, Rav Dovid raised the sums. He assists myriad numbers of people in all sorts of situations in this way. He assists many mosdos having internal problems in this way. It isn’t limited to money; it could just be to resolve major issues and avoid major chillul Hashem.
“And everyone knows how much he gives of himself — day and night — to the public as individuals and also to the many major organizations that constantly meet here or invite him to their meetings. He is always available for advice, personal and medical. We have a world posek and a very big tzaddik in our midst.
“We should also not forget his wonderful, smart, wise, compassionate Rebbetzin, Malka Feinstein. I hope that you also have a grasp of the Rebbetzin Shima Feinstein, z”l, the eishes chaver of her revered husband, HaGaon HaRav Moshe Feinstein, ztvk”l. She was gracious, wise, loving, and giving in every way.”
The Yeshivah of Staten Island, founded by Rav Moshe, ztz”l, in 1966–67 as a resident campus, was considered by this gadol to be one of his greatest accomplishments. Rav Reuven, shlita, who has stood at the helm of the yeshivah since its founding, arriving at the yeshivah from his home in New York City at 6:30 every morning, relays that upon the return of the Rosh Yeshivah, ztz”l, in 1964 from the Knesiyah Gedolah in Eretz Yisrael, he decided to establish an out-of-town campus where students would be able to immerse themselves in learning without any outside distractions or influences. He sought a site that was close enough to the city for him to come regularly and for maggidei shiur to commute every day, yet at the same time secluded and distant enough to avoid any outside distractions that would compromise the absolutely total learning atmosphere that the Rosh Yeshivah, ztz”l, wanted for his talmidim.
The locating of a facility on Staten Island, New York, which was then still a rural borough with a tiny Jewish community and much open space, was for Rav Moshe a dream come true. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which opened in 1964, then the world’s longest suspension span, made the commute for the maggidei shiur from Brooklyn to Staten Island possible.
For its first several years, the Yeshivah of Staten Island was housed in temporary quarters. Due to its rapid growth and success in attracting top-quality students, a nine-acre campus in rural Pleasant Plains, Staten Island containing a large school building, was purchased in 1969 and inaugurated in 1970.
Over the past several years, as more young families continue to join the kollel, approximately twenty-six residential homes have been built on the campus. Additionally, the yeshivah has virtually rebuilt its entire dormitory to accommodate the growing numbers of talmidim and to enhance the seventy-five-year-old facility. As the ultimate stamp of a viable, growing Torah community, a brand-new mikveh facility has recently been constructed.
I’m driving down the Staten Island Expressway when my cell phone suddenly rings. “Rabbi Frankfurter, this is Reuven Feinstein. I’m just checking if you need any additional directions.” Taken aback by his humbleness and courtesy, I try to quickly regain my composure and reassure the Rosh Yeshivah that I believe I know the way and will be at the campus shortly.
Since there is no one in sight on the sprawling, grassy grounds, the many cars and minivans parked outside the large yeshivah building serve as the only indication that the facilities are being used. I ascend the many steps outside the building and ask to be shown to the Rosh Yeshivah’s office. Two yungeleit are inside discussing some matter. They leave while walking out backward, so their faces remain toward him. After they leave, he shows me around the various areas of the large building.
There is a beautiful, antique, wooden, carved aron kodesh in the beis hamedrash, which was previously housed in a shul in East New York, and as we walk up to it for a closer look, everyone around us rises in deference to the Rosh Yeshivah. “The beis hamedrash was formerly a chapel,” he tells me as he is showing it to me, “and we therefore did not dedicate it as a beis hamedrash till about two years after we moved in, when the room lost its identity as a chapel and became known as a storage area.”
The Rosh Yeshivah points out that, pursuant to his father’s wishes, there are no shtenders in the beis hamedrash for the bochurim to learn on; in their place, regular tables are utilized. “By leaning back on a chair while supporting a shtender with the stomach, one becomes lethargic and forfeits some of his attentiveness and concentration. Not learning with all of one’s faculties, the Rosh Yeshivah, ztz”l, held, constitutes bitul Torah. One should preferably learn twelve hours a day with full concentration and the rest of the time do nothing, rather than learn twenty-four hours while being partially drowsy or distracted.”
The derech halimud in the Yeshivah of Staten Island is somewhat different from other yeshivos as well. “There is no special halachah seder here. Everything we learn in the yeshivah, we strive to learn the practical halachic ramifications. While learning a sugya, there’s a better chance of understanding what the Shulchan Aruch says on that topic. Of course, we don’t always achieve that. The world isn’t perfect. But at least we put in efforts toward that end.”
Rav Moshe brought a unique perspective, and combination of experiences and expertise, to his position as Rosh Yeshivah. Unlike most Roshei HaYeshivah in America, he had served for many years as a practicing Rav in Stalinist Russia. His breathtaking command of lomdus and halachas, his ability to apply this knowledge to deciding the most intricate and practical questions, left a stamp on his yeshivos and their talmidim for all time.
What I find truly striking is the degree of respect the talmidim demonstrate toward their esteemed rebbi, notwithstanding his modest and self-effacing demeanor. As we walk down the hallway, I notice all the bochurim move to the side. Wherever Rav Reuven goes, the talmidim keep rising for him in a full standing position. When I tell the Rosh Yeshivah how taken aback I am by the decorum I see here, he unassumingly tells me that the yeshivah happens to attract very eidel and refined talmidim. I learn that there are approximately 150 such eidel and refined talmidim in the Yeshivah of Staten Island today. What he looks for in a bochur who wants to join the yeshivah, Rav Reuven says, are good middos, yiras Shamayim, and yedios haTorah. To find more than a mere handful of boys who meet the Rosh Yeshivah’s criteria seems to be quite an accomplishment.
Rav Reuven’s esteemed Rebbetzin, a principal in a Sephardic girls’ school in Brooklyn, is most gracious and hospitable as she opens the door of her tidy home on Bialystoker Place for me this Wednesday evening. She shows me to the dining room and points out a picture on the wall of a very saintly and dignified-looking person. She tells me that that was her grandfather, Rav Moshe Yehuda Kaplan, ztz”l, a respected Rosh Yeshiva. of Yeshivas Yitzchak Elchanan. There are cold drinks on the table, and she asks whether I would like to eat something as well. I thank her for her kindness and greet the Rosh Yeshivah. As always, Rav Reuven is soft-spoken and relaxed.
As we start talking, what immediately becomes apparent is the awe that he has of his father, whom he always refers to as the Rosh Yeshivah.. When Rav Reuven was still a youngster attending the Telsher Yeshivah, he started addressing Rav Moshe only in the third person. “Initially the Rosh Yeshivah was a bit uncomfortable with this decorum and told me that he can do without it. When I told him that it is nonetheless a mitzvah on my part, he said that if I really wanted it, he’d accept it. I must have realized even then that he was special; otherwise why would I do it?”
“Were you close to your father?” I ask.
“I would never do anything without obtaining his approval, although he never imposed upon any of his children his point of view. Sometimes we misunderstood his advice to us, like the time when my brother and I refrained from putting on tefillin on Chol Hamoed, though he himself would don tefillin. I found out only by coincidence that he felt that we too should do as he does from a conversation that he had with my brother-in-law. Yet he never rebuked us. He never told us directly that he didn’t approve of what we were doing.”
“Was your father your only rebbi, or did you attend other yeshivos as well?”
“When I was thirteen, I left home and went to Telsher Yeshivah in Cleveland, Ohio. Later I learned by Rav Aharon Kotler, ztz”l, in Lakewood, New Jersey. At one point I applied to a college and was accepted. When I told the Rosh Yeshivah about this, he absolutely forbade me to attend. He told me that the only time a college education was deemed permissible was when one couldn’t find a livelihood without one. Today one can support himself from a career in Torah as well.”
“Did your father ever tell you any stories?”
“No. Not at all. I have no idea who my ancestors were, because he never told us anything about them. He would occasionally tell us a story to prove a point, but that would usually be about his own personal experience. My mother would also tell me stories, but solely about my father. She would try to educate me so that I’d emulate his ways.”
“What about with his talmidim? Was he close to them?”
“His relationship with them was primarily through the medium of Torah. I remember that when I was a boy, the bochurim would come to our house Friday night, and they would later walk together along Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. Reb Eli Teitelbaum, z”l, wrote that he would stand in fear and trepidation before the Rosh Yeshivah. When I read that, I wondered, ‘What? I saw Eli smiling!’ But I guess he meant awe.”
Then he says something truly astonishing: “I never saw the Rosh Yeshivah learn. Only write. He would sit for fifteen hours in one place and write without stop. I can’t write an hour a day. He would write and write and write. He had a Gemara open in front of him, but he never looked into it. There were no other sefarim on the table. When he was writing a teshuvah, he would occasionally get up from his seat, walk over to the bookcase, and look something up. But he did that while he was standing. He would then go back to his seat and continue writing.”
“Would he ever pace, thinking about learning?”
“No. Other than being maavir sedrah on Shabbos, I never heard him learning out loud. I simply never saw him learn. When he would come to Staten Island for Yom Tov, some of the boys would try to observe the way the Rosh Yeshivah learned. This is the description of what the bochurim saw. He would look into a Gemara, and his eyes would glance over the page from the first line down to the last line, and he would continue to learn in this fashion, quickly skimming the words and turning the pages, oftentimes scanning up to a hundred pages in one sitting.”
“The numbers of times people say he completed Shas are exaggerations, and I don’t believe them, but he must have finished it many, many times. It was all chazarah for him. He was fluent everywhere. Mishnayos he completed every year during the few minutes he would study every day as he was putting away his tefillin. Tanach he frequently completed as well by reading it during the time that he went for a walk.”
“Where do you see his gadlus most manifest?”
“There was something truly unique about his ability to never lose his train of thought while writing. He would be in the middle of a word when someone would come to see him, oftentimes holding him up for hours. As soon as the person would leave, he would continue writing from where he had stopped, without a moment’s reflection or hesitation. That was his gadlus as far as I am concerned.
“Some of what he wrote was merely a rewrite, so that’s perhaps a partial explanation as to his phenomenal ability to continue writing unabated. His sefer Dibros Moshe — which Rav Aharon Kotler, ztz”l, said contains every understanding and sevarah that one can derive from the Gemara — was destroyed three times: by hoodlums, by the Communists, and because of lack of money. What we have is his fourth edition.”
“Did your father have a close relationship with other gedolei Yisrael? ”
“He was particularly close to Rav Aharon Kotler, ztz”l, and he was respected by all. I used to say that Satmar may have had 10,000 followers at the time, others perhaps 5,000, etc., while my father merely had a few hundred loyal talmidim. But he was the great conciliator. He didn’t have only one rigid way of doing something. He would look to Shas and poskim and do what he discerned from there as being right and wrong. That is how he became the true posek hador. He would often say in wonderment, ‘While many reject my lenient rulings, my stringent ones everyone seems to like.’
“The Rosh Yeshivah was also very close with Rav Ahron Soloveitchik, ztz”l, who was his close cousin and learned in Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem, as well as with his older brother Rav Yoshe Ber, ztz”l, of Boston, with whom he would speak a lot on the phone. He would frequently disagree with Rav Yoshe Ber on various halachic rulings. Rav Yoshe Ber was still a Brisker, and he feared to render a halachic decision.”
I relayed to Rav Reuven that during my recent visit to Satmar, I learned that the chassidim consider it a source of pride that Rav Moshe wrote in a teshuvah that he agreed with the present Satmar Rebbe, Rav Aharon Teitelbaum, shlita, on the method of spelling the name of Staten Island in a get.
“I’m aware of that teshuvah. While the present Satmar Rebbe was the first to write a get in Staten Island, the Rosh Yeshivah was the first to write a get in the Catskill Mountains. The Rosh Yeshivah was ultimately accepted by everybody. It often takes time for the youngsters to realize something, but in the end people wise up.”
“Did your father conduct a lot of dinei Torah?”
“At first that was the way he supported the family. In his later years, he declined to preside over dinei Torah. Many yeshivos and rabbanim who refused to go anywhere else, though, would come to the Rosh Yeshivah, and in these cases he would agree to hear the matter and render judgment.”
“Would he ever seek the opinion of other poskim when issuing any ruling?”
“Not that I’m aware of. He would at times show a teshuvah to Rav Tuvia Goldstein, ztz”l, who lived right below us. But he never really consulted with him or sought his ultimate approval. Nor do I know of any situation where he changed his mind, unless he had been given wrong information.”
In addition to discussing Rav Moshe’s scholarship, which his brother Rav Dovid declined to do, Rav Reuven also discusses another “taboo” topic, and that is Rav Moshe’s strength in giving brachos. But after telling me a story or two, he is almost equally dismissive. “And then there are lots of bubbeh maisehs, fairy tales, out there. But all this has nothing to do with his gadlus in Torah. The main thing is his gadlus in Torah.”
“And how would you describe the Rosh Yeshivah’s chesed?”
“Well, chesed means a kind heart. He was a true ish chesed; he was a real tender-hearted person. He used to write a lot of letters for people. Some used to ask him why he would waste so much time with that. He responded that if you think before doing chesed whether or not it is the appropriate thing to do, you’ll never end up doing chesed. First one should do the chesed, and then he should worry about it later. Justice requires research and calculations; chesed is without any cheshbon or justification.
“Rav Gershon Weiss, shlita, who is our mashgiach in Staten Island, once said in a talk that there is an inherent conflict between rachamim, mercy, and din, justice. On their most basic levels, these two constructs represent yardsticks that reflect different methods of evaluation. For the Rosh Yeshivah, mercy and justice coexisted in the same venue. He strove to yield a decision that was simultaneously true and merciful.
“The Rosh Yeshivah once commented that the decisions of the Aruch HaShulchan — who was a full-time Rav — take precedence over many poskim who were not active rabbanim. A Rav takes into consideration more than just the abstract and black-and-white concepts of the halachah when rendering a halachic opinion.
“There’s an old story told of Rav Chaim Brisker, or sometimes attributed to his father, the Beis HaLevi, ztz”l: A fellow comes in and asks the Rav whether he can use milk for the four kosos on Pesach night. The Rav, realizing that the fellow must be absolutely destitute, gives him money to buy wine as well as meat. A rosh yeshivah, on the other hand, would merely have responded with an abstract yes or no. A Rav who has a real person in front of him uses different criteria for decision making. He is called upon to be just as well as merciful, to merge rachamim and din, and create a realm of coexistence for these two conflicting systems.”
In that case, I ask, can a teshuvah in Igros Moshe be relied upon by anyone other than the person it was written to? Were Rav Moshe’s decisions meant for all of Klal Yisrael or merely for the person under very unique circumstances who had posed the question?
“He clearly wrote that he did not want other people to rely upon his rulings. He was only trying to show his sources and the precedents that he believed supported his ruling. He encouraged others to review his reasoning and to decide on their own whether they agreed with it or not, or when and where to apply it or discard it. What impressed other gedolim was his astounding ability to find ancient sources for modern-day problems. He has enabled us to further research the issue.
“A teshuvah in Igros Moshe cannot be read; it must be studied. Some think that at times he contradicts himself. But in fact, there’s not a single contradiction throughout the many volumes of his writings. Still, in order to arrive at that recognition, you must study and analyze his words with great care and concentration.”
I return to the notion that for a Rav, rachamim and din must somehow find a synthesis, that a Rav must effectively be at the same time both merciful and just, and take into consideration the angst and existential circumstances of the person who will be affected by his ruling. And I ask him to illustrate this further.
“There was a two-year gap between the time the Rosh Yeshivah came back in 1964 from the Knesiyah Gedolah in Eretz Yisrael with his decision to establish a resident campus until we actually implemented it. The reason was that he was distracted by the controversy that erupted at that time regarding his decision on fertility-related matters. He made a comment then: ‘I get the questions, I see the tears of the people, and then they decide what’s right or wrong.’
“A delegation of rabbanim came to him at that time, urging him to withdraw his ruling, even though it may have been halachically correct. His response: Once he is presented with a question, he has a halachic obligation to respond. As an aside, it happens to be that currently the Satmar Dayanim rely on his lenient ruling in this area.”
“What Shavuos message would you like to share with Klal Yisrael?”
“The Rosh Yeshivah would say that Bamidbar — with its account of the census — precedes Shavuos, to teach us that every Jew counts. Moshe Rabbeinu was counted as ‘one,’ and so can every single person who accepts the Torah be counted as ‘one.’ To which I would add: Therefore it says regarding the money that was given toward the counting, ‘kesef hakippurim,’ money of forgiveness. Because in order to be counted and to be counted on, one must forever strive to become ‘one’ but must realize he hasn’t yet reached that goal and must repent for claiming that he is already ‘one.’
“Additionally, the Rosh Yeshivah would say that naaseh means to perform the mitzvos. Nishma, on the other hand, means to have a Rebbi from whom one can hear and accept how to perform the mitzvos. Indeed, I believe that the biggest problem in today’s generation is that nobody has a Rebbi whom they accept as their ultimate authority. This is a terrible state of affairs, and I speak about it publicly often. I call my father ‘Rosh Yeshivah’ because he was my Rebbi.’”
He takes out a Chumash and starts sharing with me various penetrating insights on the sedrah and on the Yom Tov of Shavuos. Overcome by the depth and magnificence of his thoughts, I tell him that I would like to ask one final question: “How would you describe your brother’s gadlus in Torah?”
“He knows a velt. His rulings are sound. Recently he has obtained skill with gematria. He is, for all practical purposes, achi hagadol, my older brother. I will at times disagree with his reasoning, but ultimately I will always accept what he says. The ways of the Torah are pleasant, and so is his understanding of them.”
I am tempted to respond that the Torah says there is nothing better or more pleasant than seeing two brothers dwelling together. But I find it too daunting to voice aloud the inspiration and beauty I've gleaned in the hours shared with these two eminent brothers, who dwell together in their shared houses of Torah in the shadow of their saintly father.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 260)
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