Many of the actions against Rabbi Feinstein during the days of the controversy in the years 1963-1964 were organized by Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Rebbe of Satmar, who was known for his wars against Rabbis and Admorim. Together with other zealous rabbis, such as Rabbi Amsel (from Hungary), editor of the “HaMaor” journal, they wanted to achieve a dual goal:
1) to make Rabbi Feinstein regret and admit that he was wrong in his heters.
2) To cause the Haredi public to stop relying on him, both in his rulings and in his public guidance, in which he sought to minimize controversies in Jewish communities.
Recruitment of Rabbis
The disputants knew their craft. They had been seeking to harm Rabbi Feinstein for years, but the ruling on artificial insemination, which was new and provoked criticism from many rabbis, gave them an opportunity to form a large coalition against him. They published half-truths, sent letters to rabbis from various places, and enlisted them for their war against him.
For example, Rabbi Sharia Deblitzky wrote to Rabbi Amsel “to strengthen, support, and assist him [ed., Rabbi Amsel] and to tell him to continue on in his war on Rabbi Feinstein’s rulings, and not to be deterred by ‘words of protest against him.’ On the contrary, a committee of rabbis should be set up ‘to inform and publicize which of his rulings can be relied on, and which cannot.” Although he admitted that he did not see the books of halakhic decisions by Rabbi Feinstein, the Igrot Moshe, he was nevertheless appalled by the additional examples of heters presented in “HaMaor”, such as the holding of a small Bat Mitzvah celebration – “heters, by which the shape of our nation’s general faith will change, God forbid.”
Rabbi Amsel went on to explain in his journal why he was forced to fight against Rabbi Feinstein, who, in addition to the fact that in our generation “a Chief Rabbinate has stood over us in the Holy Land, under pressure from unbelievers, to destroy the holiness of Israel to the foundation…” and “Rabbi Feinstein joined in with his impure heter.”
They almost managed to mobilize even the Rishon LeZion, Chief Rabbi Rabbi Yitzchak Nissim ztz”l, but God saved him.
The Delegation of Zealous Rabbis
In the interim, the Rebbe of Satmar asked to arrange a meeting of rabbis with Rabbi Feinstein to discuss his ruling with him, when in practice, the intention was to intensify the web of pressure and threats against him. When the time came for the meeting, Rabbi Feinstein, who was then in his seventies, was apparently worried that he would be treated improperly, and asked three rabbis who were his students to sit with him when he received the delegation.
On behalf of the dissenting zealots, there were six rabbis, who were about twenty years younger than Rabbi Feinstein. Among them were Rabbi Azriel Leibowitz from Vienna and Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum (the next Rebbe of Satmar).
Rabbi Feinstein, with his three students, sat on one side of the table, and the six on the other. Rabbi Feinstein honored them with food and a blessing.
At the beginning of the meeting, a long silence transpired. After Rabbi Feinstein said “nu, nu,” the senior one of them opened and said that the Chatam Sofer once wrote a halakhic response, and then retracted it. He finished by saying: “You need to regret.”
Apparently, they thought that after all the attacks and abuses he has suffered, Rabbi Feinstein would succumb to the pressures and accept their offer to publicly repent, and in return, they would see to it that the attacks against him were stopped.
Rabbi Feinstein responded: “You are not familiar with me. If you convince me that I was wrong, I will openly inform the public. But without that, I will not regret it.” They repeatedly demanded that he repent. In other words, he expected a matter-of-fact halakhic discussion, and they expected him to succumb to threats.
Finally, by way of his students, the disputants were forced to talk about the issue, and Rabbi Feinstein in his genius, overcame them with his claims. Later, it was rumored that the Rebbe of Satmar scolded them, and said: “I warned you not to talk to Reb Moshe in halakha!” (Ish Halakha, pp. 137–143).
In my opinion, the Rebbe of Satmar wanted Rabbi Feinstein to be shocked by the firmness of the definite position of those who disagreed with him, who were unwilling to discuss the halakha with him because his words were completely pasul (invalid). Then, out of grief and anxiety he would not sleep a few nights, and afterwards, would retract. However, after hearing that Rabbi Feinstein sat with his students, who strengthened him, and proved the justification of his position in halakha – he feared that the delegation of threat and intimidation had not achieved its goal, and they would be forced to continue fighting him until he surrendered.
The Story of the Meeting from the Other Side
It is interesting to see how the disputants reported this meeting. It was not agreed that it should be made public, but Rabbi Amsel used it for propaganda purposes. He wrote (‘HaMaor’ Adar I 1964) that the ‘Association of Rabbis’ (the zealots, the competitors of ‘Agudat Yisrael’) decided to “issue a proclamation forbidding this abomination”, but “finally the opinion prevailed that a delegation of five eminent rabbis would first be sent to come to terms with the gaon Shlita who permitted, and perhaps they could get him to retract… The rabbis came to his house to influence him to retract from his heter regarding insemination, which in their opinion is a Torah prohibition … To the astonishment of the rabbis, some of the students who were ready there, not only forced their rabbi not to retract, but also wanted to make the whole thing a matter of gossip and rivalry and finally – the rabbis left without anything, and in despair.”
In other words, the delegation of rabbis treated Rabbi Feinstein with respect and were prepared to come to his house to “influence” him, that is, to threaten and intimidate him, and to present him with the possibility of a “respectable surrender,” since even the Chatam Sofer had retracted; but his students forced him to quarrel with them.
The support for Rabbi Feinstein was rather weak. Rabbi Elberg, editor of “HaPardes”, the veteran and official journal of the Agudat HaRabanim (‘the Rabbinical Association’), wrote an article in Shevat 1964 praising Rabbi Feinstein’s teachings, without condemning the disputants. In response, it was published in “HaMaor” (Tevet-Shevat 1964) that Rabbi Feinstein and Rabbi Elberg had agreed on mutual support – Rabbi Feinstein would support the strengthening of Rabbi Elberg’s position in the ‘Agudat HaRabanim’, and in return, Rabbi Elberg would not allow attacks against him in the ‘HaPardes’ journal.
According to the assessment of Rabbi Tzuriel Halamish, despite the sharpness and bluntness of attacks against Rabbi Feinstein, during the years of controversy, no public article was published in support of his rulings. Apparently, the rabbis who supported his rulings did so quietly. Two rabbinical leaflets in Yiddish or English were reported to have supported him, but they were apparently posted in insignificant platforms that are not currently accessible in today’s databases. Only in Israel did Rabbi Aharon Pachenik, a member of the Mizrachi, publish a reasoned article in his favor in the ‘HaTzofeh’ newspaper.
The Pressures Increased
The pressures on Rabbi Feinstein increased. There were zealots who burned his books in public, while others left them in unsuitable places. He and his rebbetzin were harassed with insults and arguments day and night, to the point where Rabbi Feinstein’s family was forced to cut off the phone, and consequently, rabbis and private individuals were unable to call the rabbi to ask him urgent questions in halakha.
The zealots once announced in the media that the rabbi had passed away, and his funeral would leave his home at a certain time, and even sent black limousines to transport the attendants, and people had already begun to gather for his funeral.
It should be noted, that the Rebbe of Satmar told Rabbi Tuvia Goldstein, that those who did this do not obey him.
Then again, these actions stopped, after the compromise.
A Compromise Perceived by Many as Surrender
In the midst of the controversy, Rabbi Feinstein agreed to a compromise, which was perceived by many as surrender. At the initiative of his trustee, Rabbi Tuvia Goldstein, representatives from both sides were convened, and it was agreed that Rabbi Feinstein would publish that his ruling was meant only for a time of urgency that is almost non-existent, and that rabbis should not rely upon it, to rule leniently according to what was written in Igrot Moshe.
On the 22nd of Kislev 1964, Rabbi Feinstein published: “Regarding the injection of semen written in my name that I permitted, I have found it appropriate to announce that I did not permit, except during a time of great distress, when a woman is in extreme distress, as explained in the my books Igrot Moshe, Even Ha’Ezer, section 71. For indeed it is clear to all that it is not appropriate to discuss this matter, except for a rav muvhak (primary rabbi) who is great in the Torah and famous for teaching, who will discuss it from all sides. And because of that in the one-time question I came across, I forbade. And God forbid that any rabbi rule a permit in this matter from my book. Read what I wrote in my introduction to Igrot Moshe on Orach Chaim. And since it could be that some may be lenient in instructing in this issue, who do not deserve to discuss such a serious matter, and lest there be a stumbling block to permit it even in a situation where it is forbidden, a fence must be fixed, so that they will not permit it in any way, even an unambiguous rav muvhak.”
Although for many months, they continued to publish harsh articles against Rabbi Feinstein and his heters, the despicable acts against him ceased. Rabbi Feinstein was grateful to Rabbi Goldstein for this, and Rebbetzin Feinstein gave him a silver platter as a token of gratitude (Ish Halakha 137–143).
Testimony of Rabbi Yonah Gewirtz
Rabbi Yonah Gewirtz recounted: “I had courage at the time, and I asked him if he was dodging a little because of the storm, and if it was possible to be sure of the truth of his words. He answered me: This is the halakha, and this is the instruction (as he permitted in the first place), but at the moment, the world is not ready for my Torah, but a day will come that will be difficult for people, and they will find in my books the Torah-ruling of permission, un Gad vat ir be’enshtein (and God will bless those who will help with my heter).” (Darchei Moshe Vol. 2, p. 104-105).
Over time, the vast majority of rabbis agreed that there is no fear of mamzarut (bastards) through artificial insemination, and consequently, in times of distress, many rely on his heter.
In the long-run, the zealots “succeeded” in harming Rabbi Feinstein’s status among the Hasidic public, and among the zealous Lithuanian public, who treat his words reluctantly, and do not often quote him. In the eyes of the rest of the Haredi and religious public, however, his status may have strengthened.
It also turns out, that the general public tended to support Rabbi Feinstein, however the zealous rabbis dominated the opinion of the other rabbis who were afraid to express their position. Unfortunately, it has become clear that as with several other issues in recent generations, the public at large – who, if not prophets themselves, are the sons of prophets – have chosen more correctly than most of the rabbinical leadership.
The question is: from the time of that same difficult controversy, was Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ztz”l afraid to order heters on big questions? And another question: Have other rabbis refrained from ordering heters as a result of what they did to him?
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.