Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry (Part 1)

When I was looking at the numbers of Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, I felt very proud of those rabbis and Jewish leaders that knew how to respond in times of great crisis. Jewish ethics teaches that anyone who saves one life is considered as though he saves an entire world.

The collaborative effort of Jewish leaders across denominational lines accomplished one of the great feats of Exodus in our day. Rarely has the Jewish community of Israel and the Diaspora shown such unity–I only wish we could replicate the experience in other areas of Jewish life today.

One particular American rabbinic leader, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1885-1986, Lithuania), acted as a catalyst  in mobilizing other rabbinic leaders to come to aid. This Lithuanian  rabbi proved to be the real Moses of his day. Here is a little bit of background information for readers who may not have heard about this great man. Widely regarded as America Orthodoxy’s greatest Halachic scholar, Rav Feinstein’s  humanity exceeded his vast encyclopedic grasp of Jewish law. When he died, over 300,000 people in Israel attended his funeral–the largest number seen since the Mishnaic era. He will long  be remembered as one of Haredi Judaism’s greatest leaders.

Rav Feinstein also distinguished himself as an expert in Jewish medical ethics; in addition, he was famous for knowing how to resolve labor and business disputes; he was the first Haredi rabbi to accept brain death as a viable definition of death at a time when no other rabbi did. Although he was not a religious pluralist, Rav Moshe (as he was affectionately called by many of his students) knew how to respond to the endangered Ethiopian Jewish community and added his voice to those participating in their rescue. Thinking ahead, Rav Moshe also worked with other leading Israeli rabbis in  laying out a practical Halachic plan that would accelerate their reintegration within the Jewish people. [1]

Perhaps Rav Moshe’s best legacy is his multi-volume exposition dealing with the thousands of questions people asked concerning Jewish law  that rabbinic and historical scholars refer to as “Responsa.”

What exactly is Responsa? Here is a brief explanation.

Without the aid of an Internet,  rabbis managed to develop a literary  phenomenon, viz. the rabbinical correspondence that is better known today as “Responsa.” About 1700 years ago, the great rabbinic scholars known as the “Geonim” (savants) of Persia corresponded with the rabbis of North Africa and Spain, and exchanged ideas and thoughts on a variety of topics affecting their communities. This genre of literature constitutes one of the most fertile sources of information for Jewish life in the middle ages. Maimonides, Rav Hai Gaon, Ramban and countless other luminaries sustained an ongoing relationship with other Jewish communities that were across the ancient world. Continue reading “Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry (Part 1)”

Jewish Ethics 101: Do not place a stumbling block before the blind … (Lev. 19:4)

One of the most important and yet neglected ethical proscriptions of the Torah is the famous passage, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev. 19:4). Talmudic tradition stresses the importance of not taking advantage of another person’s ignorance. Thus, we find: “ How do we know that one should not hold out a cup of wine to a Nazirite  or a limb from a living animal to a Noahide? From Scripture, which says, “You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind.”

The point of this law teaches us that nobody should prey upon the weaknesses or flaws of another human being by taking advantage of that person’s ignorance. Based on this injunction, rabbinic tradition teaches that there must be truth in advertising. Beyond that, weapons should not be sold to people unless it is for the express purpose of self-defense. In addition, one should not even offer bad advice—especially if the person who is giving it stands to gain from  it. An example of this might be someone who is trying to persuade a neighbor to sell his house so that he will get rid of them.

Scriptures further admonishes the citizen, “You shall fear your God.”  Rabbinic expositors note that this warning seems especially appropriate for offenses that cannot be detected and that, therefore, are readily concealed. The deaf cannot hear what is being said about them, and the blind cannot see who causes them to stumble. However, God sees and hears on their behalf and will punish their tormentors.

Both Jewish and Christian tradition stress the importance of not asking God not to bring us to temptation, “Our Father who art in Heaven… Thy will be done … lead us not into temptation” (Mathew 6:13). Jesus’ prayer is reminiscent of a passage mentioned in the Talmud which teaches that no person should never intentionally bring oneself to temptation, for if David could succumb to temptation, how much more could lesser mortals![1]

Moral people need to be aware of their shortcomings and weaknesses. Failure to recognize these flaws will prove injurious to one’s health or happiness.  The Sages teach in the Mishnah, “Never be sure of yourself until the day of your death.” Yet, as a good Catholic friend once taught me, “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.” Just because we made mistakes in the past, doesn’t mean we can’t become better people–despite ourselves. Knowing our fragility as human beings is the key to our personal salvation and eventual character transformation. Continue reading “Jewish Ethics 101: Do not place a stumbling block before the blind … (Lev. 19:4)”