Commentary

“Everyman’s Gadol”: An Appreciation of Rav Dovid Feinstein zt”l

Rav Dovid Feinstein with the author and his son Moshe Simcha, celebrating his first wearing of Tefillin. Boys wearing Tefillin for the first time would receive a berakha from Rav Dovid as part of their "big day." This picture, taken on March 6th, 2020, was the likely the last such picture taken with Rav Dovid, as the pandemic and his failing health forced him into isolation soon thereafter.
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Zvi Romm

 

Eighteen years ago, I came to the Lower East Side to serve as the rabbi of the Bialystoker Synagogue, the largest Shul in the area. Almost immediately, I was initiated into the unique culture of the Lower East Side Orthodox community: a tight-knit, unassuming, relatively tolerant community where everyone knew one another and, in many cases, had grown up together in the neighborhood. The single figure who personified the values of the community while simultaneously shaping those values was Rav Dovid Feinstein zt”l, the Rosh Yeshiva of Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem (MTJ), who passed away last week. In this urban “shtetl” of a community, the loss felt personal, as almost everyone, young and old, had at least some degree of connection to Rav Dovid. Many cried when they heard the news.

When listening to the eulogies for Rav Dovid zt”l, I noticed that one particular emotion was repeatedly invoked to describe his relationships with others: “love.” The Rosh Yeshiva – in the Lower East Side, Rav Dovid was almost universally known by that title – was portrayed as both the giver of love to others and the recipient of love from them.

It was striking. Eulogies of great people tend to focus on their many accomplishments, describing them as “revered.” Certainly, describing the Rosh Yeshiva in these terms would be accurate. But the emphasis was on love. This dimension of Rav Dovid’s personality left the greatest impression on those around him.

A Lower East Side woman shared with me a simple but poignant story. She went to speak with Rav Dovid, as so many did, about a difficult personal issue. “I watched as he cried,” she told me. At that moment, she felt first-hand the love that Rav Dovid had for others.

The word “accessibility” similarly captures much of Rav Dovid’s legacy. So many prominent figures, whether in the religious or secular worlds, are “protected” by circles of “handlers,” who limit their exposure to the public. In truth, these barriers enable the prominent person to focus on important tasks and projects, without getting sidelined by people whose issues might be addressed in other ways. 

But Rav Dovid was a model of accessibility, even as his halakhic decisions and advice were sought after by people from many walks of life and many geographic locations. For much of my early tenure on the Lower East Side, one could find Rav Dovid eating breakfast at the local pizza shop every morning. He walked the neighborhood streets and did his shopping in the local supermarket. That personal accessibility went hand-in-hand with his love for others; is a parent not accessible to his or her child?

Clearly, much of Rav Dovid’s decision to make himself accessible to the public stemmed from a genuine, deep-seated sense of humility, as has been noted very frequently since his passing, as well as the sense of love for others mentioned above. But I believe that Rav Dovid’s personal accessibility was also an ideological choice, one which connected with his legacy of intellectual accessibility. 

For Rav Dovid’s intellectual output seems quite unusual for a Rosh Yeshiva. On one hand, Rav Dovid was described by his father, the late Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, as knowing Shas and Shulhan Arukh. “You can ask him anything,” is a quote attributed to Rav Moshe about his illustrious son. Indeed, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l labeled Rav Dovid as the foremost posek in America. Yet the intellectual legacy of Rav Dovid seems very different from that of his father. Rav Moshe bequeathed to the world volumes of responsa which tackled some of the burning halakhic questions of the late twentieth century. The more lengthy responsa, in particular, are a dazzling display of creative halakhic thinking, marshalling unexpected sources to make a point. In Rav Moshe’s talmudic commentaries, which he actually considered to be his main intellectual legacy, his keen analysis requires hard work to even understand, let alone fully appreciate.

Rav Dovid answered innumerable halakhic questions orally. Those who asked know that his answers tended to be short and to the point. He would elaborate if pressed – but one had to press. His written works were popular in nature: a commentary on the Haggadah, a treatise outlining the basic principles of the Jewish calendar, notes on Haftarot, and short Humash insights based on gematrias. What’s more, they were written in English. The contrast between his literary output and that of his father could not have been more striking. Why would the foremost posek in America devote himself to writing English-language sefarim for a general audience?

The answer lies, I think, in that the Rosh Yeshiva viewed at least part of his life’s mission to make Torah accessible to a broad audience. Rav Moshe’s works were brilliant, but one had to be a scholar to appreciate them. Rav Dovid, in contrast, was incredibly democratic. His literary output contained nuanced novel insights, but you could overlook those insights and still come away informed and inspired. 

That drive to maximize Torah’s accessibility expressed itself in Rav Dovid’s unfailing support for the ArtScroll Talmud translation. A perusal of the rabbinic approbations written for ArtScroll’s monumental translation reveals that there was a degree of unease with translating the Talmud into English. More than one writer explained the move as a necessary concession of some sort. Rav Dovid never spoke in those terms. In his approbation to the Talmud translation he wrote that “everyone knows that my master, father, and teacher zt”l loved the work of ArtScroll-Mesorah in the area of English translations and commentaries … It is clear to me that he would support this great, important project… I know for a fact that these [ArtScroll] works have already brought numbers of our brethren to Torah and Teshuva.”

Yisroel Besser (Mishpacha, “Higher Purpose on the Lower East Side,” November 11, 2020) has shared the moving story of how Rav Dovid loaned his life’s savings to Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz to fund ArtScroll’s activities. While the story is an inspiring tribute to Rav Dovid’s incredible generosity and nobility of spirit, it also speaks to his conviction that ArtScroll was a project worth supporting. ArtScroll embodied Rav Dovid’s worldview that making Torah accessible and understandable to the English-speaking public was desirable. From his perspective, it meant that even gedolim should spend their time producing “popular” works. Just as the Torah scholar should be open to the public, so too the Torah itself should be open.

Many of the most endearing memories I have of Rav Dovid involve his interactions with children. He was a fixture at any milestone ceremony in the MTJ elementary school; he handed out Siddurim to the preschool, Humashim to the first-graders, Mishnah volumes to the third graders, and Gemara volumes to the fifth graders. The junior high school davened with him each morning, lining up after davening to shake hands, one by one, with the Rosh Yeshiva. And boys donning their tefillin for the first time would come to him after davening for a berakhah, a warm smile, and a “photo-op” with Rav Dovid. The love for and attention paid to the youngest members of society spoke to his democratic ethos. 

Young or old, learned or unlettered, one had the sense that Rav Dovid cared for you and your Torah learning. In a world of elitism, he was “everyman’s Gadol.”