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Understanding the Heter of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein

A story that Rabbi Riskin told about Rabbi Moshe Feinstein * Even after his wife the Rebbetzin begged him to rescind his halachic permit of artificial insemination due to the terror of the zealots who threatened it and burned his books, he refused to change his mind, due to concern for barren women * Even when a child does not walk in straight paths and respect his parents properly, he should not be deprived of the inheritance on an equal footing with the rest of his brothers

Before Pesach, an evening of study and a siyyum of the books ‘Peninei Halakha’ took place in Efrat. I was privileged to have Rabbi Riskin shlita, the rabbi of the city for decades and the founder of Ohr Torah Stone participate in the evening, wishing to strengthen my halakhic position, and to that end, he told the audience a story from his personal testimony about two of the greatest rabbis of the previous generation – his teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Soloveitchik ( 1903-1993), and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986). They were relatives: Rabbi Soloveitchik’s mother was a cousin of Rabbi Feinstein. Their positions were somewhat different: Rabbi Soloveitchik supported the Mizrachi movement, and Rabbi Feinstein, Agudat Yisrael.

I asked Rabbi Riskin to write the story so that I could present it accurately, and here it is:

The Grief of Rebbetzin Feinstein

“After I had studied for seven years, and received a teaching permit from my teacher and Rabbi, the Gaon Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik ztz”l, and after I started serving as a teacher at Yeshiva University and as a synagogue rabbi for baalei teshuvas in a new neighborhood in New York, I realized how essential it was for me to sit with my Rabbi and teacher for guidance and consultation with him. The Rav agreed to sit with me in his apartment located in the Yeshiva dormitory on Thursday evenings, before his flight back to his home in Boston.

On one of those Thursday evenings, as I was sitting with the Rav, the phone rang. Rav Soloveitchik answered, but I was also able to hear the voice across the line. I realized that the speaker was Rebbetzin Feinstein, and she cried, begged, and said that only Rabbi Soloveitchik, who her husband Rabbi Moshe Feinstein is so respectful and fond of, would be able to convince her husband to withdraw his heter (halachic permission) for artificial insemination!

She said the Haredi fanatics had burned her husband’s books in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and phone the Feinstein house at all hours of the night with curses in their mouths.

I heard how Rabbi Soloveitchik tried to reassure her, and promised he would make an effort to persuade Rabbi Feinstein to withdraw his heter. However, afterwards, he told me that there was no chance that he would succeed, because when Rabbi Moshe believes that his ruling is true – seeing as there is no question of ishut (laws of marriage) in artificial insemination – he will not move from his position, and will defend his heter like a lion!

The next day, Friday morning, after a sleepless night, out of worry and sorrow for the Rabbi and Rebbetzin Feinstein alongside many doubts if I, a young rabbi, was allowed to express an opinion on the subject, I arrived at the Tiferet Yerushalayim Yeshiva to meet with Rabbi Feinstein.

I thought that I, the young rabbi that I was, had to try to convince him. After all, I also had the privilege of learning rulings from him in the laws of niddah two years before, when Rabbi Soloveitchik sent me to Rabbi Moshe to study practical rulings. It was then that I realized that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Soloveitchik were relatives, with a lot of respect and love between them.

Although I did not ask permission in advance to arrive, Rabbi Moshe received me with great joy and warmth. ‘Rabbi,’ I began, ‘I apologize, but this is a question of Torah, and I need to study it. I realize I’m a young rabbi, involving myself in things that are not my business, but last night, I was sitting with Rabbi Soloveitchik when Rebbetzin Feinstein called him, and I could not help but hear her pain and sorrow’. I also cried. ‘They burn your books, they drive your Rebbetzin crazy, why don’t you retract? After all, they are not asking you to give a heter, but merely to hold-off the prohibition, please, Rabbi, forgive me’.

Rabbi Moshe took my hand in his and said: ‘I have a lot of respect for your request, however, I cannot back down. Yes, they burn my books, but even if they burned me – I would not change my mind. It is a matter of pikuach nefesh! Have you forgotten what our mother Rachel said to our forefather Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I will die’? A woman who is unable to give birth feels like she is dead if she is barren. Do you know how many daughters of Israel I gave life to, based on my ruling?! After all, from a halakhic point of view, artificial insemination is not at all an act of ishut! No, it is forbidden for me to change my mind!’

I left Rabbi Moshe at least with an understanding of what the greatness of Torah is, and who the great men of Torah are.”

The Heter of Rabbi Feinstein

The heter was that spouses, who could not give birth, due to a problem with the husband’s fertility, were allowed to receive a sperm donation from a stranger, and so, the wife would conceive and give birth. This is because there is no prohibition of ari’yot (forbidden conjugal relations)  in a way when there is no sexual relations as the way of marriage, and therefore the child will be considered a kosher Jew, and if the baby born is a girl, she will also be able to marry a kohen (Igrot Moshe Ibn Ha’ezer, Vol. 1 10:71; Vol.4 32:5).

Incidentally, a couple once came to me with a similar question. The woman very much wanted another child. The husband, who loved his wife, complied with her, but felt uncomfortable. They wanted to ask if this was allowed. I answered it was permitted, but added that the husband would be considered his father for two reasons. One, without his consent the child would never have come into being, and consequently, thanks to him he was born. Second, our Sages said (Sanhedrin 19b): Anyone who raises an orphan in his house, the verse ascribes him credit as if he gave birth to him. All the more so as a father who accompanies him from the time of his pregnancy and raises him from his first day, will be considered as if he had given birth to him. The man’s face lit up, and so did his wife.

Should a Son who does Not Respect his Parents be Deprived of His Inheritance

Q: I have several children, one of whom hardly comes to visit me. It could be his wife is influencing him. I would expect him to respect me more, just as the rest of my children respect me. I am a rich person. Is it proper to write in my will that his share of the inheritance will be smaller than his brother’s share? And should he be told that?

A: It is forbidden for a person to discriminate against one of his sons in his inheritance, even if he is behaving improperly and is not meticulous in keeping mitzvot (Bava Batra 133b). The reason is that even if the son himself is not good, his grandson may turn out well. However, if his father deprives him – he will regret and distance himself from the family tradition, and the fear will increase that he will not educate his sons’ properly. Similarly, Shmuel the Amora instructed his disciple Rabbi Yehuda, not to be present in a situation where an inheritance is transferred, even from a bad son to a good son. This is also ruled in the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 382:1).

Of course, parents can give gifts to children while they are alive, and even prefer the children who are in continuous and better contact with them, but in an inheritance, which expresses the absolute connection to the children, they must not be discriminated against. Parents who discriminate in inheritance between their children cause controversy and destroy their family. The deprived sibling will accuse his brothers and sisters that through flattery, they distanced him from his parents in order to take his share of the inheritance, and will carry a grudge against them all his life, and the family will be torn apart.

Even the siblings that the parent tried to draw closer will eventually feel distant towards the brother deprived of his inheritance. Indeed, at first they may be happy that they received a greater inheritance, but later they will regret the damage caused to their family, and feel alienated from their father. This is because the connection between children and their parents should be absolute and eternal – a relationship that is not dependent on anything. If they see that the connection to their father depends on their respect or flattery towards him, they will not remember him as a good father, rather as a man who was too sensitive about his dignity, and even with his sons, behaved in a petty and vengeful way.

A Son Who Curses His Parents

Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach (Rashbatz) was asked about a son who cursed his father and mother and called his father a bastard, what is his punishment, and whether to agree with his father who wanted to dispossess him of his inheritance (Teshuvot Rashbatz 3: 192).

Before I relate his answer, I will give a brief description of him. The Rashbatz lived at the end of the Rishonim period (1361- 1444). He was born on the island of Mallorca near Spain, and due to disturbances in Spain in 1391, fled to North Africa and settled in Algeria. Like many of the eminent rabbis of Spain, the Rashbatz was also a physician.

The Rashbatz explained that even though the son did not curse his parents with the name of God as the most severe Torah prohibition, about which it is said (Leviticus 20: 9): “‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death. Because they have cursed their father or mother, their blood will be on their own head” – in any case, even in cursing without the name of God it is a severe prohibition, and when he sins in it, he is called accursed, as the Torah says (Deuteronomy 27:16): “Cursed is anyone who dishonors their father or mother.” Nevertheless, even such a son should not be deprived of his inheritance, for a father who does so is not looked upon favorably by our Sages. And it is to be hoped and presumed that in time, he will repent and regret his conduct towards his parents.

A Wayward Son

Q: What is the law when one of the children does not keep Torah and mitzvot? Is it appropriate to deprive him of his inheritance?

A: As long as the child is connected to the people of Israel and its heritage – according to the instruction of our Sages, he must not be deprived of the inheritance. However, if it is a child who has decided to alienate himself from his family and people, since he disconnected himself from his family and Am Yisrael, there is room to consider his expropriation from the inheritance (see, Peninei Halakha: Mishpacha 1:30).

Advice for Parents

Parents who have a large inheritance and want to encourage their children to continue on the path of Torah, can stipulate in their will that part of the inheritance will be allocated for Torah education for grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as for weddings ke’dat Moshe ve’Yisrael (according to Jewish tradition). By doing so, all their children will be encouraged, without exception, to educate their children to Torah and mitzvot, and to marry ke’dat Moshe ve’Yisrael. Whoever is not interested, will lose out on his own accord.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from

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