Rav Moshe Dovid Tendler, shlit"a, is certainly a controversial figure within the frum world. For many on the Chareidi side of the border he is public enemy no. 1. For many on the Modern Orthodox side he is a beloved and respected maggid shiur and rav.
What makes him important, in my opinion, is his willingness to take a stand when it comes to halachic positions that might go against the current position of the "Gedolim" in Israel and America. He did so in the 1990's when he came out against the practice of metzitzah b'peh using direct skin-to-skin contact by the mohel after one such individual came under strong suspicious of spreading herpes infections to infants in New York through the technique. The response to his position, one based on a deep knowledge of halacha which showed that indirect metzitzah was permissible according to many authorities, was vitriolic. If one went by the descriptions his enemies gave, one would think he was a composite of Hitler, Stalin and Chielmnicki, y"sh (all of 'em) come back to life. Indeed, my first exposure to the idiocy that has replaced logical halachic thinking in some quarters came through that episode as I listened to some kollel types tell me about how herpes is and isn't transmitted (they were completely wrong, of course) and how, if I disagreed I was a heretic for going against the "Gedolim".
Another decade, another controversy. This time it's something much more complex, the definition of death according to halacha. If one thinks the various opinion on metzitzah b'peh are hard to keep track of, the definition of death makes that issue look simple and superficial. Yet once again a handful of Gedolim have taken one of a dozen legitimate opinions and announced that this position, and this one alone, is the halacha and that going with any other approach is heresy and rebelling against God.
Now usually when a psak like this comes out of the Chareidi community most Modern Orthodox folks shrug their shoulders and go on with their lives. For many there is no practical reason to get upset. Did someone outlaw denim skirts? We don't live in those neighbourhoods so who cares? No crocs on Yom Kippur? I don't daven with that crowd.
But this isn't the same thing. What we are talking about impacts on a person's ability to choose for himself how his life will end al pi halacha as well as the weighty issue of availability of organs for transplanting. This issue is not only about the end of life but the preserving of it as well.
Yes there have been Modern Orthodox responses to the dictatorial way this issue has been handled but all have been low key so as not to inflame the situation. The problem with this approach, as has been Modern Orthodoxy's problem in every confrontation with the Chareidi leadership, is that civility puts MO at a disadvantage. The Chareidim shove, the MO's step back, dust off their shoulders and say "Please don't do that again" without acknowledging that they've been moved away from their original position.
And then there's Rav Tendler who, in contrast to this opinion, has decided to shove back:
Scientific ignorance can be dangerous, especially when people with inadequate knowledge are faced with and decide upon questions that demand expertise.
So how is it that some rabbis, who are great Torah scholars but not necessarily medical experts, claim to overrule science in determining the moment of a person’s death, regarding questions of organ donation? A conference at the Bar-Ilan University on Tuesday, part of its Nitzozot study series, dealt with case studies in Jewish bioethical decision-making: brain-death and advanced genetic management.
In the early 1990, Rabbi Dr. Moshe D. Tendler – a biology professor and Jewish medical ethics expert at the Yeshiva University, and rosh yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary – developed for the Rabbinical Council of America a health care proxy that determined that brain-stem death constituted halachic death. A few months ago, a special committee of the RCA, composed of members who do not have the scientific credentials of Tendler, backed away from its previous stance.
“We underestimate the effort needed to understand the advances in biomedicine, people who are trained – doctors, etc. – have trouble keeping up with the field,” Tendler toldThe Jerusalem Post at the end of the conference. “Our rabbis enter the field at its most advanced stage, without the background necessary to understand it.
“The idea that greatness in Torah is adequate to make up with this deficit in education, is erroneous. Lo bashamaim hi – the Torah is down on the earth. Therefore, waited two years before he could answer the question [on whether brain-stem death qualifies as death],” Tendler said of his late father-in-law, the supreme rabbinic authority for Orthodox Jewry of North America and one of the greatest halachic adjudicators of the generation.
It's tough talk like this, calling reality what it is and pushing back with halachic sources that will give Modern Orthodoxy a fighting chance in this struggle. Perhaps Rav Tendler's approach is one that other MO authorities might consider the next time a part of the Torah-observant community decides to set universal standards for all of us.