Rabbi Moshe David Tendler passed away at age 95 on Shmini Atzeres, September 28. He was ordained at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and earned a Ph.D. in microbiology from Columbia University, but was one of those great historic figures who will forever be remembered for their share in the achievements of an even greater historic figure, in his case, his father-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), commonly referred to as “Reb Moshe,” the preeminent halakhic posek of the 20th century, who was probably also the most daring posek in many generations.
The most controversial ruling by Rabbi Feinstein Zt’l, the one that stands out to this day concerns brain death and the allowance to remove a beating heart from a patient whose brain death was verified, for a transplant to another patient.
Rabbi Tendler was considered the most influential in this decision, as he himself noted in his comments in Hamayan in 1996 (עמדת הגאון רבי משה פיינשטיין זצ”ל
בעניין מוות מוחי):
After I wrote him a long answer explaining finding out the patient’s medical condition, mainly the fact that his brain is destroyed because the oxygen does not reach his brain because of the cessation of blood flow, which is what causes brain death, the Gaon (R. Feinstein) wrote me on the 22nd of Tevet 5752, and it was printed in the Nishmat Avraham (published by Israeli physician A. S. Abraham):
In my humble opinion, it seems that a patient who needs a transplant in the United States may not be committing murder (by benefiting from a heart transplant – DI) because according to Rabbi Tendler’s description, the donor receives a radioactive injection … to see if the bloodstream reaches the brain … And if the doctors really do that, my humble opinion is that this would depend on the results, since if it turns out that there is no brain at all … a pregnant woman who is attached to a respirator may continue to grow the fetus in her womb … and this issue can become clear in a few days … Therefore, I think that if the doctors maintain and make the above injections, it seems to the above-mentioned patient is considered as if he has been decapitated, or he is like an old man whose neck was broken, who is considered dead even when most of his flesh is intact.”
In other words, Rabbi Feinstein’s opinion (see a great elaboration in the article) was that brain death was death and therefore the patient’s body could be harvested for its parts.
An expert on Jewish medical ethics and Halakha, Rabbi Tendler was the posek for the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists and served as its president. He served as a senior Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s RIETS and the Rabbi Isaac and Bella Tendler Professor of Jewish Medical Ethics and Professor of Biology at Yeshiva College.
Rabbi Tendler was the rabbi of the Community Synagogue of Monsey, New York, where he was renowned for his unannounced visits to the homes of his congregants during Passover to check on the condition of their chametz which he had sold to a non-Jew on their behalf.
Rabbi Tendler translated various medical-oriented responsa of his exalted father-in-law into English, even though the latter allegedly forbade such translations. He wrote extensively on euthanasia, infertility, end-of-life issues, organ donation, and circumcision. He advocated strongly for the use of a tube when performing metzitzah b’peh—suction of blood after circumcision. He was an enthusiastic supporter of stem cell research and criticized the Bush administration’s ban on government funding for it.
Rabbi Tendler’s wife, Shifra, died in October 2007.