It was one of the most critical issues with which I have dealt. It was a case of a woman who had married in a Conservative ceremony, never received a get, and subsequently remarried. Soon after, she switched her affiliation to Orthodoxy. She and her second husband had no less than nine children!
The halachic question that emerges regarding these children is of monumental importance and consequence. A woman who has not received a proper get is still married to her husband. Children of a second marriage are potentially mamzerim who are unable to marry most other Jews.
As is well known, the recourse in such a situation is to very carefully and thoroughly investigate the halachic validity of the woman’s first marriage. We may not automatically assume that a marriage conducted under non-Orthodox auspices is invalid. Both Rav David Feinstein and Rav Reuven Feinstein clarified this point when I was privileged to meet them at a wedding in 2006.
Rav Moshe Feinstein was famous for ruling that many non-Orthodox marriages are not halachically valid. However, his illustrious sons clarified that their eminent father rendered such decisions only after cautious inquiries into the wedding ceremony’s exact details. Some of the issues that must be examined are the witnesses’ validity (Halacha recognizes exclusively adult and fully observant and believing Jews as valid witnesses), the ring’s delivery, and the ownership of the ring used for the kiddushin.
In our case, the woman provided a videotape of her first wedding. A thorough investigation revealed that no shomer Shabbat witnesses attended the wedding. The wedding ring belonged to the bride without a formal transfer of title to the groom. Moreover, a double-ring ceremony was conducted. The husband said “harei at mekudeshet li,” and the bride responded by giving the groom a ring and saying “harei ata mekudash li b’taba’at zo k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael.” Finally, I was horrified to hear that the “rabbi” who conducted the ceremony openly mowed his lawn on Shabbat (what a disgrace!).
I presented a detailed report of the situation to Rav Gedalia Schwartz, shlita, the rabbinic head of the Beth Din of America and Chicago Rabbinical Council, who, after careful consideration of several months, ruled that the children are not mamzeirim. I asked Rav Schwartz if he thought it worthwhile to inquire as to the opinion of Rav Dovid Feinstein, and he deemed it an excellent idea. I arranged with my rebbe, Rav Moshe Snow, who was close with Rav David for many decades, to meet Rav Feinstein. He asked that I speak with him after delivering his weekly Friday Chumash shiur at the yeshiva (Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem—MTJ). After sharing an enthralling talk on Parshat Masei, Rav David welcomed my question.
To my surprise, although Rav Feinstein endorsed Rav Schwartz’s ruling that the children are not mamzeirim, he insisted that the wife must receive a get. He firmly stated that it is an absolute necessity. I responded that it is impossible, to which Rav David responded that the wife needs a get no matter what.
I was quite surprised at Rav David’s stance since it ran counter to his great father. Rav Moshe permitted a wife to remarry without a get if she can’t obtain one, if a respectable beit din determined that her marriage is invalid.
While common practice is to follow the ruling of Rav Moshe, there is much to learn from Rav David’s response. Although Rav David’s father was the most significant halachic authority of his generation, Rav David had the confidence and dignity to maintain his own opinions. He succeeded in carving out his respected niche. Rav David was not merely the son of the gadol hador. He was a gadol of very considerable authority in his own right and not someone who just parroted his father’s opinions.
Rav David brings to mind a fascinating conversation Rashbam (recorded in his remarks to the beginning of Parshat Vayeishev) had with his grandfather Rashi. Rashbam relates that he told his grandfather that he did not devote sufficient attention to peshuto shel mikra in his commentary to Chumash. Rashi responded that if he were younger, he would rewrite it!
Many understand Rashi as encouraging Rashbam to develop and write a commentary to Chumash focusing on pshat. Rashbam did precisely that! Rashi did not expect his grandchildren to be his replicas; he wanted them to cultivate a signature style. As a result of this very healthy attitude, we have been blessed with the fine Rashbam commentary to the Torah and the indispensable Baalei HaTosafot (many of the Ba’alei Tosafot are Rashi’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren) to the Gemara. Similarly, Rav Moshe raised Rav David to be a gadol b’Yisrael who makes an enormous contribution to our people in a manner unique to him.
Many years earlier, I had met Rav David Feinstein calmly and happily learning Avot D’Rabi Natan on a Shabbat afternoon in MTJ beit midrash. He took the time to field several questions I posed in regard to community eruvin. Rav David answered with dignity, confidence and modesty.
Rav David had nothing to prove to anyone. He was comfortable in his skin. While he walked in his father’s footsteps and assumed his position as rosh yeshiva of MTJ, he blazed a special trail. May we all merit achieving the healthy balance attained by Rav David Feinstein, to sing the song of Hashem in the way of our predecessors but to do it in a way that makes it our own.
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.