It was recently [ל' חשון] the yahrtziet of one of the great poskim of our times - Rav Eliezer Yehuda Valdenberg. An appreciation...
By Rabbi Chaim Jachter
Who was Rav Eliezer Waldenberg
Unlike other leading twentieth century Rabbis, such as Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Rav Moshe Feinstein, and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Waldenberg did not serve as a Rosh Yeshiva (dean) or even a Maggid Shiur (teacher) in a leading Yeshiva. He also did not serve in any capacity in Orthodox organizations such as Agudath Yisrael, Mafdal (Religious Zionists) or Shas (Sephardic Orthodox).
Instead, he served in three capacities. He served for decades as a Dayan (rabbinic judge) in the State of Israel rabbinic courts, most notably on the Beit Din HaGadol (Supreme Rabbinic Court). He lived near and often davened (prayed) at Sha’arei Tzedek hospital in Jerusalem and forged a connection with the physicians who served in that hospital, which functions in accordance with Halachah. He delivered Shiurim (lectures) in medical Halachah to the doctors of Shaarei Tzedek and addressed the many thorny issues that arose in regard to medical practice in the twentieth century.
He is best known, however, for his twenty four volumes of responsa known as the Tzitz Eliezer. Medical Halachic challenges comprise approximately a fourth of his Teshuvot and approximately another quarter address issues that arose in his service as Dayan in Beit Din. Most of the Teshuvot are addressed to other Rabbis who presented him with their questions. Another major work is his lengthy Hilchot Medinah which presents guidelines for the State of Israel functioning in accordance with Halachah. His work Shevitat HaYam addresses the Halachot regarding ship travel on Shabbat.
I had the privilege of accompanying Rav Efraim Greenblatt (a leading Halachic authority who resides in Memphis, Tennessee) on a visit to Rav Waldenberg’s home in July 1993. I vividly recall Rav Waldenberg beaming while showing Rav Greenblatt the latest volume of Tzitz Eliezer to be published. Rav Waldenberg, who was seventy seven years of age at the time, was elated at its publication as if it were the first time his name appeared in print.
I thought that his excitement over the publication of a new Sefer (Halachic work) would have cooled by that age, in light of the many works he had already published. In retrospect, however, I understand Rav Waldenberg’s excitement in light of the fact that his published works represented the essence and climax of his life’s work. It is fair to assert that his Teshuvot were his Yeshiva and his readers his Talmidim. His volumes, which will be studied in generations to come, represent “the Yeshiva” he built with all of his heart and soul.
Rav Waldenberg’s Style of Halachic Decision Making
Rav Waldenberg may have been somewhat underappreciated in his time since he was not a “party man,” as he did not affiliate with any particular segment of the Orthodox community. On the other hand, his “neutrality” endowed him with greater authenticity, as a ruling from Rav Waldenberg was not viewed as a “Chareidi ruling” or a “Religious Zionist ruling,” but his was a purely objective approach, contributing to his rise to the top tier of twentieth century Halachic authorities.
On the one hand, Rav Waldenberg opposed the Bat Mitzvah celebration (18:33:1), opposed reciting Hallel on Yom Yerushalayim (10:10), and favored military exemptions for those who study Torah full time (Hilchot Medinah 3:3:4). On the other hand, he greatly respected Rav Kook (he signs a Teshuvah, 4:5:2, to Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook “In friendship and admiration”), enthusiastically supported Medinat Yisrael albeit not in Messianic terms (7:48:12), was ecstatic over the lightening Israeli victory of 1967 but does not frame it in Messianic terms (10:1), and opposed introducing new Chumrot such as using a mirror to properly position Tefillin (12:6).
His neutrality is also reflected in some of his bold rulings which were unpredictable. For example, he is probably best known for his permitting abortions in certain circumstances such as if a fetus is determined to have Tay-Sachs disease (9:51:3). Other examples include his strong opposition to in vitro fertilization (15:45) and cosmetic surgery (11:41 and 12:43). He was among the very first Halachic authorities to rule that smoking is forbidden (15:39).
Rav Waldenberg was the leading champion of the Halachic mimetic tradition in the second half the twentieth century. He would defend time-honored Halachic practices of the pious Jerusalem community (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 11:36 and 20:8, for example). This is hardly surprising considering that he was raised and lived among pious Jews in Jerusalem. He was fond of quoting the Aruch HaShulchan, a late nineteenth century Halachic authority who was a staunch traditionalist. I perceive Rav Waldenberg as a twentieth century Aruch HaShulchan.
Rav Waldenberg was remarkably erudite and his Teshuvot widely cite an extraordinarily broad range of sources, including Sephardic authorities, something uncommon among Ashkenazic authorities. He cites widely but does not overwhelm the reader with erudition as Rav Ovadia Yosef does in his Teshuvot Yabia Omer.
Perspectives on Rav Waldenberg’s Place in History
The twentieth century saw profound technological, social and political changes unprecedented in human history. Changes in technology radically changed mankind’s lifestyle. The majority of the Jewish People were not observant of Jewish Law (a situation that has begun to change and we hope continues to rapidly change) and Jews had sovereign control over parts of Eretz Yisrael for the first time in nearly two thousand years. Halachic authorities were faced with the challenge of applying the ancient Halachah to an entirely new reality.
Rav Waldenberg was a key player in this process, which in my opinion is nothing short of miraculous. Together with other luminaries of his rank such as Rav Auerbach, Rav Feinstein, Dayan Weisz, and Rav Ovadia Yosef, a precedent was found in the Gemara and Rishonim for virtually every new phenomenon developed in modern times.
The passing of Rav Waldenberg marks the drawing to an end of an era. Today almost all Poskim below the age of sixty are loath to disagree with an uncontested ruling issued by the great authorities of the twentieth century. Thus, Rav Waldenberg (12:23) enjoyed the authority to disagree with Rav Moshe and permit using paper cups for Kiddush, for example, but had Rav Moshe’s ruling not been challenged by any of his contemporaries such as Rav Waldenberg, it would likely not be challenged by the new generation of Poskim.
Two Samples of his Rulings
The following two rulings are representative of his approach and his personality. In Tzitz Eliezer 11:88, Rav Waldenberg was asked his opinion about a proposal to change rabbinic court protocol and adopt the practice mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 133:3) of ten individuals being present when a husband presents his wife with a Get. Rav Waldenberg begins his response noting that the Poskim in Jerusalem, Egypt, Hungary and Salonika (what a range of communities!) did not require the presence of ten individuals at a Get delivery.
He then notes that this practice is not mentioned in the Gemara, Rambam, Rif and Rosh. He proceeds to cite the Aruch HaShulchan (E.H. 154 Seder Get Temidi number 18) who states that this practice may be waived in case of need. Rav Waldenberg concludes that the practice should not change
"In order not to severely discourage [non-observant] couples who are divorcing from procuring a Get [as they will be disturbed] when they see a tumult surrounding them…as is understood by anyone who is involved in Get administration. "
In this ruling, Rav Waldenberg demonstrates great sensitivity towards the emotional needs and temperament of non-observant Jews who appear before Orthodox Rabbis for a Get. He opposes the introduction of a Chumra (stringency) in the Get procedure that would have greatly disturbed non-observant Jews. Indeed, when I served as a witness to Gittin that Rav Waldenberg administered for non-observant couples, Rav Waldenberg was friendly and engaged them in pleasantries during a break in the proceedings.
In Tzitz Eliezer 10:1, Rav Waldenberg expresses his opinion in regards to the territories captured by the Israel Defense Forces in the 1967 war. He waxes eloquently over this victory and even contemplates ruling that the Kedushah Rishonah (the holiness of the land established by Yehoshua’s conquering of Eretz Yisrael) had been revived after having lain dormant for more than twenty five hundred years, even though the conquest was executed by soldiers who were mostly non-observant. However, at the conclusion of this responsum he makes the following sober and pragmatic observation:
"As I understand, there is no and there was never any intention to permanently retain the added areas [of the 1967 war] and they (the Israeli government) are ready to relinquish control over them at any time that there will be confidence that we shall not be attacked. Therefore, this was not a conquest worthy of its name and accordingly there is no room to discuss the sanctity of the added lands."
Rav Waldenberg in this ruling displays his characteristic neutrality. On the one hand, a Chareidi Poseik would most likely not even consider comparing the 1967 war to Yehoshua’s conquests. On the other hand, most in the Religious Zionist movement would not share his sober evaluation of the status of the lands captured in the 1967 war.
It was reported that thousands of people attended the funeral of Rav Waldenberg in Jerusalem in November 2006. This pales in comparison to the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands who attended the funerals of leading Torah figures who have passed away in the past ten or fifteen years. This seems to reflect the unfortunate fact that Rav Waldenberg was a bit underappreciated. Rav Waldenberg had the qualities of a great Posek but he did not win a popularity contest.
However, the Gemara (Chullin 7b) teaches “the righteous are greater in their death than during their lifetimes.” It is our hope that Rav Waldenberg’s legacy of written works will bring him greater appreciation and will earn him the place in Jewish History that he deserves.