Rabbi Moshe Tendler ZT”L – A Personal Appreciation

He saved my Yiddishkeit, but I never realized it until he was gone. The gift that he provided to so many of us seemed so natural and obvious, that we failed to recognize its importance.

I was all of fifteen when I first met him, as a participant in a National Science Foundation summer program that he oversaw and did most of the instruction. Entrance to the program was by application, and was very competitive. It was open to all high school students of the upper grades, and I had just finished my junior year. My best shot, thought this somewhat arrogant kid, was to appeal to the “rabbi” part of his Rabbi Dr. title. I spoke of my love for science (true) and being underprivileged because I attended a right-of-religious-center school, which meant an inferior general studies curriculum (also true, although superior to many similar schools today.) He apparently bought it, because I found myself sitting in his classroom in the mornings, and studying the metamorphosis of tadpoles in a lab at Albert Einstein in the afternoons.

At the time, I was struggling already with assumptions and practices in the frum world that completely grated on my leanings towards rationality and my need to understand. One figure was known for his apparent ability to find a way to harmonize Torah and science, and that was Rav Moshe Tendler.

I don’t remember much else from those weeks of lectures, other than a recurring theme: There was no conflict between Torah and science, nor could there be. I had heard of such a possibility before, but Rav Tendler embodied it, and was its spokesman to the world. (He drove it home by peppering his lectures to Talmudic references which he saw as ahead of their time scientifically, as well as defusing points of seeming conflict.) Coming from him, the peace that broke out between Torah and science seemed so clear, evident, and beyond cavil. It was just what I needed to hear.

Rav Tendler was certainly not the first to reduce the tension between Torah and science. That goes back to the Gaonim and Rishonim. And, in the years that followed, I met many, many people who vigorously espoused the same position, often in still greater detail. He was the one, however, who was the modern poster boy for the alliance between the two supposed antagonists, and who made that partnership a commonplace. To a large extent, good parts of the Teshuva Movement could not have happened without his publicizing it. It took decades before the truth of that position would be challenged and even scoffed at, so that the large number of bnei Torah who believe it today often have to do so in secrecy.

How was he zocheh to this role? The hespedim offered some insight. The maspidim spoke of his meticulousness in halacha. They also spoke of his spending significant time and developing relationships with people coming from all sorts of backgrounds and beliefs. That, you might think, would produce a more inclusive and “progressive” attitude towards others. Well, yes and no, said the maspidim. He had clear limits as to what he would relate to. Anything that went afoul of the 13 Ikarei Emunah was completely beyond the pale. He had no tolerance or patience for it.

In other words, it was his stature as a talmid chacham that gave him the inner confidence and conviction to make the case successfully for the reasonableness of Torah. A lesser person could not have done it.

In the decades that followed, there were many times that I could not accept his halachic positions. (Despite this, he welcomed me warmly as a scholar-in-residence in his shul.) Nothing, however, could take away from the reality the example he set in my teen years was crucial to my development. Without it, I would likely not have gotten to the point that I could analyze the different positions, or care very much about them. His synthesis remained a working reality for innumerable people.

My personal appreciation turns out, then, not to be so personal. It is really the gratitude of several generations of young adults for whom he lit a torch to be followed, sometimes without them even realizing who bore it.

Yehi zichro Baruch.

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10 Responses

  1. Sid says:

    Very clear….
    Thank you Rabbi Adlerstein

  2. lacosta says:

    in other words, because he was Noah in Noah’s generation , so he was great . but now is Pinchas’s generation, and in such a generation , kana’us keneged kulam , not so much….

  3. mb says:

    Just so lovely. Thank you. (But I’m still mad at him about swordfish!)

  4. Raymond says:

    I am going to take a chance here by expressing an idea from the Rambam. If I do not get this exactly correct, please cut me some slack, given that I am just an amateur when it comes to such things.

    The idea of the Rambam that I want to express here, is the following: If one takes the Midrashim and Aggadot literally, then one is fool, but if one rejects such stories outright, then one is a heretic. Put another way, such stories are couched in symbolic or other hidden ways, behind which are treasures of deep Torah wisdom.

    To me, this encapsulates what I perceive is being said in the above tribute to Rabbi Moshe Tendler. I so much relate to this mindset, as I, too, am almost instinctively rationalistic, in the sense that ideas have to make sense to me for there to be any chance at all that I will accept them. Thus I drive Rabbis crazy with my endless questions! Notions such as simple faith have next to no credibility with me, as any belief system can then claim to have equal legitimacy with any other one. Also, it just seems to me that to be taken seriously, Judaism should be at least as rational as science is.

    This, btw, goes a long way in explaining why the older I get, the more I find myself gravitating toward the teachings of the Rambam. If I understand him correctly, he actually thought that having such a rational foundation for our religious beliefs puts one at a far higher level of connection to G-d, than those who may follow Jewish law, but do so without attaching much deep thought to their essentially robotic practices.

    My direct experience with Rabbi Tender is very limited, but in the few talks that I heard him give in person, he did sound very much like what is described in the above article. No wonder I resonated so much to his teachings.

  5. dr. bill says:

    I never had the zechut to have any meaningful conversations with Rav Dr. Tendler ztl. He read the ketubah at my daughter’s wedding and said the funniest thing to her, for private conversation only, as he walked by her. Many felt he misrepresented RMF ztl’s position on brain death. Having spoken about that topic to his Israeli counterpart, Rav Dr. Avraham Steinberg YLCA, would require its own essay to explain. It suffices to say, he was able to transmit the Torah of his shver and of his Rebbe ztl accurately. Yehi Zichroh Baruch

    for those of you spending the winter in Florida, I will be giving 3 shiurim – 2 on halakha and science – theory and practice, and 1 on new very personal perspectives on brain death and recent developments in science. Rav Adlerstein can give you my email. all are not meant as halakhic advice, but the perspective of a logician.

  6. Michael Jay Broyde says:

    My own experience with Rabbi Tendler was fourfold, each special in a different way.
    First, he was my father’s rebbe in MTA, and my father recounted that there was no doubt that he was the best rebbe in the school. He was one of the first American rebbeim in the school, and his pedagogical ability was legendary. Rabbi Tendler once expressed to me about teaching in YU in that era — where (as Rabbi Tendler expressed it) people thought “all was lost for Orthodoxy”, was very much the art of showing people that Torah and halacha had something valuable to contribute to modern times and life. My father zt”l – who did not love his time at MTA – thought Rabbi Tendler was stellar.
    Second, he was my professor in Yeshiva College. I was a biology major and he was a regular presence in the department. He was no longer running a lab, but he regularly helped people find and make lab connections and work at Einstein. He genuinely thought that basic science work was foundational to human advance. When I told him that I was going to go to law school, he thought that this was only a waste of intellectual science — science complemented Torah, he thought, but law could add nothing to the magnificence of halacha as a legal system.
    Third, as a young man in Torah, he was always a person who was happy to speak about shaylas and help find solutions. He never turned down a phone call and was always happy to read drafts and comments. He had a sharp mind and a lot of practical knowledge. Furthermore, he was one of the few poskim who I heard say things like “this is out of my area of expertise, and you should call” and then he would give you a referral. After one such referral, I remarked that I assumed he knew the material well and was just being modest, and he assured me that “that was false”, but it turns out I was correct! The actual truth was that he had a halachically rare view was a significant stricture for this couple and he did not want to share it.
    Finally, twice in my life I approached Rabbi Tendler to speak him about my own pastoral problems: life is complex for everyone and sometime everyone needs to know where to turn to. One of my own rabeiim directed me to meet with Rabbi Tendler and I saw three things that I valued. First, he stopped what he was doing to give me a considerable amount of his time in both of the times that I needed to speak to him pastorally, even though at that time I was already “out of his orbit”. Second, he gave me wise and thoughtful advice both times, that was reflective of the common sense that he had. Third, he followed up with me many times of his own volution to make sure things were okay and asking if I wanted to speak more. He actually cared.
    His memory should be a blessing.

  7. Steven Brizel says:

    I am not sure if this on YU Torah but back in the early 1990s, R Tendler ZL and Yivadleinu LChaim RHS discussed and debated the ins and outs of brain death at a meeting of RY and health care professionals. It was a fascinating and scintillating discussion that was conducted in the true manner of TSBP as the participants were dealing with and debating all sides and ramifications of the issue. I think that this was an outgrowth of a famous video with R D Avraham Steinberg on the subject that had been shown in some manner to RSZA ZL. If you have the tapes, they are certainly worth listening to.

  8. Shades of Gray says:

    Dr. John Loike, in “Glimpsing the Infinite in the Microscopic” (Tradition Online), shares a memory that ties in with the parsha of Avraham recognizing Hashem in nature:

    Finally, I wish to share a memory that relates to his holistic approach to Torah and science. When R. Tendler first began teaching biology, he would have his students look into their microscopes to view slides of a human cell and ask them to describe what they observed. One student would say that he saw the nucleus of the cell, another would comment on the lysosomes, and a third would describe the structure of the plasma membrane. R. Tendler was always disappointed with these responses and remarked that the students were both poor scientists and deficient as “observant” Jews because they did not see the real picture. Torah-educated students should have derived an important conclusion from viewing a human cell under a microscope: The palpable sensation of encountering God as the Bore Olam, the creator of life. Just as Avraham recognized Hashem when he viewed the stars in the sky, we should also recognize that He created this world through our observation of the microscopic human cell and appreciate the divine beauty of biology.

  9. Shades of Gray says:

    A follow-up to my comment which was inspired by Rabbi Tendler zt’l:

    After I read Dr. Loike’s appreciation excerpted above, I realized that I didn’t know what “lysosomes” were. In R. Tendler’s day, one had to go to a library for information or to ask someone; this actually worked well for R. Tendler, as it was during a discussion in the Lower East Side library over a science text where he met his future wife…

    Instead, I found a two-minute explanation in a “Talking Glossary” on the National Human Genome Research Institute’s website. There are 250 common genetic terms there that are explained by scientists in an easy-to-understand way along with images and animations.

    In the spirit of the excerpted mussar out of R. Tendler’s lab, I realized that using the Human Genome glossary was a quick way to try to enhance concentration in berachos such as Modim or Asher Yatzar. So, on a following night, I found the glossary’s one-minute audios for the more familiar “nucleus” and “plasma membrane”, terms which were also mentioned in the story about Rabbi Tendler .

    Yehi zichro baruch.

    Here are the links to Dr. Loike’s appreciation and to the Talking Glossary:



  10. Michoel Halberstam says:

    For those of us who have reached a certain age, it is evident that many of the valuable lessons in life had their genesis in an exposure to a particular individual. The fact that there are those who enjoy criticising that individual, have no bearing on this. Rabbi Adlerstein has developed and cultivated what I believe is clearly a healthy attitude about science and its relationship to religion, and if he feels that the acalsyt for this were conversations with Rav Tendler, it is entirely appropriate for him to say that he is makir tov to Rav Tendler.

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