Commentary Magazine

Rabbinical Responsa

To the Editor:

Judah Sayer’s observations on “Rabbinical Responsa in the USSR” [July] . . . omit the most pertinent recent example of living Jewish law under fire: the body of responsa which has come from the death camps of Nazi Europe. In contrast to the consistently lenient answers given by the Russian rabbis, these responsa seem to represent a more heroic as well as a more balanced approach. Recent examples are: The Valley of Slaughter (1961) by Rabbi S. Efrati and From the Depths (1959) by Rabbi E. Oshry.

Clarification is also needed in regard to Mr. Sayer’s statement: “Captive women, after their release, were not permitted to their husbands since they might have been at the disposal, however much against their will, of other men.” A captive woman violated against her will is only forbidden to her husband if he is a Kohen.

(Rabbi) Philip W. Zimmerman
Long Beach, New York



To the Editor:

. . . Judah Sayer states. . . “Only if a Jew is ordered to renounce his faith and worship idols, must he yield up his life: Sanctification of the Name.”

I was always under the impression that renunciation of the Jewish faith was only one of three offenses for which rather than commit, a Jew must submit to death—the other two being murder (direct or indirect) and incest. I was also taught that at the time of a government decree requiring Jews to abandon their faith, a Jew must even perform a custom at the risk of death, in order to prevent a deliberate detraction from his Jewish identity. At any other time, however, a Jew may save his life by transgressing any commandment but one of the aforementioned three. The Torah was given as a guide to living, but in certain cases Jews must yield up their lives and Sanctify the Name through martyrdom.

Judah Ash
Far Rockaway, New York



To the Editor:

. . . Judah Sayer’s article was much more than just a historical overview of the significance of the responsum in Jewish life in general and contemporary Russian Jewish experience in particular. It became an exciting and moving document mirroring the stiff-necked courage, perseverance, and resourcefulness of our Jewish brethren in their quiet but valiant struggle to . . . live, as the righteous, by and in their faith.

It was therefore doubly regrettable to find a number of unfortunate errors. . . .

  1. The Amora Samuel of the 3rd Century ought not to be listed as Rabbi. Despite his acknowledged brilliance and erudition in many disciplines, he never succeeded in receiving ordination. As the Talmud itself puts it (see Baba M’tzia 85b) “he shall be called Sage but never Rabbi.”
  2. The ruling of the Chatam Sofer releasing his petitioners from paying the government tax, while perhaps “radical” and “insurrectionist,” was not at all a reversal of Samuel’s ancient Talmudic dictum “the law of the kingdom is the law.” Mr. Sayer, in describing the circumstances, clearly indicates that the situation was one in which “the government . . . taxed inexorably and unequally.” This factor makes all the difference. It is the identical point which is raised in just such a case by the Talmud itself (Baba Kama 113a). The conclusion is crystal clear. A Jew may not evade his tax obligations to his government, no matter how harsh they may be, provided they are imposed in a fixed, universal, and equitable manner. The imposition of taxes according to the . . . formulae of the ruthless and unscrupulous Roman provincial tax collectors of earlier days would be neither sanctioned nor encouraged by Jewish law. The Chatam Sofer was one of the modern giants of rabbinical learning. He could be relied upon for Halachic consistency.
  3. There are two distinct requirements with regard to a Jewish marriage ceremony. The first refers to the presence of witnesses. The Halacha prescribes that no marriage is valid unless it be performed in the presence of two designated witnesses (Gittin 2b). The second, however, concerns the presence of a minyan—ten representing the smallest unit of a Jewish community. Tradition stipulates (Kesuboth 8a, Megillah 23b) that a marriage ceremony as a public “matter of sanctification” shall be accompanied by a number of benedictions which may be recited only in the hearing of the community.

The responsa are concerned with the latter requirement in a time of emergency. The former, however, could not be waived.

Allow me to repeat that Judah Sayer has put us all in his debt. My only hope—and prayer—is that we shall extract from his report, regarding our brothers and sisters behind the Iron Curtain, a precious lesson

Norman E. Frimer
Washington, D. C.



Mr. Teller writes:

It is an author’s privilege to chose his theme. As the title quoted in Rabbi Zimmerman’s letter confirms I confined myself to Soviet responsa. If reason is needed, it is that I find these responsa particularly unique because they have endured forty-five years of Communist rule, and ideological challenge as well as persecution. I agree that the point about captive women should have been explicated.

I think that I can confidently reassure Judah Ash that no reader of COMMENTARY has been misled by me to treat incest and murder as permissible. I referred to only one of the three capital crimes because it is the only one relevant to Soviet circumstance.

I am grateful to Norman Frimer for his kind and generous comment and also for his elaboration on the Jewish marriage ceremony: As for the other two points: I used the term rabbi, as perhaps I should not have done, in the wider, less demanding—for some Jewish denominations—contemporary sense. It was not my intention to suggest that the Chatam Sofer digressed from Halacha. Like all law, it lends itself to a restrictive and a liberal interpretation. Chatam Sofer’s ruling was a daring defiance of govermental authority and hence radical in the political sense. The Amora Samuel, conversely, author of the dictum, was criticized by contemporaries for believing that he served Jewry’s interest best by being an apologist for the government.



Judd L. Teller, a frequent contributor to COMMENTARY, is the real name of Judah Sayer. Mr. Teller wrote under a pseudonym because he was in the Soviet Union at the time his article was published.—Ed.



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