Last week marked the Shloshim observance of the revered Rabbi Moshe Tendler, who departed this world on September 28th at the age of 95. Rabbi Tendler was a veritable giant among Orthodox Jewry in this country. I was privileged to find myself at the same table for lunch with Rabbi Tendler back in the late ’80s, at a conference dealing with organ transplantation, where he presented. Although his greatness most surely merits a biography, there are two fields, in my opinion, where Rabbi Tendler had the prowess and tenacity to take bold stances, that placed himself at odds with the status quo of Orthodox Jewry.

The first concerned Jewish bioethics. Having earned a doctorate in microbiology from Columbia University in 1957, as well as possessing an unassailable background in halacha, Rabbi Tendler dared to deviate from the long-held view in Judaism, that death is defined by cardiac arrest. Instead, Rabbi Tendler cogently argued that it was the cessation of brain function that determined the death of an individual. For many within the large spectrum encompassing Orthodoxy,  Rabbi Tendler’s reliance upon cerebral determination instead of cardiac determination held no sway. In no way, however, did this dissuade Rabbi Tendler. Rabbi Tendler knew only too well, that he was part of a tradition and a people, where being right did not depend on what the majority maintained. Being right, as far as Rabbi Tendler was concerned, should never be up for a vote. The ultimate purpose of being right was never to change people’s minds. The ultimate purpose of being right was to reaffirm belief in oneself, not to coerce others as far as changing their behavior.

Thankfully, most people are not confronted with determining life or death. Many of us go through life, without having to decide whether a loved one should be kept alive through artificial means, where machines are attached to a family member or a loved one, so that the heart is kept beating, the blood continues to flow, and blood pressure is sustained at acceptable levels. What most observant Jews are confronted with, however, is the status of the meat they eat. Within the last several decades, the term “glatt” has been introduced to the kosher consumer. Glatt is a Yiddish word that means “smooth”. Glatt refers to the lungs of animals that have been inspected after being slaughtered by a (reputable) shochet or ritual slaughterer. Lungs have “sirchot” or adhesions. How many “sirchot” are permitted before the animal must be rejected as non-kosher?

Glatt (meaning smooth, referring to the lung) will tolerate fewer sirchot on the lung. In no way, however, does this suggest that a slaughtered cow with four sirchot is not- kosher. It simply means that the lungs, because of the presence of sirchot do not qualify to be designated as Glatt Kosher. Rabbi Mosher Tendler was livid with the designation of Glatt. Not because the kosher food industry was out of control – which it was – in that all of a sudden, kosher pizza became glatt (how can a dairy product which is not in any way connected to adhesions found on the lung of a slaughtered cow be glatt), but because glatt impugned the designation of kosher. With the introduction of the term glatt, any meat designated merely as kosher was suddenly knocked down a peg. It was as though the term Kosher, suddenly suggested: “not as kosher”. Many years ago, a congregant of mine contacted a highly thought of Orthodox rabbi to inquire about the status of the meat sold by a certain kosher butcher. The Rabbi’s reply? “For you, it’s good enough” To say that the congregant was irate at receiving such an answer, would be an understatement. And rightfully so.

Such an attitude by the contemporary Orthodox establishment flew in the face of what Judaism teaches, as far as Rabbi Tendler was concerned. In addition to demeaning the term “kosher”, glatt cast aspersions against those who purchased and consumed meat that was “merely” kosher rather than glatt kosher.

Although others will surely disagree, I cannot help but feel that Rabbi Tendler was adamant that, people must realize when they have it good and not attempt to rock the boat, because they are certain that they improve upon what they have. Rather than see themselves as blessed that kosher meat is readily available (it wasn’t always the case in this country) they “introduced” a new concept totally oblivious to the consequences. To be sure, Rabbi Tendler’s greatness will be long cherished. Hallevai (if only) people would also cherish Rabbi Tendler’s resoluteness.

By Rabbi Shawn Zell