by R. Gidon Rothstein
28 Av: R. Moshe Feinstein on Insurance
Iggrot Moshe Orach Chayyim 4;48, from 28 Av, 5725 (1965), records R. Moshe Feinstein’s response to a query about whether it was better to buy insurance that can be used during one’s lifetime, thus helping finance old age, or use that same money to buy a policy that only pays off in the event of death, but gives a bigger payout for the same money (e.g., is it better to buy whole life, which has a cash value but is more expensive, or term).
The Counsel of Wise Men
He comments that this is a request for advice (implying that there’s no fixed halachah on the issue), and true counsel has been taken from us until Hashem returns our counselors as in days of old (a phrase we say in the bracha of השיבה שופטינו). He can only do his best to share what seems correct based on Chazal.
It would be easy to skip over this as a sort of pious or humble excuse, but I don’t think he meant it that way. In his view (and this responsum is full of issues that are his view, and which may not feel wholly comfortable for us), when Jerusalem was built, when we had a king, Temple, priests, etc., the wise men of the Jewish people had greater insight as well; in those times, even their not-specifically-halachic advice was more authoritative. Were he, R. Moshe Feinstein, writing this responsum in that atmosphere, his insight would have been better, he could have more confidently recommended a course of action.
I focus on that both because many of us have become used to ignoring those less rationalistic claims of the religion, but also because it gives us room to question assumptions in this responsum more than most. It’s always enlightening to learn R. Moshe’s views, even if here we might see places that he has gone in a questionable direction.
The Original Responsum
His first point is that he has previously dealt with the subject of insurance generally, in Iggerot Moshe Orach Chayyim 2;111, from 27 MarCheshvan 5724 (1963), so let’s review that as background. He was asked whether taking insurance betrays a lack of trust—perhaps we are supposed to trust Hashem will take care of us? Perhaps, as some Talmudic statements seem to say, as long as we have our sustenance now, we need not and should not work to secure our future? Perhaps security only comes from Hashem, and to act otherwise lacks faith?
He rejects that. R. Moshe says, rather, that insurance is no different than other business endeavors, which we are allowed and obligated to pursue. To do otherwise would arrogantly assume we are so meritorious as to have our needs taken care of even without working.
Earning a Livelihood Naturally or Miraculously
Even those who are that meritorious have to work, because we are not allowed to rely on miracles. He extends that, in fact, to praying for a miracle, a conclusion he draws from Berachot 60’s discussion of the impropriety of praying for a change of gender of a fetus growing in one’s already-pregnant wife. While tradition had it that Leah did just that—praying for Dinah to be a girl, so Rachel might have a second son—the Gemara sees Leah as exceptional. One opinion claimed that her prayers were offered in the first forty days of the pregnancy which, in the Gemara’s view, meant the fetus’ gender had not yet been set.
We cannot expect to be supported miraculously. While working, we also have to know that our successes are all supported by Hashem, are not purely a function of our own efforts. That’s what was meant by punishing Adam that he would have bread only by the sweat of his brow.
That balance is, again, a challenge to many Jews today. Some treat livelihood as if it will come without effort, others treat it as completely a result of their own efforts. R. Moshe is reminding us of the two-sides to keep in mind—our effort is required and it’s also all from Hashem.
Teaching Our Children a Profession
In Kiddushin, R. Nehorai says he would forego all other professions and teach his sons only Torah, seeming to contradict R. Moshe’s view. He says R. Nehorai meant that only while they were little, since small children cannot learn both Torah and a profession. Since Torah is an absolute obligation, it must be that we are allowed to defer teaching our children how to make a living until later.
As proof, he notes that for hundreds of years, common custom has allowed rabbis and teachers to take payment for their rabbinic and Torah-teaching activities, despite the clear tradition that teaching of Torah be free. The reason is that otherwise we would not have leaders who knew enough Torah to fulfill their function.
It’s that sense of the overwhelming need of Torah study that means we should focus only on Torah when children are little. We don’t need to work on Shabbat and Yom Tov, since it’s prohibited, and yet Hashem provides sustenance for those days without our working. So, too, Hashem will provide sustenance to our children, when they grow up, even if they don’t work, or learn a trade, in those younger years. When the child gets older, and needs to support a family, we can teach him whatever; by that point, too, he will have achieved the level of Torah study he’s going to achieve, so there’s less loss in carving out time for learning a profession.
But even R. Nehorai would have agreed that the sons would need to work to support themselves. Not only that, R. Moshe assumes that Rambam ruled according to R. Nehorai, since he never records a father’s obligation to teach his sons a trade, although he does rule, Hilchot Talmud Torah 3;10, that people have to work rather than expect to be supported.
A Fault Line Between “Right” and “Modern”
The comments on Torah study for children lay bare a divide between strands of Orthodoxy; I pause to notice it, because I think each side has what to learn from the other. R. Moshe assumes the study of Torah to be so demanding that the elementary years (at least) leave no room for anything else. Coming from a man whose mastery of traditional literature was astonishing—and who spent his life building on the foundations he laid in his youth—that’s a claim we have to take seriously. Not least because if we take an honest look at children today, especially but not only in the more Centrist or Modern communities, there’s more than enough reason to believe that they know less than they should or could.
At the same time, I wonder whether that has to go as far as R. Moshe does. While children in many Modern or Centrist schools do not learn enough Torah, does that mean there’s not enough time? Is it true that a child who studies Torah seriously for four hours a day—every day, or 6 days a week, with only four weeks of summer vacation rather than ten– is necessarily crippled in his knowledge of Torah? It might be that that child will never know as much as R. Moshe, but is that a universal standard?
Two other factors seem also important to me, about which I wish I could have asked R. Moshe. First, some children cannot put in a whole day on Torah study even if we demanded it. A system that gives a child nothing but Torah to study works for many (as more “right-wing” institutions, especially in Israel, show), but it also doesn’t work for many. Even as we might prefer that children spend all of their childhoods building the knowledge of Torah, it might not be possible.
Second, R. Moshe’s system also closes off whole areas to children—most people cannot pick up a musical instrument at fifteen, for example, and become world-class. R. Moshe might not have cared, but it seems reasonable to wonder whether the Torah requires that we limit children’s horizons in that way. Especially since a young man of eighteen who realizes that he might want to be a doctor but has not gotten any education all along will have serious catching up to do, and might not have the wherewithal to do it.
On the other hand, we cannot forget, as many do, the underlying and unquestionable assumption that one important task of Jewish childhood is a fundamental knowledge of Torah, and there is much reason to believe we are not fulfilling a basic standard, let alone R. Moshe’s.
Back to Insurance
It’s also true that the view that Hashem gives us our earnings tends to be a more “right-wing” way of phrasing, despite Kiddushin 82’s recording R. Meir’s statement (as cited by R. Moshe) that poverty and wealth is not a function of profession—there are poor doctors and lawyers and rich plumbers and sanitation engineers (although that’s not necessarily the way to bet). We have to approach our careers with the knowledge that Hashem can enrich us in whatever profession we choose, and can also prevent us from earning well, whatever profession we choose.
Insurance, for R. Moshe, is one more way we do our due diligence in opening ways for Hashem to support us. Moving now to the 1963 responsum, if the insurance pays off during our old age, it’s clearly part of business, since it allows us to work somewhat less hard, knowing that some of our retirement and our desire to leave an inheritance for our children is taken care of.
Normally, making more than we currently need so that we can save for retirement and an inheritance is almost like a form of miracle. Hashem guarantees us our livelihoods, not extra for the future, and R. Moshe is opposed to praying for the miraculous. But since human ingenuity came up with insurance, we are clearly allowed to take advantage of that.
What Living is Guaranteed
Given the need to choose types of insurance, R. Moshe cites Niddah 31, where R. Yitzchak in the name of R. Ami says that a man comes with his bread in his hands. R. Moshe understands that to mean that a man’s bare sustenance is guaranteed, for him and his family (those he is obligated to support by either law or custom—even if technical halachah didn’t require supporting children in college, if the custom became to do so, a man is guaranteed, as long as he makes basic efforts, to find that sustenance), without needing any special prayers.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that all will get the same levels of sustenance. Some will work hard to scratch out a living, some will have wealth dumped on them, and everything in between. But it does mean that while a man is alive, he and his family will find their means of support.
That same statement in Niddah seemed to see women as less guaranteed, on their own, of those kinds of sustenance. They would need greater merits and/or response to their prayers.
I recognize that many today would not accept that dichotomy; in this case, R. Moshe uses it in a way that I don’t think will bother any of us. Based on his assumption about what’s guaranteed, R. Moshe recommends the man focus his insurance buying on providing for his wife after his passing. While he’s alive, he can expect Hashem to provide for the two of them, as long as they try. On her own, a different calculus comes into play, and for that reason, the husband should do all he can to see to it that she’s left with what to sustain her in comfort.
Taking Advice From R. Moshe
There are obviously many ways we could question this conclusion, the easiest one being that it’s not always clear that statements such as the one in Niddah are meant as literally or halachically relevantly as he took it. In addition, R. Moshe himself started off by denying that he was ruling; he was sharing the perspective that seemed to him to extrude from the sources.
I won’t raise those questions here, since I’ve already taken longer than I usually do. I will leave it to readers to think about these two rich responsa, which make explicit important assumptions R. Moshe brought to his experience of the world. Some of those, I think, are largely undebatable, for all that I know observant Jews who do not realize them. Others are more open to further consideration and clarification.
Sum total, R. Moshe allows buying insurance, as part of our making our own efforts to sustain ourselves, part of the task that Hashem set us when placing us on earth. Even as we also have to recognize that that sustenance comes from Hashem.