Wednesday, March 20, 2013

America’s Forgotten Posek – Rav Yoseph Eliyahu Henkin zt”l.

Five Towns Jewish Times   by Rabbi Yair Hoffman He was the Gadol haDor in the United States prior to Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l. And, unfortunately, his rulings and his seforim have, by and large, been completely forgotten.

Walk into any shul or Seforim store and you will be hard-pressed to find a sefer written by Rav Yoseph Eliyahu Henkin zt”l. Open up a contemporary Halachic work and you will rarely find a ruling quoted in his name.

Rav Henkin studied in Yeshiva Etz Chaim in Slutzk, Russia under Rav Isser Zalman Melter zt”l. He received Smicha from Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz, the Ridbaz, and the Aruch HaShulchan and served as a Rav in Russia. He arrived in this country in 1923, and eventually founded and headed the organization called Ezras Torah. Rav Henkin issued tens of thousands of rulings and wrote responsa to Rabbonim across America and beyond. He published three Seforim.

Yet somehow, Rav Henkin has become “America’s Forgotten Posek.”
How did it happen? How did America’s leading Posek fall into such halachic obscurity? This author’s theory is that there were three factors. Firstly, Rav Henkin spent most of his time dedicating himself to others, through the vehicle of his remarkable organization Ezras Torah. He did not make photo offset copies of his letters or rulings or write them again for posterity because he gave every spare moment to raising much needed funds for Torah scholars. Secondly, Rav Henkin lived in a time quite different from ours. Then, the Torah scholars were refugees, suffering in misery and distress. They could barely put food on the table. Who thought to put out Seforim? Even those that eventually were issued rarely had the name of the recipient of the letter. Finally, Rav Henkin did not have a Yeshiva or an official Rabbinic Shteller like other great Rabbis and Torah leaders. He was the Gadol HaDor and headed Ezras Torah true, but without a natural constituency demanding the Seforim, it was difficult to bring them to the printing house again.  [,,,]


  1. Yes, he may be forgotten now because he did not leave so many printed workds, but back in the day, everyone knew there were 2 big American Poskim, Rav Henkin and Rav Moshe.

    A large part of this, as noted in the article, may be due to the fact that Rav Henkin did not head a Yeshiva. And finally, Rav Moshe left children who also serve as Poskim.

  2. It is precisely the nature of a true Tzadik and Gadol b'Torah to avoid the limelight, and avoid "lionisation".

    1. Eddie what does that comment have to do with the article? You seem to be implying that those poskim who are known to us strive for attention? chas v'shalom

    2. @DT
      a) The article says that he hid is true Tzidkut, hence my comment is related to teh article.

      b) The Torah says that Moshe was meek. If you consider the Torah to imply "that those poskim who are known to us strive for attention? chas v'shalom", then obviously you have issues with the Torah.

    3. @DT, have you ever heard of a career politician? Unfortunately, today we have career Gedolim. Not all, but many. Doesn't that Shomrei Emunim story show us that not every Rabbi that inherits his position from his father/father-in-law is really the best qualified? There are yeshiva's in my community run by people that didn't graduate from high school. There are Menahellim that have no background in chinuch, they were hired for there "brand name". People open yeshiva's today to give their son or son-in-law a job as rebbe. There are Yeshivas with hundreds of bochorim and yuengerleit with NO mashgiach. Its hefker out there. There are no Rav Gifters anymore that care about their talmidim and don't just look at them as financial assets. It seems like every where you look its all about big brand names. Rav Henkin isn't well known because he commited himself to the Ratzon Hashem. He didn't play games. I'm not accusing RMF or his son David of doing anything other than the Ratzon Hashem. But to any other Rosh Yeshiva, if the shoe fits...

      If I'm not mistaken, I think the GR"A was against the Volozhin Yeshiva opening. Maybe he was right. I'm not saying we shouldn't have Torah, I'm saying we don't need the institutions.

  3. I don't know if he's really forgotten. He's often cited by rabbis writing for the Orthodox blog Torah Musings.

    1. That may be due in part to the fact that with regard to certain issues, for example birth control, Rav Henkin was more lenient. Hence it is understandable that he would be quoted on a blog frequented by many in the Modern Orthodox world. Also, his grandson, a posek, has on occasion frequented that blog.

  4. Maybe because no one indexed his works? :-)

  5. I had his grandson R. Yehuda Henkin as a rebbi in HS.
    His sharp mind and gentle countenance stand out in my memory.

    I beleive on the Torah Musing/hirhurim blog they have an exchange of correspondence between r. Moshe and R. Henkin dealing with the question if Manhatten had a natural eruv. They held opposing opinions but the beauty of what was written was that neither was considered wrong by the other. ( Note if not on that blog it may be on "On the mainline blog.).

    I believe Rabbi Norman Lamm and Rabbi Riskin ruled according to R. Henkin when it came to the eruv issue. Rabbi Lamm because physical security was a problem after a congregant was shot ( maybe killed as well) for have nothing to give to a mugger and Rabbi Riskin in order to let the young married women out of the house on Shabbat by permitting baby carriages on Shhabat. Note Rabbi Riskin did say in shiur that you should not carry your talis bag but should give it to a child to carry.

    If I have been wrong about either recollection please correct me. This did happen in the early 70s. I believe I am right,but.........

    1. the incident where an eldery man was killed for not having $ on fri nite shabbat was in crown heights. at the time, there was a discussion about allowing jews to carry "mug money", a token amount of money to give a mugger; say $10-$20. this was in the late 70s. when r meir kahane hy"d heard about it, he said if you're allowed to carry mug money, your allowed to carry a gun.

      this had nothing to do with r norman lamm, who was no longer a pulpit rav, but a RY, and thus was not in a position to comment publically. however, RNLamm did speak out and write for the eruv before becoming RY.

      today, the situation is different, in that there are several eruvin in manhattan, except for the lower east side (in deference to RMF) and the breuer's section of washington heights (in deference to their litvish positions.) check online for their websites.

  6. Rav Yehuda Henkin has a cousin, the well respected novelist, Joshua Henkin, whom I met him when he was in Berkeley. If I remember correctly, he learned with his grandfather.

  7. He did write seforim, and they are available online if not in the stores. And I study them look at them; they are worth the effort. maybe it is because I had the zchut to meet him when I was a schoolboy, I don't know. But unlike Rav Moshe, Rav Aron Kotlar or Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, he did not have many students, which may be why he is less well known now.

  8. "Interview with David Henkin
    from Tamas Makany 2 years ago

    "In this interview, David Henkin, former baal koreh of Adath Israel talks about his memories of the shul in the early 90s. He also discusses the present and future of Jewish life in San Francisco, including Adath Israel, Mission Minyan and Young Israel."

  9. Louis Henkin, Leader in Field of Human Rights Law, Dies at 92

    Published: October 16, 2010

    Louis Henkin, a legal scholar often credited with creating the field of human rights law and the author of classic works on constitutional law and the legal aspects of foreign policy, died Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 92.

    His death was confirmed by his wife, Alice Hartman Henkin...

    Eliezer Henkin was born on Nov. 11, 1917, in present-day Belarus, where his father was a rabbi and Talmudic scholar. In 1923 the family immigrated to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where Lazar, as his family called him, acquired the nickname Louie. By the time he began studying mathematics at Yeshiva College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1937, he had adopted the first name Louis...

    At the Aspen Institute’s Justice and Society Program, for many years directed by his wife, a human rights lawyer, he taught international law to more than 300 judges, including four future Supreme Court justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

    Professor Henkin’s close ties to the United States government allowed him to serve as a go-between for human rights organizations and Congressional committees drafting rights legislation. He also filed numerous amicus briefs in Supreme Court cases including, most recently, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, a 2006 case in which the court rejected the Bush administration’s plan to try Guantánamo Bay detainees before military commissions.

    In addition to his wife, Professor Henkin is survived by their three sons, Joshua, of Brooklyn; David, of San Francisco; and Daniel, of Manhattan; and five grandchildren.

    Professor Henkin took a lofty view of his own government’s international responsibilities. He often felt let down.

    “In the cathedral of human rights,” he wrote in a well-known passage in a 1979 article, “the United States is more like a flying buttress than a pillar — choosing to stand outside the international structure supporting the international human rights system, but without being willing to subject its own conduct to the scrutiny of that system.”

    A version of this article appeared in print on October 17, 2010, on page A28 of the New York edition.

  10. Recipients and PublicityMarch 21, 2013 at 12:41 AM

    There is no "one" way of being a posek or being a great Talmid Chochem who will gain universal recognition and acceptance. Indeed there is the principle of "elef nichnasim, ve'echad yotzei" -- a "thousand enetr, but only ONE comes out" for the honor of being "the one" God has favored to be "THE Posek" or "THE Gaon" or "THE Rabban Shel Kol Bnai HaGolah" something that cannot be "foreseen" or "known" even in the lifetimes of the greatest in any given generation.

    One Posek can be great for his generation, or for his country, or even for his town. While another can be great for a few centuries. Very few can achieve the lasting status of an "eternal Posek". There were tens of thousands of great rabbanim in the time of the RAMBAM, but at the end of the day, there is only one RAMBAM that comes down to us from that generation. MiMoshe Ad Mosheh Ein KaMoshe. And likewise, it is said from the RAMBAM to Rav Moshe Feinstein.

    In the days when Torah primacy ruled the Jewish people, there were tens of thousands of Poskim, just as in the days of the Nevi'im their were hundreds of thousands of Nevi'im. However, only thos whose Nevuah has applicability for eternity, or at least til the coming of Mashaich, become part of the Tanach. Likwise with the Sages of the Gemora, Rishonim, and Acharonim, there were tens of thousands of greats in each of those generations, but a the select few, NOT "self-selected" but by the way the era unfolds and ends, only the select few remain as the "teachers" or Poskim for the ages.

    Finally, @ posek March 20, 2013 at 2:38 PM is 1,000% correct that probably the main IMMEDIATE reason is that unlike Rav Moshe Feinstein "A large part of this, as noted in the article, may be due to the fact that Rav Henkin did not head a Yeshiva."

    While the following assertion has NOTHING to do with anything: "And finally, Rav Moshe left children who also serve as Poskim."

    Even Rav J.B. Soloveitchik of YU who was not a formal Posek as such, is very much regarded as a kind of "Posek" for the Modern Orthodox world mostly based on the fact that he served as one of the most famous and leading roshei yeshiva at YU's RIETS, as well as of course being brilliantly highly attuned to the nuances and ramifications of the modern age around him and the unique needs of the kind of people who looked to him for genuine Halachic guidance, so his decisions, even though they were not formal "pesakim" do in fact continue precisely in that fashion.

    It's really hard to predict, at any given time, who will and will not be "THE ones" who remain as the elite Halachic and Torah guides for all time, or for very long periods of time. What makes the RASHBA so popular to this day? Why is Rav Shimon Shkop so appealing? Why does the Ben Ish Chai have such power? When Rav Yirael Meir haKohen started publishing his Mishna Berura who knew it would stick around so long? Sometimes, even one who has written NOTHING, like the BESHT or the ARI have popularity for hundreds of years after they lived and counting. What happened to all the other tens of thousands great scholars in each of those Torah giants' generations? Kach Hi Darka Shel Torah!

    1. Likwise with the Sages of the Gemora, Rishonim, and Acharonim, there were tens of thousands of greats in each of those generations

      i don't what you mean by great but i doubt the above to be true at any level. i recall reading that at the time of the tosophot there were some 1 million jews. tens of thousands of greats means hundreds of thousands of mediocre and poor learners. where were these centers of learning? we know about small groups so where were these huge groups? in addition,until rashi, the gemara was a closed book for the vast majority of jews.

  11. Harav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, ZT"L
    The Gaon in Torah, The Gaon in Chessed

  12. Rav Henkin has a famous tshuva about what he considered to be marriage in regards to getting a get. Rav Henkin said that even a couple holding themselves out as married in a frum community are considered married even without kesuva or kiddushin.The MTJ Beis Din considers this opinion in demanding gitten for those people who lo aleinu sadly need it.

    1. More than a tshuvah, his sefer "Perushei Ivra" or at least the halacha section, is devoted to that and related topics. His long running machloket with Rav Moshe on the topic of whether a civil marriage requires a get to dissolve was well known at the time, as I am sure R. Eidensohn remembers.

  13. Although I never had the zechus to meet Rav Henkin A"H I feel close to him. I grew up in Camden NJ where our Rav was Rav Naftali Riff A"H himself a great posek and lamden. But when Rav Riff had a shaylah he would call and ask Rav Henkin.
    In the early 70's when I was studying for Semicha in MTJ Rav Henkin was still alive. One of the fellows in our group would go to Rav Henkin's home every afternoon to learn with him. Rav Henkin was almost blind at the time. They would learn Orach Chaim with the Mishnah Brurah. He told me that not only did Rav Henkin know the Shulchan Aruch by heart but he also knew the Mishnah Brurah by heart. May his memory be a Blessing.

    i guess the same goes,to living SEFER TORAH'S.
    and Rav Henkin z'l certainly was one.


  15. Towards the end of his life, Rav Henkin was blind. Bochurim used to take turns visiting him and learning with him. As a bochur, my rebbi would learn with him. He relates how Rav Henkin didn't have furniture in his apartment and used to sit on orange crates.

  16. Forward magazine attacks Jonathan Sacks and orthodoxy

  17. He was a super avid zionist before it became PC. In america this turned off many.


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