Editor’s note: The following is translated and adapted from Rav Sperling’s eulogy at Rav Henkin ztz”l’s funeral at Har Ha-Menuhot, 9 Tevet 5781.
Mori ve-Rabbi Rav Yehuda Herzl Henkin ztz”l was a rav gadol she-bigdolim, one of the greatest rabbis of our generation, and one of the great poskim of our generation. A person just needs to look at the four volumes of his responsa Benei Banim and see the letters of approbation and praise from Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l, Rav Ovadia Yosef ztz”l, Rav Avraham Shapira ztz”l, Rav Mordechai Eliyahu ztz”l, the Tzitz Eliezer ztz”l, Rav Mashash ztz”l, and Rav Kolitz ztz”l, to get a sense of his stature.
And I’ve personally seen Rav Henkin’s correspondence with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Hayim David HaLevy, and all the rabbis of that generation. He writes to them about Torah and they respond, sparing no ink in praise of his greatness in Torah and fear of Heaven in pesikah. Fittingly, Benei Banim is quoted in responsa and other halakhic works throughout the Torah world.
Rav Henkin was a talmid hakham of the first order. The Religious Zionist world in Israel is not short of rabbis, but might be short of poskim, and he was one of its greatest poskim in the modern era.
Rav Henkin acquired his greatness through much labor and effort. Even though he was the grandson of his illustrious grandfather, Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin ztz”l, from whom he undoubtedly inherited a large portion of his greatness, he worked very hard to develop and to realize the full potential of his talents.
His father was very involved in Jewish education, but was not a rav. So, despite his lineage, Rav Henkin was not brought up in a house that was materially different from other American Modern Orthodox homes of that era. Rav Henkin attended high school at the Yeshivah of Flatbush, a regular co-educational Modern Orthodox school.
He once told me that when he was in Flatbush, he decided that he would learn a full tractate of the Talmud. I think he said it was Yevamot, one of the more difficult masekhtot. In those days, there were no aids available for learning gemara. There was no Artscroll or Steinsaltz or internet. He started to learn, and he asked one of his teachers a question. When his teacher realized that his student was trying to learn a whole masekhet by himself, he quickly tried to temper his enthusiasm and said, “There’s no hope that you can finish an entire masekhet by yourself. There’s no chance.” At that point in the story, Rav Henkin smiled at me and said, “Nothing encouraged me to make the effort to learn by myself more than those words.” Needless to say, he mastered the masekhet.
After high school, he spent one year learning in Kerem B’Yavneh. I heard from a fellow student there that Rav Henkin was always the first to arrive in the beit midrash and the last to leave at night. When Rav Henkin heard this, he responded with characteristic modesty: “No, the whole yeshiva only had shtenders at the time. There was only one table, and I wanted to take notes, so I had to get there early to grab the table.” I’ve also heard that he was known there for keeping his nose in a gemara or rishon throughout Kabbalat Shabbat. In later years, from when I knew him, he would always have a sefer of some rishon in his hands, constantly learning during the breaks in shul, and even as he took part in hakafot on Simhat Torah.
These examples of the extent of the effort Rav Henkin made to dedicate himself to Torah, and the Yevamot story in particular, are reminiscent of a story told about his grandfather Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin ztz”l, who as a young man had left his home and found himself stuck for a year before he managed to get accepted into yeshiva. He struggled through that year, and learned Masekhet Eiruvin more than forty times.
Our Rav Henkin would say that one can’t mention his grandfather and himself in the same breath. But he would also concede that he saw certain similarities between his and his grandfather’s ways of thinking. In his love of and dedication to Torah, and concerted effort to acquire Torah and become a Torah scholar, he was in the mold of his revered grandfather.
As Rabbanit Henkin mentioned in her eulogy, Rav Henkin was in the midst of getting a masters degree at Columbia University when he suddenly came to the realization that his grandfather wouldn’t be around forever. Overnight, he packed his bags and took an apartment down the hall from this grandfather in New York. They spent the next five years studying together in havruta day and night. Later, Rav Henkin went and finished the degree on the side.
At this point, Rav Henkin fully dedicated his life to becoming a Torah scholar—and that’s what he became. The fact that Rav Henkin learned with his grandfather meant that he was never committed to learning in the style of a particular yeshiva. This gave him the ability to be totally creative in his thinking, not locked into a specific way of analyzing Torah or limited by preconceived ideas. I also believe that he was not bound to any single community, and thus was able to approach each issue with only one question – “What is the absolute Torah truth?”
My personal connection with Rav Henkin began when we moved into the Kiryat Moshe area. My wife was pregnant with our first child, and we’d been to a pre-childbirth course. I felt uncomfortable about how the course was conducted, so I went and asked an important rav what he thought of it. That Rav said, “Do you think the Chofetz Chaim went to such a course? Do you think your grandmother went to such a course? You should just stay outside of the delivery room and say Tehillim, and everything will be okay.”
That answer was correct for that Rav’s community, but I still felt that something was lacking. At that time, I would eat lunch in my yeshiva’s library and would take a different book off of the shelf each day to see what was in it. A few days after receiving the response, I happened to open the first volume of Benei Banim. There was a responsum about the husband’s presence in the delivery room – a responsum that demonstrated understanding of the principles of natural childbirth and of a mother’s desire for her husband to be present for it. In short, a responsum that understood my generation.
The responsum clarified a lot of the issues for me, and more than that, I knew that I had found myself my Rav. I looked at the author’s name, and saw that the last name was the same as my wife’s teacher’s, Rabbanit Henkin, who taught a humash class in the neighborhood at the time. I checked his address to confirm, and went over to buy the book.
A while later, I saw the Rav at shul, and gathered up the courage to ask if I could learn with him. He said no. And I waited two weeks and asked him again. Again and again, he said no. But I persisted, and eventually he agreed for me to come learn with him on Thursday night. I came at ten o’clock that Thursday night and continued to learn with him every Thursday night for about thirty years, until the Rav’s health made it impossible.
One time, I walked into his study and saw that the table was full of books. I smiled and asked, “Is the Rav in the middle of something?” He replied, “I’m always in the middle of something.” And he really was. He was always in the middle of a sugya. He describes this in the Introduction to the third volume of Benei Banim:
When I’m dealing with a responsum I think about it when I’m dreaming and when I’m awake, when I walk on the way and when I lie down and when I rise up. I get up from the middle of a meal and I get down from my bed in the middle of the night in order to go and look again in a book or to write down some new idea, because it’s like a fire burning in my bones.
And that was the Rav. He had the fire of learning in his bones. Once, many years ago, he fell seriously ill during a hol ha-moed hike. Lying in the hospital, hovering between this world and the next, his lips moved, and he started to mumble. Turning her ear to hear the Rav’s words, the Rabbanit heard him saying, “but if it’s less than three tefahim, it’s permitted…” Unbeknown even to himself, he was even then in the middle of a sugya.
How did he learn? His greatness in Torah was that he was constantly involved in understanding for himself what the gemara and the rishonim say—not merely relying on how others had understood them. Not even if those others were the Shakh or the Taz.
He would go over tens of rishonim on every sugya that he was addressing. He had in his library copies of rishonim that most people never see, and he would read one after another after another. Then he would compare subtle differences in language: a preposition before a word here, plural form as opposed to singular, how the sentence was structured, and in which order points appeared. From drawing these subtle distinctions with exacting precision, he would open up totally new understandings of the gemara and rishonim. He wasn’t scared to explain something in a way that was different from how aharonim had, in a way that no one else had suggested before.
Alongside all that creativity, Rav Henkin told me many times that the job of a posek is to be able to make the right connection between Halakhah and reality. He strove to make sure that his thinking and his Torah could be applied correctly. In many of his responsa, he would present a completely novel approach, but finish with the caveat that the results of his analysis must be applied carefully and not in every situation, and only if other halakhic authorities agree.
Rav Henkin had a great depth of understanding. When he eulogized his grandfather, he quoted the gemara‘s discussion (Sanhedrin 28b):
“And you will come to the Kohanim and Levi’im and to the judge that will be in those days.” And would the thought even arise that a person would go to the judge not of his day?
The gemara answers what it answers. But Rav Henkin said, referring to his grandfather, that the gemara means that a person has to go to the judges—to the rabbis—who understand his generation, who truly live within it.
And that is true of Rav Henkin. He had an uncanny, deep understanding of reality. He was very careful with his words, very quiet, with total control over what he said. When he expressed himself, it was after thinking seriously and comprehending the depth of a situation.
One time he wrote a long halakhic responsum against the killing of a terrorist who had already been captured and handcuffed, after a similar case occurred in Israel. The article was rejected by a very important halakhic journal. They said that they didn’t want to print it, because it would only cause a storm and such things shouldn’t be written about. Rav Henkin said, “No, you must print it, because otherwise more things like this will occur.” In the end they didn’t print it, and unfortunately, more things like that did occur. Rav Henkin was upset that his understanding and vision for what was needed weren’t listened to more.
On the other hand, there were things that Rav Henkin envisioned that were both heeded and achieved. He saw the need for Torah study for women and for providing a female address in questions of taharat ha-mishpahah. He helped to create the Yoatzot Halacha initiative, and did so without argument and without trying to create noise, but rather with a desire to help the women of am Yisrael keep Halakhah. The ability to see what psak was needed and bring it about in a way that would change reality for the better was one of his greatest assets.
Not only his words, but also every one of Rav Henkin’s actions was very well thought out. He was totally detached from externalities. Instead he focused on the inner value of Torah and ma’asim tovim. Once, I asked him what a person should be involved in in the years of Torah study. I was thinking of whether one should go to demonstrations or otherwise work for kelal yisrael. First he responded, “Nothing. when a person is in yeshiva, they should just learn Torah.” Then he stopped for a moment and said, “except for ma’asim tovim. A person can never stop doing hesed, even when they’re learning Torah.”
He himself lived a life of hesed. I often saw his table filled with checks and money that he collected and distributed to different charities. I also experienced his hesed on a personal level. I once had an operation between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and was forced to lie in bed and drink in measures over the fast. As the Holy Day entered, the house, indeed the whole city, was clothed in the silent holiness that ushers in Kol Nidrei – and there I was, alone, unable to pray or attend shul. Then there was a knock on the door, to which I weakly called out, “Come in.” In walked the Rav, dressed in his kittel and tallit, and he sat down next to my bed. Astonished, I said, “But, Ha-Rav, it’s Kol Nidrei – the Rav will miss Kol Nidrei…” To which the Rav answered, “Yes, only Kol Nidrei… I’ll get to shul for Ma’ariv.” He then pulled out a small cup from his pocket, and said, “Here, this is how much you should drink during the fast.”
In parshat tzitzit it says, “And you will see it and you will remember all the mitzvot of God and you will do them” (Numbers 15:39). Rav Henkin told me that because “and you will see it” is in the singular, the mitzvah is to look at one tassel of the tzitzit, and thus for years he would deliberately keep just one corner of his tzitzit out. I think this verse describes him, and his singularity. “And you will see it”—I would see him as a singularly outstanding talmid hakham. “And you will remember all the mitzvot of God”— seeing him could recall for us all of the mitzvot and all the Torah that he walked with and kept and loved, and wanted to bring to fruition. “And you will do them”—and we would.
May his Torah continue to be a blessing for all of Am Yisrael.