April 12, 2024
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April 12, 2024
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A New Work Sheds Light on the Brilliant Mind of a Burgeoning Torah Scholar Cut Down by Terrorism

Highlighting: “Studies in Halakhah and Rabbinic History” by Rabbi Eitam Henkin. Koren Publishers Jerusalem. 2022. English. Hardcover. 456 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1592645817.

“Studies in Halakhah and Rabbinic History” is far greater than a collection of articles on various subjects in Jewish law. The work that was published earlier this year by Koren Publishers in Jerusalem provides a glimpse into the brilliant mind of Rav Eitam Henkin, who was murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the age of 31 together with his wife Naama, on October 15th, 2015.

Shortly after Rav Eitam’s murder, the Henkin family discovered a vast quantity of materials on his computer that the family is publishing gradually. Some of the pieces were near completion, while he had just begun working on others.

“We had no idea of the scope,” shared his mother Rabbanit Chana Henkin, the founder and dean of Nishmat, a women’s seminary in Jerusalem for advanced Torah scholarship. “I don’t think any of us realized how prodigious his gifts were.”

Rabbanit Henkin and her husband Rav Yehuda Henkin spent months editing their son’s essays. The result is a 435-page work that spans a vast variety of topics: from halachic discussions on the kosher status of strawberries, washing before kiddush, and myths and facts about shemitah, the seventh year of a biblically ordained agricultural cycle, to perspectives on Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook and Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, Rav Eitam’s great-grandfather. Other subjects include the origins of the haredi/national religious dichotomy in Israel, as well as the historical revisionism rampant in both camps today.

Each topic is approached with flawless honesty, razor-sharp analysis and respect, especially when it pertains to halacha. In some cases, Rav Eitam points out stringent modern practices that are not based on halacha, but rather on faulty methodology. Rabbanit Henkin shared, “My husband would say that on the one hand he [Rav Eitam] grasped the big picture, and on the other hand also the small details, and those are two gifts that rarely go together.”

“Studies in Halakhah and Rabbinic History” is unique in its broad appeal to diverse readers, from secular academics to students in Haredi yeshivot. “Within many circles this book is a breath of fresh air,” Rabbanit Henkin explained. “It’s written by a talmid chacham with complete honesty and with a commitment to telling the story as is, without embellishment.”

Rabbanit Henkin added that it is because of this commitment to integrity over ideology that her son’s essays have been so well-received by diverse readerships with a wide range of beliefs and practices. He never tailored his writing to curry favor with a particular segment of the population. He also never hid his identity as an Israeli who identified with the national religious ideology and served as a commander in the IDF. Despite this, he had an enormous following in Haredi journals, including Bet Aharon v’Yisrael of Karlin Stolin Hassidim, as well as in Modern Orthodox publications, to Tzion of the Historical Society of Israel.

Indeed, Rav Eitam straddled multiple worlds. At the time of his murder, he was pursuing a doctorate in Rabbinic History from Tel Aviv University, a liberal institution where he studied alongside secular Israeli academics. Simultaneously, he studied in a Kollel, alongside religious Torah scholars. According to Rabbanit Henkin, he equally examined every opinion he came across, which enabled him to sit in both worlds comfortably without feeling any conflict.

He also had a fine sense of humor. The scion of a prominent haredi family recently shared with the Henkins witty words written to him by Rav Eitam: “We all, of course, know well the teaching of the Talmud: When a person arrives at the Heavenly Court, he will be asked three questions: Were you a Mizrachi member? What tzeteleh [ballot] did you cast into the ballot box? And was your yarmulke black or, Heaven forbid, knitted?”

He explained his position:, “I prefer to err on the side of ahavat chinam rather than the reverse, as the famous aphorism goes…even toward those who consider me outside the Pale. I believe that that which unites us is greater than that which divides us. And I try to pursue peace even in places where they mock people like me. Personally, I’m pleased to have friendships with people in Williamsburg and Crown Heights and Me’ah She’arim and B’nei Brak and [Zionist] Kiryat Moshe, even if it’s clear to me that it’s impossible today to bring all of them together in one room.”

“Studies in Halakhah and Rabbinic History” is in some ways a source of comfort for Rabbanit Henkin, knowing that so many people from disparate parts of the Jewish world will benefit from her son’s scholarship. She is also grateful to have worked alongside her husband, who passed away shortly before the work was published, on the editing and compilation of their son’s essays. She hopes that the work will provide its readers with pleasure, and also demonstrate the ability to approach complex and even controversial subjects with integrity.

Rabbanit Henkin is positive that her son was on the path towards greatness in

Torah scholarship. This work sheds light on some of that greatness that was cut down before its time.

Alisa Bodner is a Fair Lawn native who immigrated to Israel a decade ago. She is a nonprofit management professional who enjoys writing in her free time.

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