in memoriam

Rabbi Yehuda Henkin zt”l: Appreciating what we had

When a local rabbi expressed surprise that I called the great rabbi at will, I realized how lucky I'd been, as a yoetzet halacha, to take his accessibility for granted
(Courtesy of Nishmat)
(Courtesy of Nishmat)

With the passing of Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin zt”l, the loss for the yoatzot halacha who merited to learn from Rabbi Henkin, receive his p’sak (halachic decisions), and have an open line to his wisdom, is deep and yet to be felt to its real extent.

In truth, we long took for granted the possibility afforded to us that we could just pick up the phone, at almost any time of day, and pose a question in Halacha to a gadol (scholar of great stature) the likes of Rabbi Henkin. A few years ago, during my shift on the hotline, a caller identified himself as a community rabbi in Israel. He opened with a question, and then explained, “Since this is such a difficult question, I thought to call the hotline in order to ask if you know what Rabbi Henkin would pasken in this case.” I responded by asking if he would like me to call Rabbi Henkin and ask for him. The rabbi responded in shock, “You can call Rabbi Henkin and ask him?!” It took me a few moments to understand his response. Why was he so surprised? After all, as yoatzot halacha, we always felt free to call Rabbi Henkin — or Rabbi Warhaftig — if we had any questions.

Due to Parkinson’s, Rabbi Henkin sometimes found it hard to talk. However, as yoatzot halacha, we knew that even during challenging times, Rabbi Henkin was an address for us to assist with enabling women to keep Taharat Hamishpacha (the Laws of Family Purity). On that specific night when I phoned the house, Rabbanit Henkin answered and said that Rabbi Henkin was resting. When I explained that a rabbi had explicitly asked to hear Rabbi Henkin’s p’sak, she told me to wait, and gently asked him if he was available. A few minutes later, he approached the phone and promptly gave his p’sak.

I needed this experience to make me deeper appreciate the unique privilege we had on such a regular basis. We were always aware of the Torah greatness of our teacher. Of his knowledge, depth and understanding — both of the halachic sources themselves, as well as of the way the world worked. Our connection to this source of Torah greatness and sensitivity, which was coupled together with a direct connection to reality, enabled the yoatzot halacha, to be his messengers, bringing the light of Halacha to women worldwide.

Whether it was halachic questions regarding contraception, pregnancy or fertility, we took it for granted that Rabbi Henkin would give us the p’sak that we could spread far and wide. We knew that when we quoted our teacher as the source of the p’sak, it would be respected and revered. On the hotline,  an uncertain questioner might ask us: “According to whose p’sak is this answer that you have repeated?” It was always with great confidence and pride that I would give Rabbi Henkin’s name, knowing that this would often immediately put the questioner’s mind at ease.

Despite the health challenges he grappled with over the years, Rabbi Henkin’s p’sak was always clear and direct. As many have said, he was the deliverer of the truth. But it wasn’t the harsh truth of “din” — of justice. It was the implementation of the truth in the real world. A truth deeply connected to the questioner’s situation. So many of the responsa in Shut Bnei Banim reflect this unique combination. And for the wider audience, lacking the background needed to access his more “rabbinic” writings, Rabbi Henkin’s books in English on contemporary issues and tzniut, modesty, provided a clear window to his halachic insights.

During the process of editing Nishmat Habayit, the rabbanit would call countless times, whether at 10 o’clock at night, or on Friday afternoon, in order to ask a question Rabbi Henkin wished to clarify. He wanted to make sure he fully grasped the medical reality the questions related to or hear our impressions of women’s actual experiences. As Rabbi and Rabbanit Henkin edited the responsa (teshuvot) penned by the yoatzot, he challenged our halachic reasoning as well, demanding precision in the wording of each argument and halachic claim.

When looking for words which can help express our loss, we can turn once again to a passage from the writings of Rabbi Henkin. In the second volume of Bnei Banim, Rabbi Henkin attached a very moving eulogy he gave for his mother, who had passed away — as he himself did — right before Shabbat Parshat Vayigash. Rabbi Henkin quoted the midrash on the verse, ויגש אליו יהודה ויאמר (Yehuda approached him, saying) which says as follows:

“רבי נחמיה אומר אין לשון ויגש אלא לשון קרבן….אלא לשון הקרבה,

Rabbi Nechemiah said: There’s no “drawing near” except for korban, sacrifice…

Rabbi Henkin connected this to his mother’s הקרבה יום יומית לגדל את ילדיה, her daily self-sacrifice in order to raise and take care of her children.

This is most appropriate for himself. Vayigash eilav Yehuda – Rabbi Yehuda Henkin.

Throughout the years of Rabbi Henkin’s health challenges, he sacrificed himself in order to provide guidance to the yoatzot halacha, and, through his authority, led them to their achievements of today. His willingness, despite the difficulties, to always be an address for us and lead our work in the correct halachic direction, enabled us to become a halachic address for so many women and couples.

B’Ezrat Hashem, with the help of God, we hope that we will be able to continue to disseminate Rabbi Henkin’s halachic teachings and to spread his light to the world.

About the Author
Michal Roness is the coordinator of Nishmat's Yoatzot Halacha Fertility Counselor Project, as well as of the Yoatzot Halacha research institute. She has been responding to questions on Nishmat's Golda Koschitzky Hotline since 2008. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Michal lives with her family in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Michal has an MA in conflict resolution from Hebrew University, and served as the coordinator of the Conflict Management and Negotiation Program in Bar-Ilan University for 15 years.
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