Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin: A Forgotten American Posek
Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin died in his apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Shabbat Nachamu, August 12, 1973. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky delivered eulogies at his funeral and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik attended the funeral but did not speak. Rabbi Henkin was born in White Russia in 1881. He studied, primarily, in the yeshiva in Slutzk and spent ten years as a rabbi and rosh yeshiva in Georgia on the Black Sea. Rabbi Henkin emigrated to America in 1923 and was appointed the rabbi of Congregation Anshei Shtutsen on the Lower East Side. In 1925, he became secretary and then director of Ezras Torah, a rabbinic organization founded in 1915 to assist Torah scholars imperiled by the turmoil of World War I. The organization was later expanded to assist rabbis and their students who attempted to flee Europe during the dark years surrounding World War II. Rabbi Henkin remained at the helm of Ezras Torah for the next forty-eight years. He served as a posek for rabbis and laymen throughout America and wrote numerous articles for a variety of Torah journals. Many of his essays and teshuvot are reprinted in a two-volume work entitled Kitvei ha-Gaon Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin (New York, 1980).
In spite of Rabbi Henkin’s illustrious rabbinic career, we live today amidst a Torah and scholarly community “who knew not Yosef.” When poskim from the Lower East Side are considered, it is Rabbi Feinstein whose name and works are still authoritative twenty years after his passing. Yet, the first volume of Iggerot Moshe was published in 1959, when Rabbi Henkin was almost 80 years old and had spent a lifetime answering rabbinic questions and recording them for others.
The reasons for the popularity of a posek depend on the culture of the contemporary Orthodox community as much as on the quality of the p’sak. Rabbi Feinstein lived for thirteen years after Rabbi Henkin’s passing. Those years, from 1973-1986, were critical years in the growth of the Torah community of America. Many of Rabbi Feinstein’s teshuvot date from that period and many more teshuvot became known during the last years of his life. Most of Rabbi Henkin’s teshuvot date to an era when interest in the intricate questions of halakhah in America was limited to the scholarly rabbis of the time. Yet, these teshuvot remain relevant for all students of halakhah and of the history of American Orthodoxy. The richness and originality of those teshuvot give us insight into the challenges of that generation of American Orthodoxy and into the pivotal role played by Rabbi Henkin during this period.
I would like to address three issues in which Rabbi Henkin and Rabbi Feinstein reached different halakhic conclusions concerning areas of grave importance to American Orthodoxy.
1. The Mehitzah
While Orthodox leaders have always defined mixed seating in synagogue as the great divide between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox, the 1950’s and 1960’s saw a growing number of Orthodox synagogues which introduced mixed seating. One source claims that in 1961 there existed “perhaps 250 Orthodox synagogues where family seating is practiced.” While it is difficult to verify the accuracy of this report, it is certain that rabbis serving in mixed-seating synagogues continued to belong to the Rabbinical Council of America without fear of expulsion. The tide began to turn in the late 1950’s as many Orthodox leaders declared their opposition to congregations with mixed-seating. A major step in this direction was introduced by Baruch Litvin, a businessman who belonged to Beth Tefilas Moshe, an Orthodox congregation in Mt. Clemens, Michigan which voted to introduce mixed-seating in 1955. Litvin took up the battle against this ruling based on an established American legal principle that a religious congregation cannot introduce a practice opposed to the doctrine of the congregation against the wishes of even a minority of the congregation. His attorneys, supported by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU), introduced a significant amount of evidence to support the claim that mixed-seating was “clearly violative of the established Orthodox Jewish law and practice.” The lower courts sided with the congregation and refused to become involved. However, the Michigan Supreme Court unanimously reversed the decision and accepted the minority’s claim.
Litvin gathered the evidence that he had collected and published it, in 1962, in a volume entitled The Sanctity of the Synagogue. Included in this book are letters from rabbis and roshei yeshiva on the necessity of a mehitzah in an Orthodox synagogue. Litvin incorporated an article by Rabbi Feinstein on the background and requirements of a Mehitzah. Rabbi Feinstein’s opinion is summarized by a personal communication to Litvin dated June 17, 1957 and printed at the conclusion of the article. The correspondence states:
Dear Mr. Litvin,
In reference to what is written in my name, that “the prohibition of mixed pews is Biblical law,” it would be better to change the words to read: “the prohibition against praying in a synagogue without a mechitzah of at least eighteen tefachim (handbreadths) or sixty-five inches high is a Biblical law.” Stronger emphasis should be put on the point that it is prohibited to pray in a synagogue without a proper mechitzah, even though there is separate seating.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein
This view of the necessity for a mehitzah is shared by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Aharon Kotler whose letters are also included in Litvin’s volume.
Rabbi Henkin’s view is not recorded in Litvin’s volume. Rabbi Henkin does, however, take a stand on the issue of mehitzah in a responsum dated 1961 which is included in the second volume of his collected writings. The teshuvah addresses the question whether a Shabbat violator can receive an aliyah. He responds that in our generation in which the Reform movement has “cast its net upon the Jewish people to ensnarl them in their ways” it is incumbent upon the Orthodox community to welcome all Jews without reservation into our synagogues and our communities. In this way many have returned to Orthodoxy and hopefully many will continue to return.
He continues in the following way:
Every individual should live in a place of observant Jews if possible. However, if this is not possible, we should not be strict concerning these matters because it will lead to a potential catastrophe.
However, if the place itself is corrupt in that it has mixed-seating, it has already been established that it is preferable to pray by yourself at home. But, if this is the only synagogue in the area and you will always have to pray at home, you must examine the situation and evaluate the corruption versus the hope that through the involvement of the observant in this congregation, the community will become Orthodox. Yet, in all situations you must reprimand them if you pray in their midst.
While the details of the question addressed to Rabbbi Henkin differ from the issue directed by Mr. Litvin to Rabbi Feinstein, these two great poskim take two very different approaches to the mehitzah issue. Rabbi Feinstein defends the principle of mehitzah and argues that it is a Biblical requirement with no room for compromise or flexibility. Rabbi Henkin, on the other hand, while arguing in favor of the importance of mehitzah and the risks inherent in the movement toward mixed-seating in the synagogue, clearly understands the complexity of the social situation and the possibility that prohibiting someone from praying in a non-mehitzah synagogue may ultimately force that person out of the organized Jewish community and prevent him or her from influencing the community toward observance. Rabbi Henkin argued that the principle of mehitzah must be balanced with an appreciation of the social complexities of the situation and the potential for religious outreach while Rabbi Feinstein contended that the principle is so critical that it cannot be influenced even by the difficult practical problems that may arise.
[to be continued]
 Jonathan D. Sarna, “The Debate over Mixed Seating in the American Synagogue,” in The American Synagogue: A Sanctuary Transformed, ed. Jack Wertheimer (Cambridge, 1987), 380-81; For a recent overview of the mehitzah within historical context, see Gil Student, “The Mehitzah Controversy: Fifty Years Later,” Bekhol Derakhekha Daehu/BaDaD 17 (September 2006): 7-43.
 Jonathan D. Sarna, “The Debate over Mixed Seating in the American Synagogue,” 384.
 Baruch Litvin, The Sanctity of the Synagogue (New York, 1962), 125.
 Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, Kitvei Hagri’a Henkin (New York, 1989), II: 11.
Rabbi Mintz is the rabbi of Kehilat Rayim Ahuvim, a Modern Orthodox community he founded on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 2004. In 2022, he co-founded Project Ruth that educates potential conversion candidates and facilitates a thorough yet accessible Orthodox conversion to Judaism. He is also the Director of 929 English, a web-based project that promotes the daily study of a chapter of Tanakh. In addition, Rabbi Mintz is a member of the Talmud faculty at Yeshivat Maharat and has taught as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at City College, New York for six years.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife Sharon and has three children, Noam (and Lily), Ariel (and Ashley) and Shoshana and three grandchildren.