(Photo: Rabbanit Chana Henkin)

“Make the Important Things Important”

An Interview with Rabbanit Chana Henkin about Rabbi Eitam and Naama Henkin hy”d

On Chol HaMoed Sukkot, 2015, the Jewish world was horror-struck when Rabbi Eitam and Naama Henkin were murdered at point-blank range by Arab terrorists. As they were driving to their home in Neria, Palestinian gunmen opened fire, killing Rav Eitam and Naama in front of their four children. 

By the time of his death at age 31, Rav Eitam had authored over fifty articles and four books. Those who grasped his gifts forecast for him a future as a rabbinic luminary. This past March, Maggid Books released Studies in Halakhah and Rabbinic History, a sampling of Rav Eitam’s halachic and historical works, reflecting his wide range of interests within both of these genres. 

Rabbi Aron White sat down with Rav Eitam’s mother, Rabbanit Chana Henkin, who edited the volume, to learn more about the book and the legacy of Rav Eitam and Naama hy”d as we observe their seventh yahrzeit.

In the introduction to the new book of Rav Eitam’s writings, you write that “although Rav Eitam would protest the comparison with his father and with his saintly great-grandfather, Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin zt”l, one cannot fail to note the similarity of incisive mind, integrity, and self-effacing nature.” As a mother, when did you begin to see that Eitam was going to become an outstanding Torah scholar?

Looking back, I realize that there are things you see in your children that you only understand decades later when they are adults. In our family, the spoken language is halachah. Years later, I realized that the way he would read halachic works as an adult was very similar to what he did as a two year old. I remember being at a Chanukah party in the gan – I wanted him to dance with the other two-year-olds, but he stayed on my lap. I thought the party was passing over him, but by the next day he had processed and analyzed the event, and spoke to me about it, exactly as he would later do as an adult. 

When he was in yeshivah high school he would come home and go to the computer to write for online forums at Kipa, where young people would discuss various religious topics. Occasionally, he would walk out his room and ask “where does the Rambam say x, y and z?” with the assumption that his mother should know these things. Somewhere along the way the tables turned, and I was the one asking him the questions, rather than the other way around.

Eitam read everything my husband, Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, wrote, and everything his great-grandfather wrote; and my husband read everything that Eitam wrote. However, to some extent we only discovered the staggering reach of his intellect after he was no longer here. After shiva, my children were able to unlock his computer thanks to a teenage prank. He and a friend had scaled the water tower in our neighborhood, and hung a sheet from it with the gematria of their names. Thanks to that mischief, our daughter and our son thought that would be the obvious password to his computer, and they were right. What we found was an astonishing vault of Torah creativity.    

There were files of Torah writing in various stages of completion, including chiddushim (innovative insights) on the four parts of the Shulchan Aruch. Until then we never knew the full breadth of his learning. 

No one understood how he managed to accomplish so much each day. He spent time every day with his children, and at 4pm most days members of his yishuv would watch Rav Eitam and Naama walk together to pick up the children from gan. He taught, learned in a kollel, was a fellow at Forum Kohelet, wrote and published, completed academic degrees, and answered emails from dozens of scholars, My husband set the bar high in our home, assuming that is the way people were supposed to be, and Eitam rose to the challenge. 

I think we realized early on that Eitam was gifted, but it was only towards the end that my husband was able to say “he’s going to be a gadol, a first rank posek”.

Rav Eitam’s writings demonstrate his complete comfort in both the world of the beit midrash and that of academia. Many people find those two worlds to be contradictory. How was Eitam able to harmonize them in his scholarship?

There is a section from chapter 16 that I chose to put on the inside jacket of the book, in which he writes that his personal opinions on the topic being discussed are irrelevant to the presentation.

He had no patience for dishonesty, and he did not bend facts to fit his own agenda or opinions. He was famous for this, and this is why people of all religious stripes respected him. This integrity was not only a feature of his personality, but also a feature of his scholarship. The book includes a number of riveting articles about historical revisionism, showing how writers systematically rewrote history to change the views of great Torah authorities to conform to their own outlook. 

He pursued truth, which is why he was accepted in both worlds. People understood that he was reliable, that he demanded of himself absolute honesty and integrity. My husband was this way too. It wasn’t that they were worried someone might catch them writing something false; integrity was simply a part of who they were.

But it goes even further than that. During shiva, someone sent us a poignant post in Yiddish. We had no idea Eitam understood Yiddish, let alone had written in it. Apparently, he participated in a Yiddish forum called ivelt. The Yiddish speakers in the forum, reacting with horror to the murder, called him one of their chavura.  

After the murder, there was a fierce debate on the internet that saddened us. People were arguing about who was the real Eitam. Was he a Torah scholar in the daled amot shel halachah (the four cubits of Torah law), or was he a gifted historian on his way to an academic career in rabbinic history? The truth is, he didn’t separate these two spheres. As a halachist, he needed to fully understand the historical background; you can’t decide halachah in the abstract, you need to see the issue in real life. The same is true of rabbinic history; if you don’t grasp the halachic nuance, you don’t understand the history. And so the two fields were not separate for him. 

Many people, including professors and a whole range of others, corresponded with him to get information. We met some of them, but we don’t know about many others. But no matter whom he spoke to, he never hid who he was or put on a false posture. He was just himself. 

He also brought his character traits to bear in his academic work. He once spent a number of months collecting material to write about Maharil Diskin. A famous professor reached out to him to ask for some source material, and Eitam sent him the full file of sources he had painstakingly gathered. For someone who is focused on glory and titles, that would have been unthinkable – they would have wanted to keep the materials for themselves to be able to write the big article. But Eitam was humble and generous, and was prepared to share his research with others. 

When he was about 23 years old, and he and Naama were at our Shabbat table, he casually mentioned that he was planning to do his doctorate under Professor David Assaf. At that point, we hadn’t known he planned to go to college! At the shiva, Professor Assaf told us of his astonishment to discover a wonderkind sitting in a kollel with no academic training, but who was writing as a seasoned academic scholar.

A few months before the murder, Eitam told us that he had been awarded a Rotenstreich Fellowship. We had no idea he had applied for it because he didn’t talk about these things. He was thrilled, because it meant he would have parnassah for three years to do his doctorate on the Chafetz Chaim. As the reader of Studies in Halakhah and Rabbinic History sees in chapter after chapter, Rav Eitam did not write hagiographies, but did write as a Torah scholar who was fully aware of the greatness of the gedolim. The doctorate would have brought all of his analytic abilities to the table. He would have given the world a work of first-class scholarship, on his own way to becoming one of our great poskim.

Though the book includes topics ranging from the kashrut of strawberries to the Bruriah episode to the history of the Mussar movement, he seems to have been drawn to rabbinic history, and in particular to great figures from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century like the Aruch HaShulchan, Rav Kook and Rav Henkin. What drew him to that period and to those personalities in particular?

He had a different connection with each of those figures. The last two great codes of Ashkenazi halachah were the Aruch HaShulchan and Mishnah Berurah, both written in the same 25-year span. In our family, the tradition we have from the gaon Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin zt”l is that when there is a machloket (disagreement) between the Mishnah Berurah and the Aruch HaShulchan, we pasken like the Aruch HaShulchan, as he was a rabbi of a city, not a rosh yeshivah. It was natural that Eitam, as the scion of an illustrious rabbinic dynasty, felt a deep connection to the Aruch HaShulchan

Rav Eitam grew up in institutions that were closely identified with Rav Kook’s philosophy. Eitam’s scholarship was focused on Rav Kook’s halachic works. He was terribly upset by the Charedi defamation of Rav Kook. In the chapter titled “The Haredi/National-Religious Dichotomy”, he discusses how family members excised Rav Kook from the biographies of their rabbinic forbears – some of whom were part of Rav Kook’s closest circle. It outraged our son that Rav Kook was being cavalierly written out of the lives of some of his closest disciples by their descendants. 

His connection to Rav Henkin, his illustrious great-grandfather, was something he imbibed from day one. Many years ago, my husband left Columbia University graduate school to learn with his zeide, Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, every morning and afternoon for five years. If you open my husband’s teshuvot, he refers to his grandfather on almost every page. What he received from his grandfather he passed on to Eitam, so Eitam’s whole world from his earliest days was shaped by his great-grandfather’s legacy. 

(Photo: Rabbanit Chana Henkin)

Can you talk a little about the remarkable relationship Eitam had with Naama?

They met in their teens, on a religious Hebrew internet forum, where they were both prolific contributors. They wrote under nicknames; Naama’s name was mitkarevet, while he used the acronym of toch kedei dibbur (תכ”ד). I don’t know whether Naama initially knew she was talking to a male! They ultimately met in person, and eventually decided they would marry after Eitam finished the army. 

The two were not just brilliant and multi-talented, but also had very similar middot. Naama carried much of the financial burden of the household with her design business, while supporting Eitam’s learning. Modesty, humility, and integrity were central to both. Naama told us that young women graphic artists starting out were asking her how to set up a business. She said, “I know they’re going to be my competitors, but I still help them.”   

They shared all the burdens of the home. They did everything together – they brought the kids to school together and took walks together. They were inseparable. 

Rav Eitam’s life was tragically cut short, but by age 31 he had already achieved so much. What words of encouragement and inspiration do you think he would share with young men and women who are aspiring to grow in their Torah learning and make their own contribution to Klal Yisrael?

I can’t speak for him, but there is a line we found in his diary which captures so much. He wrote, “I hope that I can make the ikar ikar and the tafel tafel,” meaning “I hope that I can make the important things important and the unimportant things unimportant.” I think that answers the question of how they both accomplished so much. They had innate gifts, but that’s not enough. The ability to distinguish between what’s really important and what is not enables you to set priorities and reach goals, and also to ignore what’s trivial or petty.

They lived in a yishuv called Neria, and their tiny front yard was an artificial grass lawn. Remembering the fragrance of a recently-mowed lawn from my childhood, I said to Eitam, “Don’t you want real grass?” He said, “I don’t have time to mow the lawn.” Now I am so thankful that he didn’t mow the lawn, that he sat and learned and wrote. Being organized, setting your priorities, and living with humility, integrity and devotion to Torah, is what I think Eitam can teach us all.

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