REVIEW: Mahalakhim ba-Mikra

Yaakov Bieler Tradition Online

Yehuda Herzl Henkin, Mahalakhim ba-Mikra: Sugyot ba-Torah mi-Beriat HaOlam ve-ad Matan Torah [Hebrew], edited by Eitam Shimon Henkin (Maggid Books), 286 pages.

Reviewed by Yaakov Bieler

Rabbi Yehuda Henkin z”l, in his introduction to this intriguing new work of biblical exegesis, cites a number of authorities who support his perspective with respect to Torah commentary. Among these viewpoints is the notion that as long as one does not dispute a traditional halakhic interpretation it is completely legitimate to seek out creative and independent approaches. This standpoint is borne out over the course of his writings on the Bible.  

What allows R. Henkin to exercise such a flexible, open-minded approach to the biblical text is his self-identification as a “pashtan” (a commentator acutely sensitive to the nuances of simple, linguistically consistent meanings of a text) who seeks to enhance the spiritual element of the biblical narrative via “intuition, imagination, and a sharply developed sense of language… relying on his understanding of people’s behavior” (13-14). “Close readings” inform all of the insights included in this volume. In many he discovers fresh ideas based upon the text itself, and he presents them with palpable humility and self-awareness.

The volume is structured with each weekly Torah portion, from Bereshit through Mishpatim, being examined in two sections: a number of lengthier “mahalakhim” (intellectual excursions) followed by shorter insights presented under the heading of “hiba yeteira” (“abundant affection”; cf. Avot 3:14). This places the span of the book’s attention between the creation of the universe and the revelation at Sinai. Appendices appear at the end of the book discussing some of the other parashiot found in later portions of the Torah, concluding with an interesting essay discussing Israeli politics from his vantage point as a Torah scholar.

R. Henkin has shown great interest in issues that directly affect women in many of his previously books, such as Equality Lost, Responsa on Contemporary Jewish Women’s Issues, and Understanding Tzniut, as well as through direct personal involvement as posek for the Yoetzet Halacha program at Nishmat, founded and headed by his wife, Rabbanit Chana Henkin. These interests and concerns are reflected in this new book as well. Examples of R. Henkin’s heightened awareness of women’s role in the Bible reflected in his commentary include:

His noting that when Adam gives a name to the mate that God Created for him, instead of calling to mind her role in the transgression that resulted in their being exiled from Eden, the first man uses nomenclature that stresses appreciatively the fact that Hava is “the mother of all Creation” (31).

R. Henkin points out that despite the general material and sexual corruption of the overwhelming majority of humanity, which caused God to bring the Flood, not only Noah, but also each of his sons, practiced monogamy rather than polygamy, demonstrating the counter-culture virtue of this particular family (50).

R. Henkin wonders why the daughters that Yaakov must have fathered, in addition to his one daughter and eleven sons (aside from Yosef), were not listed among those who journeyed with him to Egypt. He proposes that because they must have married local Canaanites, they were unable to leave their families, much like Lot’s married daughters in Sodom (176-177).

R. Henkin also includes a discussion of the blessing that parents give daughters on Shabbat and Yom Tov, which doesn’t make direct use of biblical verses, as opposed to the blessing for sons, enhancing his biblical commentary with a citation from one of his responsa that had earlier appeared in Benei Banim II:10 (184-186).

The author might be correct in his assumption that the racial differences between the native Egyptians, descendants of Ham, on the one hand, and the Hyksos and the Canaanites originating from Semitic peoples, on the other, could account for many of the clashes, including those centered on gender, between various groups over the course of Genesis and Exodus (154-155; 209-210.) However, the confirmation that race, a quality that is an external marker of human physiognomy, a difference that is extremely noticeable and therefore usually not subject to concealment, is already extant in the ancient Bible does not bode well for current efforts to eliminate racial discrimination in today’s global society.  

It is inspiring to read a world-class, consummate Torah scholar’s incorporation within his commentary of modern scholarship, such as the influence of the Hyksos dynasty on biblical history. Rishonim, whose biblical commentaries make up the primary sources that traditional Jews regularly read and study, such as Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, and others, could only rely on what was thought and believed during their lifetimes. As culture and human knowledge develop, it is important that contemporary ideas be incorporated within the Torah oeuvre, particularly for the benefit of those who have acquired formidable secular educations. Among the “modern” concepts contained in Mahalakhim ba-Mikra that could be penned only by someone living in our own era are: 

Scientific Approaches – Hydrogen was the first thing that God may have created, and a heliocentric conception of the universe serves to allow understanding of the creation story (18); the dynamism extending to future generations inherent in certain parts of creation (21); and ecological concerns reflected in God’s taking stock of the entirety of what He had created (23). 

Psychological Considerations – Reasons for Cain’s negative reaction to having his sacrifice rejected (33); greater wealth as the reason for Sodomites’ lack of empathy (71-72); his failure to dissuade an individual from hitting another as why Moshe was so convinced that he would be unable to speak to Pharaoh (200). 

Animal Behavior – The dove’s preparations to construct a nest by plucking a branch from an olive tree (51-52); the plague of body lice that could not be washed away (207); the locusts that descended on Egypt couldn’t enter individual houses because of Pharaoh’s rapid responses (211-212).

Political Science – The alliances that Avraham was forced to combat (55-57); the extremists and moderates that comprised Sodomite society (74-75); Yaakov’s initial attempts to reform Shechem (130-133); various political machinations in Egypt (195-200). 

Historical and Archeological Research – The sort of paganism that was rampant just before the Flood (35-36); and ancient forms of levirate marriage (152-153)

Finally, it is important to note that the essay on contemporary Israeli politics appended to the end of Mahalakhim ba-Mikra is not of a piece with the rest of the volume’s contents. Granted, biblical texts play a role in the analysis reflected in this extended essay (253-284); nevertheless, they are not the focal point of what the author discusses. A reviewer who resides in the Diaspora could be accused of not being able to fully appreciate the finer points of the discussion; however, the gist is clear: the existence of the Jewish State serves both as a refuge from persecution and as a challenge to whether the Jewish people will repent, with the future being largely unknown. R. Henkin’s position must be seriously considered. 

Aside from its place as a work of significant biblical scholarship, the book also serves as a memorial to the two significant scholars, father and son, who had a hand in bringing it about. Originally edited by R. Eitam Henkin, who was tragically murdered by terrorists together with his wife, Na’ama הי”ד, in 2015, the volume’s preparation was delayed. It is hoped that its publication, shortly before R. Yehuda Henkin’s own passing last December, brings with it a measure of comfort to this distinguished family and its many friends and disciples. We can only hope that an English translation of the book will appear, enabling wider circles to benefit from their teaching.

Mahalakhim ba-Mikra by R. Yehuda Henkin contains noteworthy insights and interpretations that should make us rethink what we feel we know about the Bible. 

Rabbi Yaakov Bieler has worked in various capacities in day schools and synagogues in New York City and Silver Spring and writes and speaks widely on aspects of Modern Orthodoxy. Many of his essays can be read at Rayanot Yaakov and on his personal blog.

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