In our day, when news events do not always portray the Jewish community in the most favorable light, it is imperative that we have role models we can emulate. The recent passing of a famous legal scholar brings to mind two individuals who personify this description.

Columbia University Professor Louis Henkin was widely credited with being a leader and developer of the field of human rights, which he emphasized as a “cornerstone of American foreign policy.” Professor Henkin waged a multi-front struggle to extend universalist ideas of human rights and the reach of law. As such, he was influential in the drafting of human rights legislation. Fostering the sanctity of human beings is an achievement that exemplifies Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name.


In my opinion, it was Professor Henkin’s insistence on the importance of human rights as a cornerstone of American foreign policy that prepared the way, along with campaigns by human rights activists, for the 1975 Helsinki Accords. This international agreement enumerated: a) respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief; and b) equal rights and self-determination of peoples. The civil rights section of the declaration arguably provided the basis for the work of the Moscow Helsinki Group, created to monitor compliance with the Helsinki Accords. Advertisement

The declaration was an attempt to improve relations and reduce cold war tensions between the Communist bloc and Western countries in the post-World War II period. Paradoxically, it enabled individuals living under totalitarian regimes to claim official permission to say what they thought. But the side effect of the civil rights portion of the agreement was profound. Together, the Jackson-Vanik legislation passed by Congress in 1974 and those 1975 accords became the triggers that finally compelled the Soviet government to permit Russian Jews to emigrate.

Paying tribute to Professor Henkin’s legal accomplishments, I cannot help but recall the contributions his father, Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, zt”l, made to the American Jewish community. As a posek, Rav Henkin was considered by many to be on par with his contemporary, Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l. He served as executive director of Ezras Torah and was the author of the two-volume Kitvei HaGaon Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin. Many people, including my mother, a”h, would contact him when they had a halachic inquiry and required an authoritative rabbinic response.

Rav Henkin was a modest individual who would always answer the telephone himself and personally respond to the caller’s questions. Individuals from all walks of life would contact him. A lawyer friend of mine requested guidance on how to conduct his practice under new circumstances in which he found himself. My friend received an appropriate and reasonable personal response, which he followed.

A personal telephone encounter I had with Rav Henkin in 1972 is one I still cherish. My mother had asked me to contact him concerning a halachic question she had. After he provided the answer, he requested that I remember to support Ezras Torah. After sending a contribution, I received a Life Membership Certificate of Merit signed by Rav Henkin and Rav N. Riff (president).

Rav Henkin’s piety and authoritative halachic decisions enriched the Torah-observant community at a time when observance was not as prevalent as it is today.

In Rav Yosef Henkin and Professor Louis Henkin we had two outstanding individuals whose careers were a blessing for the entire Jewish community – the father with a vast halachic knowledge unsparingly shared with the Jewish community at large, the son with a legal mind utilized to bring the fruits of personal freedom and equal rights to so many people the world over.

E. Magnus Oppenheim, a musmach of Mesivta Torah Vodaath, is chief investment officer at E. Magnus Oppenheim & Co., Inc., registered investment advisers.