Emil Heller Henning, author and principal investigator, professional architect and church elder

Rabbi Heller, Ezekiel, and Me

My full name is Emil Heller Henning III. The middle name “Heller” is my blood family. When my great-grandfather Heller died, my grandfather Emil Heller added his step-father’s last name of “Henning.” I know many Hellers have been of Jewish ancestry. My dad, Emil Heller Henning Jr., was Presbyterian in religion, but I recall his telling people we were “German Jew,” and that gefilte fish had been served in his childhood home. I never knew whether he was serious or not. He was probably unsure himself, since he often admitted he knew little about his Heller ancestors. People my age sometimes tell me I resemble the late Arizona Senator and 1964 Presidential candidate Barry M. Goldwater, whose father was Jewish, but that could be a coincidence.

With that small element of “anecdotal Jewishness” in my background, when I moved in mid-life to a city with a Jewish mayor named Heller, I went to the public library and looked up the Heller name in the Encyclopedia Judaica. Its longest article among seventeen Heller entries was for a Rabbi Yom Tov Lippman Heller (ca. 1577-1654), called the Tosefos Yom Tov for his commentary on the Mishnah, the core document of the Talmud. That fact mattered little to me at the time, but I mentioned it to our “family genealogist” on my father’s side. She told me she’d found out very little over the years about the Hellers, and had concentrated her efforts on our Henning step-family instead.

Fast forward to 2016, when I began to study Ezekiel’s Temple (which had fascinated me from my teen years) in a deliberately Jewish context. I’d previously published in 2013 the first edition of my book on this Temple from a more general perspective, not a specifically Jewish one. Now I was motivated by God’s instruction to Ezekiel in his chapter 43 to show the Temple’s plan, and its system of exits and extrances, to the “house of Israel,” and I was wondering from my Temple studies whether that had actually been done. (Two passages in the book of Ezra suggest that when the Jews returned to Jerusalem to build their Second Temple, they consulted the writings of Moses, not Ezekiel.) I’ve known, of course, that for many Christians and Jews, Ezekiel’s Temple is all about a physical structure to be built in the future, but as far as the “message” I’d personally seen in Ezekiel for Christians today is concerned, it contains nothing they don’t already know from the New Testament—though for modern Jews, that might not be the case.

As I worked in the spring of 2017 on what became, a year later, my four-part “Christian midrash” (on the Free Articles page) I came across a reference to a newly published edition of an old book on Ezekiel’s Temple, written way back in 1602 by none other than Rabbi Yom Tov Lippman Heller! Adding to my surprise at encountering that name again, I learned it was the first book dedicated solely to this Temple, written some 411 years before my slim 2013 volume! Rabbi Heller had read about the Temple in the great medieval sage Rashi’s Ezekiel commentary, but was the first to attempt a thorough study and explanation of it based on Rashi’s observations, and the first to convert them into a fully drafted Temple plan on paper. After languishing over four centuries as an obscure Hebrew manuscript, R. Heller’s book was now being translated into English and published in a new, illustrated Hebrew/English edition in the summer of 2016, just as I was starting work on my “Christian midrash.” This new edition of R. Heller’s old book came out under the title The Third Beis HaMikdash, published by Moznaim Publications of Brooklyn, NY.

Within minutes of opening Rabbi Heller’s “new old” book, I noticed that his Temple plan differed in some details from the plan I had used in my own 2013 book, which I believe is also implied by the notes and translations of the 1985 NJPS Tanakh used by Reform and many Conservative Jews. That discovery led me immediately to order an Orthodox ArtScroll Stone Edition Tanach for comparison. When it arrived, I saw that its plan of Ezekiel’s Temple was virtually identical to the one I’d just seen in R. Heller’s newly published book. The ArtScroll Tanach’s caption only said its plan was drawn “as closely as possible to the way Rashi must have understood it,” referring the reader to the ArtScroll Ezekiel commentary for details. So I ordered that commentary, expecting it to credit R. Heller with the ArtScroll Tanach’s plan layout. After all, Heller claimed back in 1602 to have presented the Temple (in his original drawing) as Rashi must have understood it. But while the ArtScroll commentary acknowledged Heller’s “description” of Ezekiel’s Temple, it said nothing about his drawing—crediting a Rabbi Ivier for having first done what, with some slight tweaking, became the ArtScroll’s plan. But the ArtScroll commentary says R. Ivier lived from 1721 to 1771. That was a long time after Rabbi Heller, who died in 1654!

The reason for this discrepancy emerges from a footnote on page 15 of the new 2016 edition of Heller’s Third Beis HaMikdash book. The note explains that the rabbi’s 1602 drawing of the Temple’s plan “was not published in the original text...but rather printed separately and included in an insert to the book.” It continued that in this new 2016 edition, that drawing was “reproduced as a foldout” at the end of the new edition of the book. In other words, many—perhaps most—of the Orthodox commentators before 2016, even those who paid lip service to Rabbi Heller’s “description,” had probably never had any opportunity actually to see the plan Heller drew. Perhaps Rabbi Ivier or his colleagues saw a good copy that included the Heller foldout.

I have described and critiqued the details where Rabbi Heller’s 1602 plan—and, indirectly following it, the ArtScroll Tanach—differs from the plan I adopted (along with, by implication, the NJPS Tanakh). Interested readers are referred to my four “Christian midrash” articles, especially page 7 of Part 1 (with endnotes 7-19), and pages 3-7 of Part 3 (with endnotes 18-32).

Perhaps the Jewish reader will excuse me for thinking of Rabbi Heller today as “my” Rabbi Heller. I learned from another of his translated writings that he was born in Wallerstein, in what is now Bavaria—the same part of Germany we think my dad’s oldest known ancestor left in the mid-1800s, settling on New York’s Upper East Side just two blocks from a major synagogue that was built at the time he lived there. All these things persuaded me in 2018 to to take a Y-DNA test to see if there was any possibility of direct descent from the famous Tosefos. The test came back without any finding of Ashkenazi ancestry. In view of my mission, that would have been a remarkable coincidence indeed! Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that I have shared, in my love for Ezekiel’s Temple and desire to share it, something every bit as important as a genetic connection with him.

From Temple Mount to New Haven Green

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