Rabbi Dvora E. Weisberg ’11, Ph.D., Professor of Rabbinics and Director of the School of Rabbinical Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles, was inaugurated as the Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Professor of Rabbinics at the Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles on February 11, 2019. Her inauguration as a Panken Professor was celebrated at a havdalah reception, hosted by Rabbi Amy Perlin and Gary Perlin on February 10, 2019, which featured words of tribute to Rabbi Aaron Panken, z"l, by Rabbi Perlin, Lisa Messinger, and Rabbi Weisberg and was attended by members of the Board of Governors, Western Region Board of Overseers, and donors to the Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Memorial Campaign. The Panken Professorships, one on each of HUC-JIR campuses, honor Rabbi Panken’s profound impact on this institution, its students, and the Reform Movement. Rabbi Panken prized HUC-JIR faculty as scholars, thought leaders, teachers, and mentors who transmit shalshelet hakabalah, the chain of tradition, while inspiring students to become transformative leaders who invigorate Jewish life and strengthen Jewish communities throughout North America, Israel, and around the world.
Rabbi Weisberg shared these words with the HUC-JIR Board of Governors at services during their February 11th meeting in Los Angeles:
Returning to the place of his birth after many years, our patriarch Jacob addresses God, saying:
קטנתי מכל החסדים ומכל האמת אשר עשית את עבדך
I am unworthy of all of the kindness that You have shown me (Gen. 32:11).
I do not want to question the judgment of those who decided to bestow the Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Chair on me. At the same time, I am overwhelmed. Like Jacob, I returned to the land in which I grew up, the State of California, after many years in that far away land, the East Coast. Like Jacob, I left home young and on my own, with only two suitcases, and returned many years later with a life partner, children, and a moving van full of possessions. From the moment I first set foot on this campus eighteen years ago, I have been offered kindness, support, and friendship. I have been given the opportunity to do work that is meaningful and exciting to me, and that I believe is of enduring service to the Jewish people.
Being named the Rabbi Aaron Panken Chair of Rabbinics is bittersweet. It is painful to receive an honor that flows from the death of a respected colleague and friend. At the same time, I feel blessed to occupy a chair named for a scholar in my field, a man whose love for and knowledge of rabbinic literature strengthened our relationship and appreciation of each other’s work.
People might think that engineering and rabbinic literature are unlikely bedfellows, but Aaron knew better. The wisdom of our sages is carefully wrapped in structures that may appear strange and even distorted to the uninitiated, but which students of Talmud soon realize are essential to appreciating the content. To see the structure of a legal argument or of a brilliant piece of midrash, is to see how form conveys meaning. Just as an engineer knows that without careful planning and measurement, without attention to every piece of the whole, a building or bridge will collapse, so too the Talmudist knows that without a well-thought through argument, the student will dismiss the idea as unconvincing.
I came to the study of rabbinics as a college student. At first, my motivation might best be described as an act of defiance; told that the Talmud contained a prohibition against women putting on tefillin, I replied, “Show me this Talmud.” But I quickly became enchanted, not so much by the content, which grew on me only over time, but by the form. I was already a fan of crossword puzzles and murder mysteries, and Talmud offered its own puzzle and mystery, along with the pleasure of seeing the pieces fall into place, revealing meaning.
In his book The Rhetoric of Innovation, Aaron writes about self-conscious legal change in rabbinic literature. Rather than subscribe to the idea that classical Jewish law is static, or that changes in the rabbinic legal system “just happened, Aaron argues that the language of rabbinic texts reveals an intentional response to changing circumstances. As I bring a feminist lens to the Talmud, Aaron’s work strengthens my belief that the ancient rabbis, while deeply rooted in tradition, understood that a religious tradition grows and evolves over time, changing to guide and inspire each generation in turn. As a professor of rabbinics, my job is both to help students hear the voice of our sacred texts and to invite them into dialogue with the texts, so they can add their own voice to the many voices of Judaism throughout the ages.
I stand before you today grateful beyond words for the honor that this Chair represents. Every year, on the opening day of school, I call to mind the words of Nehunya HaQaneh, one of the early rabbis. We read in Mishnah Berakhot 4:2 that it was his practice to recite a short prayer when he entered and exited the beit midrash, the house of study. Asked about the content of those prayers, Nehunya responded,
בּכנְיִסתִָי אנֲיִ מ תפּלֵַּ ל שׁלֶּ א תאֶרֱַע תּקָלהָ עַל יָדִי, וּביִציִאתִָי אנֲִי נוֹתֵן הוֹדָיהָ עלַ חלֶקְִי
“When I enter, I pray that no harm will be caused through my actions; and when I leave I give thanks for my lot in life.” The second of Nehunya’s prayers sums up my thoughts today – I am truly blessed to be rooted in this place, to be given the privilege of serving the Jewish people as a rabbi and teacher in this institution.
Thank you for this appointment and for the gift that I receive every day I walk into this building.