The HUC-JIR/New York community celebrated Dr. S. David Sperling, who retired after 41 years as an esteemed faculty member at HUC, with a special tribute on March 28, 2019. Rabbi David Adelson, D.Min., Dean, New York, and Rabbi Andrea Weiss, Ph.D., Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Provost, spoke of Dr. Sperling's years of dedication and the impact he has had on generations of HUC-JIR students.
"We marked the conclusion of an era on the New York campus when we honored Dr. David Sperling for his 41 years on our faculty," Dean Adelson said. "Dr. Sperling has taught generations of our alumni how to read the Bible. He is an eminent scholar in his field, particularly of the history of the field of Bible study itself. We are grateful for all he has given us, and are full of good wishes for his retirement. Calling Dr. Sperling, and his wife, Rabbi Jennifer Jaech, to the Torah felt like the perfect way to honor him and pray for his continued health and fulfillment."
Dr. Sperling has been a prodigious contributor to the field of Bible scholarship and historian of the field of Bible scholarship. He earned his B.A. at Brooklyn College, was ordained at The Jewish Theological Seminary, and holds a Ph.D. in Ancient Semitic Languages from Columbia University.
Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D., Chancellor Emeritus, reflected on Dr. Sperling's career: "David Sperling has combined virtually unparalleled erudition in the Hebrew Bible, Ancient Near Eastern civilization, and Rabbinics with a keen analytical sense to achieve world-wide scholarly fame in these areas. Our students at the College-Institute were the beneficiaries of this knowledge, as Professor Sperling challenged them and offered them invaluable insights and guidance for four decades. His role in their development as rabbis, educators, and scholars constitute an enviable legacy of which he can be most proud. We at HUC-JIR were surely blessed to have had him grace and enhance our faculty as our colleague and teacher all these years!"
Before coming to HUC-JIR, Dr. Sperling taught at SUNY-Stony Brook and then at Barnard College. He has served as visiting professor at New York University, Syracuse University, The College of William and Mary, and The Jewish Theological Seminary.
Dr. Sperling appreciated teaching HUC’s students to be able to work with texts, being a mentor, and participating in the HUC community. He encouraged students to sit and read with him, gain the tools to advance their studies, and pursue independent study with him. “I’ve had countless students over the years and have seen the fruits of my labors. My Torah is out there through rabbinical alumni all over the world, and I enjoy encountering rabbis who quote or paraphrase me. HUC gave me complete academic freedom, book and conference allowances that supported my research, and the opportunity to choose what I wanted to teach. Some people might be surprised to learn that I have enjoyed more academic freedom at a seminary than at secular institutions under attack by both the right and left.”
His innovative scholarship has achieved an array of goals: getting the Bible back to its original meaning intended by its writers, communicating the Bible to intelligent laity, and guiding students to grapple with challenging texts relating to gender issues. He was a staunch advocate for the admission of LGBTQI students during the era of President Alfred Gottschalk.
Among his publications are the books Students of the Covenant (a history of modern Jewish biblical scholarship in America) and The Original Torah: The Political Intent of the Bible’s Writers. He was the editor of the Bible division of the revised Encyclopaedia Judaica (2007) to which he contributed some 145 articles. Dr. Sperling also served as consulting editor to The Haftarah Commentary by Rabbi Gunther Plaut and Rabbi Chaim Stern, as well as to the new URJ Torah Commentary. His current project is a book on the Hallel Psalms (Psalm 113-118).
Summing up a career of achievement and service, Dr. Sperling said, “I love my work.”