|HUC-JIR Mourns Dr. Ben Zion Wacholder
Freehof Professor Emeritus of Talmud and Rabbinics
Dr. Ben Zion Wacholder, Freehof Professor Emeritus of Talmud and Rabbinics at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati, passed away on Tuesday, March 30, 2011.
Rabbi David Ellenson, HUC-JIR President, stated, "We mourn the loss of our esteemed colleague, teacher, mentor, and friend, Dr. Ben Zion Wacholder. Associated with HUC-JIR for nearly six decades, Professor Wacholder was a world renowned scholar on the origins and development of Talmudic Judaism and ancient Jewish commentaries and played a catalytic role in enhancing scholars' access to the Dead Sea Scrolls. A survivor of the Shoah, his life and work linked HUC-JIR with the glorious tradition of European Jewish learning of his origins. His memory is a source of blessing to us all."
Professor Ben Zion Wacholder, scholar of Talmud and Rabbinics, began his career at HUC-JIR as the Los Angeles School’s first librarian in 1956. His early work in the burgeoning library collection helped usher the new school into accreditation – the committee that came to evaluate the campus cited his presence in the library as their reason for support.
Born in Ozarow, Poland in 1924, Wacholder studied in European yeshivot and was recognized as a scholar in Europe before World War II began. In October 1942, the Nazis liquidated his town, but Wacholder survived the Shoah, living as a Christian under an Aryan name and working in a Nazi forced labor camp until liberation. After the war, he moved to Paris and later Bogota, Colombia, and finally immigrated to the United States in 1947 with the goal of resuming his education.
Wacholder received his rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University in 1951 and his Ph.D. from UCLA in 1960. Soon after joining the HUC-JIR staff, he became a permanent member of the College-Institute’s faculty, ultimately being named the Solomon Freehof Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics in Cincinnati, where he taught until his retirement. Wacholder’s students speak of the warmth and magnetism that drew them to their teacher, a brilliant Talmudist who knew scripture and rabbinic texts by heart. When his eyesight deteriorated in the 1970s, dozens of his rabbinical and graduate students flocked to assist him with his research.
Martin Abegg (now co-director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at Trinity Western University in British Columbia) describes the experience of working “knee to knee” with his mentor: “I have often thought that my 5 years with Ben Zion Wacholder – in the hands of a gifted writer – would rival Mitch Albom’s Tuesday’s with Morrie. Only with me it was Tuesdays and Thursdays with Ben Zion. I, in the rich company of a dozen other HUC-JIR grad students over the years, was Ben’s eyes.” The students would open mail from scholars around the world seeking his input on scores of topics and would lend their sight to Wacholder’s study of secondary sources in multiple languages. They were constantly awed by their teacher’s flawless knowledge of primary text. Wacholder imbued his students with the lesson that as helpful as modern technology might be, a computer search engine can never replace personal knowledge of the Bible, Talmud, Midrash, and all of the commentaries that create our layered text.
Abegg co-authored Wacholder’s seminal work, an unauthorized edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, titled A Preliminary Edition of the Unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls (Biblical Archaeology Society, 1991). Together they developed a computer program that reconstructed fragmented sections of the scrolls from a concordance, thereby making the full content of the scrolls accessible and leading to the release of the original manuscripts, which had been withheld from the public for years.The work opened wide the study of the scrolls to new scholars, leading to the establishment of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation to raise funds for research and preservation.
Abegg notes that the legal writings in the Dead Sea Scrolls “provide a critical window into the shape of Judaism before the Mishna and the [Jerusalem and Babylonian] Talmuds.” Professor Wacholder “realized this potential” and made it accessible to the academic community. Abegg and another former Ph.D. student, Tim Undheim, put the finishing touches on Wacholder’s latest work, TheNew Damascus Document: The Midrash on the Eschatological Torah of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Brill 2006). Abegg concludes: “My adventure with Ben Zion was priceless. This is the kind of education that all of us hope for from our schooling but few of us actually experience.” [From The Chronicle, Issue 68: http://huc.edu/chronicle/68/articles/EmeritusFaculty.pdf]
Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion is the nation’s oldest institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR’s scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement’s congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR’s campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish history, identity, art, and archaeology, and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.