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Wacholder’s seminal work, an unauthorized edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, titled A Preliminary Edition of the Unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls (Biblical Archaeology Society, 1991).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]