When Dr. Dvora Weisberg is ordained on Sunday, May 15, 2011, from the School of Rabbinical Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles, she will be in the unique position of directing the school as well. Weisberg, who has taught at the College-Institute for 10 years and whose specialties include gender issues in rabbinic texts, became the leader of the School in 2009 – a year after deciding to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a rabbi.
QUESTION: You’ve wanted to be rabbi for decades. What held you back?
WEISBERG: When I was finishing college, the time when I would have applied to rabbinical school, the school I wanted to attend, The Jewish Theological Seminary, did not ordain women. I did consider both HUC and Reconstructionist Rabbinical College several years later, but decided at the time they weren't right for me and chose instead to pursue a Ph.D. in Talmud. Over the years, I considered rabbinical school, but the timing never seemed right – I was in school, raising a family, pursuing my academic career, etc. At a certain point, I decided that becoming a rabbi was something that just wasn't going to happen.
QUESTION: Why did you decide to become a rabbi now, after all these years?
WEISBERG: I spoke to several people at HUC-JIR about ordination soon after I came to teach at the College. They were very supportive, but I was still hesitant – I didn't see how I could go to school while teaching and doing research; it seemed almost selfish to take time away from my work. Then when David Ellenson invited me to become director of the School of Rabbinic Studies, he suggested I consider pursuing ordination. I thought about it and knew that I was ready to realize the dream I had had for so many years.
QUESTION: Your scholarship brings a feminist lens to the Talmud. Talk about what role your gender – and the Reform movement – has played in your work and spiritual journey, culminating in your upcoming ordination.
WEISBERG: When I began my adult Jewish journey, both professionally and personally, I didn’t perceive gender to be an issue. I had been brought up, by my parents and by the Reform temple in which I grew up, to believe that men and women had equal access to Judaism. My interest then in gender and Judaism was sparked by my first encounters, in college on the East Coast, with people who insisted that as a woman there were things I could not do or aspire to. My exploration of the role of women in Jewish life and then in classical Jewish texts was fueled by my desire to claim ownership of Jewish tradition and to find a place for myself within that tradition. I didn’t set out to study gender or to espouse Jewish feminism; I found that I had to do so, because it was the only way to validate deeply held (albeit it at the time unexplored) beliefs about what I could do and what I could be.
Over time, I realized that these questions and challenges are never fully resolved or overcome. My work, my readings of rabbinic texts, which I never think of as radical or political, are sometimes seen that way by others. Moreover, gender is an inescapable part of identity; my professional life and my religious journey have been shaped by my gender. (I suspect that had my brother chosen the path I chose, his experience would have been very different.)
I don’t believe that the Reform Movement has had a direct impact on my scholarship. Obviously the values and ideology of the movement play an enormous role in the way I think about my teaching; teaching rabbinics to future rabbis and educators requires an awareness of the work they will be doing and how one’s subject will play into that work. My religious journey has also been shaped by my experience growing up in the Reform Movement and my reengagement with the movement years later.
QUESTION: What was it like being the head of the School and a student at the same time?
WEISBERG: It's been a very powerful experience. It has allowed me to be my students' teacher and classmate simultaneously and has allowed me a unique perspective on the program for which I am responsible.
QUESTION: What insights into HUC-JIR did you receive by being a student?
WEISBERG: I think I always appreciated that rabbinic education involves academic learning, professional development, and personal growth. However, going through rabbinical school has made that concrete in a way that no other experience could.
QUESTION: What was the toughest part about going back to school?
WEISBERG: My children teased me mercilessly about my study habits. They thought my habit of highlighting reading assignments and my attention to my papers was hysterical.
Dr. Weisberg received her B.A. at Brandeis University and her M.A. and Ph.D. at The Jewish Theological Seminary, where her doctorate was in Talmud and rabbinics. Before coming to HUC-JIR, Dr. Weisberg taught at the College of William and Mary and the University of Pittsburgh. Her recent book focuses on levirate marriage and constructs of the family in rabbinic Judaism.