Rabbi Wendy Ilene Zierler, Ph.D.
Sigmund Falk Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies
Please tell us about your new book, These Truths We Hold: Judaism in an Age of Truthiness (HUC Press 2022).
My co-editor, Rabbi Joshua Garroway, Ph.D., and I turned to our Jewish heritage for important perspectives on truth: biblical, talmudic, liturgical, scientific, philosophical, satirical, pluralistic, and poetic. What we discovered in the course of writing and editing our book is that truth, typically defined as a verifiable, empirical, or immutable fact, is not the first or highest value in classical Jewish sources. The rabbis, for example, were willing to ignore the most reasonable factual explanation in order to promote the countervailing values of goodness, kindness, or peace. The origin of the Hebrew word “emet” in the root א.מ.ן. suggests the importance above all else of good faith and decency in the arguing or promotion of one’s sense of the truth. In that sense, altruism becomes an essential part of the Jewish conception of truth – protecting one’s sense of the truth not for one’s own sake or advancement but with other people’s well-being in mind, and in response to changing human realities on the ground.
Please tell us about Prooftexts: A Journal of Literary History.
Prooftexts is a leading scholarly journal that was founded 40 years ago by two Jewish Theological Seminary professors. It has been housed at HUC-JIR since 2017 and is co-sponsored by the Crown Center at Northwestern University. It is the foremost journal of Jewish literature in North America, and celebrated its 40th anniversary this past year. Recently Prooftexts hosted a conference at Northwestern University to commemorate the 100th anniversary of S.Y. Agnon’s At The Handles of the Lock (1922). The conference brought together leading Agnon scholars from all over North America and Israel, and was co-sponsored by Agnon House in Jerusalem. As a journal of Jewish Literary History, Prooftexts publishes scholarship dealing with Jewish literature from the Bible to the present, and reflects HUC-JIR’s commitment to a vibrant sense of tradition, innovation, and intellectual life.
Please tell us about your Jewish journey and your journey to HUC-JIR.
I was born in a small town in Western Ontario called Sarnia. My family was the only observant family in this small town Jewish community. When I was five my parents decided to give up their business in this intergenerational furniture store, which my father’s father had started when he first came over to Canada from Galicia. They gave up this business so that my father could stop working on Shabbat and moved to Toronto so they could send at least some of us children to Jewish schools.
At the root of my family experience is people making very major commitments to sustain Jewish life for their family. In my family, I benefited the most from a Jewish perspective from the decision to move because I was five and the youngest, and could study in Jewish schools for the longest.
I studied in Israel for a year after graduating high school. Then I attended Yeshiva University, and after that I went to Princeton University for my Ph.D. in comparative literature, which was Jewish literature and Modern American and English literature.
I have been observant my whole life. I didn’t have any family history in the Reform Movement, but my husband was offered to work in the Hong Kong office of his law firm, and I got a position at the University of Hong Kong. While I was there working at the University of Hong Kong, I was approached by an academic colleague, and was encouraged to apply for this job at HUC-JIR. So I came back and interviewed, and have now been at HUC-JIR since 2001. I received rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Maharat in 2021, and I’ve joked that I’m the first Orthodox Reform woman rabbi with such firm footing in the Reform Movement.
What do you enjoy in your free time?
I like to paint, exercise, cook for my family, and bike ride. I write creatively. I have a MFA in fiction writing, so I have written stories and a novel. I watch a lot of Netflix, and I claim that it’s work because I teach a class on film and theology and TV.