Rabbi Joseph Skloot, Ph.D.
Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Assistant Professor of Modern Jewish Intellectual History, HUC/New York
Tell us about what you teach and about your latest research.
I teach Jewish History and Jewish Religious Thought, and Jewish Philosophy and Theology. I teach in the rabbinical school, the cantorial school, the education school, and I have a few students in the Pines School of Graduate Studies. The courses I teach are introductory and advanced courses in Jewish History, particularly dealing with the early modern and modern periods from 1492 to the mid-twentieth century. When it comes to philosophy and theology, I teach courses that deal with big questions in Jewish life and meaning, for instance, how do we conceive of and understand God? Why is there suffering in the world? What obligations does the Torah confer on the Jewish people? What is Judaism?
My research deals with more specific areas in early modern Jewish history. I write and research about the impact of printing, its impact on Jewish culture and Hebrew texts. I study how that technology and the work of printers created the standard texts of Jewish life: the canonical text, the iconic texts, the best sellers.
What does it feel like to have been a rabbinical student here and now be on the faculty?
It’s a tremendous honor to be a colleague of my teachers. And it’s more than that, because my grandfather was an alum of HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, ordained in 1932, and I spent most of my childhood hearing about his days as a student at HUC-JIR and his training, which at the time was eight years long. Returning to HUC-JIR is a homecoming, and it is also an opportunity for me to think about how the lessons I learned as a student and my experience as a congregational rabbi might be translated into teaching in my classroom.
What is one of your favorite memories during your time as a student at HUC-JIR?
I met my wife at HUC-JIR and I proposed to her shortly after homiletics class as a fourth-year student. My year in Israel was extraordinary, I loved the community and how we were able to study and live and learn fully, all of us together in an entirely Jewish environment, a Hebraic environment. I was in the first class of Tisch Rabbinical fellows, and the community that we created and the learning that we did during those initial three years was also really extraordinary.
How does your being a rabbi and a professor shape your relationship with your students?
They care a lot about what I say and what I teach probably too much. I have a little more authority because I have gone through the academic program that they’re going through and I followed the career path that many of them will follow. I think they know that I am deeply committed to klal yisrael, I am deeply committed to Judaism. It’s not just an academic interest; I have staked my life on it. That’s not to say other faculty members who aren’t rabbis don’t feel that way, but my students know this from the very beginning when they study with me. And I think I also bring some of the pastoral dimension to my teaching; my students know that I care about them in all 360 degrees, not just about their academic achievements.
What does it mean to you to serve as one of the inaugural Panken Professors?
It’s a gigantic honor to be a Panken Professor. Aaron was my teacher, and he was a guide because he also was a congregational rabbi and then pursued academic training and came to serve the college. On my journey, I regularly consulted with him. He was there to give me courage and support. And Aaron is the reason I came to the college, because he made it possible for me to join the faculty. He recruited me and convinced me that I could have the most impact on the future of the Jewish people in this role, as opposed to the role that I was in, as a congregational rabbi. And it was immensely painful when he died; it remains an open wound. I feel that I came to HUC-JIR to be part of the unpacking of his vision, and then he tragically died and I grieve for all that was possible.
Aaron, being an electrical engineer, was always interested in technology and science, and he introduced me to a book called “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn, and that book has shaped my understanding of how printing has shaped Jewish culture.
What made you decide to return to HUC-JIR as a professor after serving as a pulpit rabbi in DC?
Aaron, and other colleagues and teachers of mine, said you can shape the future of Judaism and Reform Judaism by being on the faculty and training the next generation of Jewish leaders. You cannot simply teach them history and philosophy, but you can shape their formation; you can pray with them — they will become your congregation. And that congregation will always be growing and changing as new students keep coming. And that remains compelling and the reason that I do this. I loved being a congregational rabbi, I love the experience of living as part of a Jewish community, and preaching and teaching and being part of people’s life passages. But I have found that being on the faculty is not entirely different.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I have two kids, one who’s eight and one who’s two, and my wife Erin is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Sinai in Summit, NJ. We all love cooking together, going to the playground, and traveling the world.