Alum Spotlight: Rabbi Richard S. Sarason, Ph.D. '74

Rabbi Richard S. Sarason, Ph.D. ’74
Director, Pines School of Graduate Studies
The Deutsch Family Professor of Rabbinics and Liturgy

Rabbi Richard Sarason HeadshotPlease describe your journey to HUC.
As a high school student growing up in Detroit, I was active in my temple youth group at Temple Emanu-El, particularly on the Religious Committee. I was active in leading and creating services, and active musically. I also participated at the regional level with Michigan State Temple Youth. I briefly considered the rabbinate. In college, at Brandeis University, I was active in Hillel and also had broad academic interests. What united the two and clinched things for me was 6 months of study in Israel at Brandeis’s Jacob Hiatt Institute in July-December, 1967 (immediately following the Six-Day War). I fell in love with the country, the Hebrew language (prior to Israel, I had only a bar mitzvah-level training in Hebrew), and the study of Jewish history and texts, which I now discovered could by studied in a sophisticated adult and academic manner. I continued this study during my remaining time at Brandeis. By the time I applied to HUC/Cincinnati during my senior year of college, I knew that my career goal was primarily academic, in the study of Judaism. At the same time, I wanted rabbinical training as part of my personal growth as a Jew and as a person. HUC’s rabbinical program has always been open to people with a variety of Jewish career goals, including academia, and the academic training that I received in rabbinical school here was at a high level. It prepared me very well for Ph.D. work.

After ordination in 1974, I immediately entered the Ph.D. program in History of Religions: Judaism, with a focus on Late Antiquity, in the Department of Religious Studies at Brown University, working with Prof. Jacob Neusner. HUC had indicated that they were interested in having me join the faculty here. Brown also expressed that interest. I wanted the opportunity to continue my work at Brown, indeed, the experience I had for three years as a faculty member in a university department, teaching undergraduates and graduate students, was extremely valuable for my subsequent work at HUC as a faculty member in Cincinnati. What made HUC/Cincinnati particularly attractive to me as a career destination was the presence here of the Klau Library’s world-class collection of Judaica and Hebraica (I occasionally needed to borrow materials from the Klau while in graduate school when neither Brown’s nor Brandeis’s libraries owned the items). Also attractive to me was the opportunity to teach both rabbinical and graduate students and to learn collegially now from my former professors. Over time, I have also had occasion to make use of the extraordinary resources of the American Jewish Archives.

Why did you choose academic life as your career path?
I always had academic interests — I love to learn, and teaching (sharing and facilitating learning and discovery with others) is an extension of that. While I enjoyed my experiences in student bi-weeklies in rabbinical school and still enjoy leading services, officiating at lifecycle rituals, etc., my passion is really for teaching and learning. That’s also my personality — I have a profound need to understand more deeply myself and others, our world, and the historical, culturally-constructed contexts in which we operate.

How have you mentored your students in both the rabbinical and graduate studies tracks?
I have mentored students in both tracks with care for, and interest in, their individual personalities and aspirations. I try to be a good listener and encourage their growth and discovery. I try to give them options so that they can pursue the paths that interest them while exposing them to other paths that they might wish to learn about and consider. I try to be supportive and to lace serious study with humor. I always let my passion for learning and for the material show, so that it might kindle some sparks in others. I try to model the engagement, skills, aptitudes, and attitudes (including a profound curiosity about how things and people work, and, hopefully, an openness and humility about the extent and limits of my own knowledge) that I want my students to master and internalize. Above all, I try to build bridges and to connect students to additional learning and professional development opportunities. The basic relational and mentoring goals are the same in both tracks. The specifics sometimes differ because of the different professional goals of the two tracks. Nonetheless, a major goal of the rabbinical program is to educate and train Jewishly and Hebraically literate rabbis, and that kind of literacy, with its attendant interpretive skills, is basically the same for both rabbinical and graduate students.

Please describe the impact of your graduate students in the larger world.
As a faculty member (beyond my current administrative position as director of the Pines School of Graduate Studies), I have interacted with graduate students at a variety of levels — course instructor, academic advisor, examiner on comprehensive exams, dissertation reader — but not with all students at all levels. Some of the Ph.D. students I have worked with are rabbis who hold congregational positions and do adjunct teaching as well. Some have published articles in scholarly journals; some have published books. Other former students are tenured or tenure-track professors at public or private universities and colleges (some of these under Christian auspices) or seminaries. They tend to be well published and well represented in their fields at academic conferences and in professional associations. Many of the latter have indicated to me how much of what they learned here, studying with rabbinical students, has profoundly influenced the way they teach and present Judaism and Jewish texts to their students. Some have expressed particular appreciation for what they learned from what and how I teach and mentor.

Please describe the impact of your rabbinical students in the Jewish world.
I have been teaching rabbinical students now for 43 years (44, including the year I taught first-year rabbinical students in Jerusalem while I was an advanced student there, and more still if we include informal mentoring of underclass students while I was an advanced student in Cincinnati). Those students are now rabbis in various positions throughout the Jewish world internationally. The nice thing about teaching at HUC is the ability to form lifelong friendships and collegial relationships with former students — we still interact over Jewish learning and Jewish living.

Describe HUC in one word: Home.