Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor members of our organization who were ordained 50 years ago or more. In advance of CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, we share a blog from Rabbi David Ruderman.
I must admit I was initially quite ambivalent about attending HUC-JIR some fifty-five years ago. I came to the College with significant Hebraic skills and knowledge of Jewish history, and I was already certain I wanted to be a historian, not a communal rabbi as my father had been. But I needed more rabbinic skills, and I was destined to have the great scholar, Shmuel Atlas, z”l, as my teacher of Talmud. HUC-JIR allowed me to accelerate my studies and even offered me the opportunity to begin my doctorate at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem at the same time I was a rabbinic student, and then supported me in Jerusalem after I was a rabbi. In the end, the greatest reward of my ordination was to have my late father, Rabbi Abraham Ruderman, bless me at the ceremony at Central Synagogue.
My father always insisted that the most important degree I would earn was the rabbinic one. I grew to appreciate what he meant in viewing my almost fifty years of university teaching as an extension of my rabbinate. What greater joy was there for me than to study Jewish texts, to reconstruct the Jewish past, and to write books that laid out my fresh ideas on the importance of what I had studied! How meaningful it has been to encounter thousands of students in my classes at Maryland, Yale, and Penn, and to guide their discovery of our people’s lives and spiritual treasures! And how exciting it has been to create programs in Jewish studies at every university with which I was affiliated; to build institutions of Jewish learning which hopefully will continue for generations to come!
I never abandoned my love of K’lal Yisrael, the synagogue, and the Jewish community. My goal was always to connect town and gown, to bring scholars into the synagogue sanctuary, to connect them with rabbis and laypersons, and to demonstrate that academic learning [wissenschaft] is not devoid of spirituality and emotional energy. Along these lines, I visited congregations all over the U.S. to teach and share my own versions of Torah; I even produced two courses on Jewish history for the Great Teachers Courses that still circulate even several decades after they were created.
Our present world offers serious and perplexing challenges to human existence, and we Jews are hardly immune from them while facing squarely our own particular ones. In old age, I am hardly a prognosticator of the Jewish future, only a mere historian who has tried to excavate the Jewish past in light of the present world in which I have lived. But I do know one thing which my abba taught me about our precarious condition then and now: the rabbi still executes a critical function in the performance of Jewish life. A rabbi learns in order to teach and in order to act. By studying, applying, and living Torah, the rabbi remains—in the language of the great historian Salo W. Baron (1942)—the chief protagonist in the drama of Jewish communal survival. I am proud to have been a small part of that drama with my own classmates and we proudly pass on our legacy to the next generation of rabbanim b’Yisrael.
Rabbi David B. Ruderman is the Meyerhoff Professor of Modern Jewish History and Darivoff Director at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate.
We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.