Rabbi Dr. Richard Hidary is an associate professor of Judaic Studies at Stern College for Women and Revel Graduate School, where he teaches courses in Bible, Second Temple Jewish History, Dead Sea Scrolls, Talmud, Midrash, and Jewish ethics. He received his PhD from NYU, and his rabbinic ordination from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
Racheli Moskowitz: Can you tell us a little bit about your background, and what led you to Yeshiva University?
Richard Hidary: I grew up in Brooklyn, in the Sephardic community. I went to Yeshiva of Flatbush for elementary school and high school, I studied in Yeshivat Har Etzion after high school, and then I came to Yeshiva University as an undergrad for a Computer Science major. I really enjoyed my time here. Afterwards, I studied for Semikha, and then did a PhD in NYU. And when I finished, my adviser, Professor Shiffman, recommended that I send my CV to YU. I got in contact with Professor Kanarfogel who treated me with great kindness since the first time we met. I got very lucky to be able to land the job right away.
RM: What was the impact of Professor Shiffman and others as mentors for you, and your current role as a mentor and teacher?
RH: Professor Schiffman’s definitely been a mentor for me, both academically in the courses I’ve taken with him and on a personal level. He showed us, for example, how to appreciate older 20th century scholarship, because they’re always asking fundamental questions. He is a mentor in terms of intellectual approaches, but also in terms of personal decisions and matters. Until today, I call him or meet him whenever I am working on a new project or making a life decision and he’s always been an important guide for me.
I appreciate all that my teachers have done for me–inside the classroom and outside. I hope that I can help my students in the same way.
RM: You have previously taught at Brooklyn College and NYU; what was it like for you to transition between teaching at secular institutions to a religious one?
RH: At Brooklyn College, I actually taught an Intro to Judaism course; I had prepared this whole academic syllabus, but it turned out that most of the people in the course were either Jews with little background who wanted to learn more about Judaism for personal reasons, or, sometimes non-Jews who were dating Jews, or thinking about converting. In that sense, it was almost a conversion class! I actually had to adjust the syllabus in the middle because they didn’t necessarily want to know about some ancient artifact–they wanted to know about Judaism today. Even though it was in secular college, it still had religious overtones. No matter what the institution, people are interested in the subject for various reasons; as a teacher, I want to tap into those interests.
The great thing about teaching at YU is that students have so much background. They can read Hebrew, they know tons of concepts; you can really hit the ground running and get into deep textual analysis and intellectual discussions that you wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else at the undergraduate level.
Often, the way to appreciate an academic point is to look at things the students have previously learned, and help them trace where different ideas came from. I think a lot of students appreciate being able to bring more structure and clarity to the “vegetable soup” of information they’ve studied along the way.
RM: Do you personally ever find a disparity between your religion and your academic Judaic study?
RH: Sure, but I see my model as the Rambam; his goal was to understand truth, but always to ensure it made sense in a spiritually uplifting context. So for someone like Rambam, if there’s a contradiction between science and Torah–well, God created the world and also gave the Torah! If there’s a conflict, it means we’re missing something. He’d use that disparity as an opportunity to delve deeper into the matter and gain a better appreciation for it. Once you do that, everybody is better off; each source of truth can help us make sure we’re interpreting the other in the right way.
Contradiction is a productive source for appreciating greater knowledge. The Rambam never chose between between science and Torah; he always chose to interpret them to make sure everything fits together. I believe there’s always a way to find an explanation.
RM: You have your BA in Computer Science from YU. Did you intend for that to be your primary focus at first? Have you used those skills in your studies today?
RH: I love computer science–I always loved math and science so the subject really spoke to me. When I took it, Computer Science wasn’t really helpful in getting a programming job because it was all theoretical. I studied other programming and did a couple of small jobs and summer work–I liked it a lot. But for a career, I knew there were millions of other programmers out there, and I’d just be another programmer there.
My other love and passion was studying Gemara, which has a similar logical progression to Computer Science. Once, we were in Rav Rosensweig’s shiur uptown, and a lot of the same people were also Computer Science majors. And we thought of how to make a computer model of his lectures, because they were always so structured. I think Computer Science also helped me become a better writer; in Computer Science, you have to introduce a variable before you use it, and ensure that variable is used consistently and clearly. It’s the same thing in writing; you have to introduce the concept before you can use it, lead the reader step by step in your argument, and clearly delineate the beginning, middle, and end.
For my plan of study, I was always in the Judaic studies track, including my Semikha. But there was one time, in the middle of my dissertation research; I’d had most of the outline done, and I guess I needed a break. I took about a month and I started a website–after the month, I got it out of my system and went back to complete my dissertation.
RM: You’ve accomplished so much in the academic world; how did you find time and motivation to balance Rabbinic ordination, teaching, fellowships, doctorate and personal life?
RH: I love what I do; I love teaching, thinking about new ideas, and sharing them in the classroom and in writing. I never felt like it was work or drudgery; it’s what I like to do, and I think that makes a big difference.
And they compliment each other. Often, I’ll teach the same thing in synagogue or in the college; insights I get from one group of students, I’ll go and share with the next. For me, they all work together well.
RM: What goes into planning your curriculum?
RH: When I was first hired, Professor Kanarfogel needed someone to teach Jewish history of the second Beit HaMikdash period and the Dead Sea Scrolls. I was assigned those, but I was happy to teach them. Being a student of Professor Shiffman, this was something that I already liked very much. These are the standard courses.
Sometimes I’ll teach a topic I’m researching: preparing for class and getting students’ feedback helps in that research. And students will sometimes ask for a certain course; if I feel competent enough, I’ll teach it.
RM: Do you have a particular course you enjoy teaching the most?
RH: I think my favorite course each semester is more dependent on the group of students than the content of the class. Sometimes there’s a core group in a class that is very motivated and is asking challenging questions, keeping the discussion interesting and helping me think of new things. I enjoy those classes the most.
RM: From your extensive list of publications, are there any individuals works you’ve found particularly impactful, or meaningful to you?
RH: Probably the thing I’ve written that’s gotten the most readers was an article on Sephardic approaches to conversion. It’s a contemporary topic and there are so many different opinions. One Rabbi reached out to me and said it changed the approach he took to performing conversions in his own community.
My favorites though, are works in appreciating the Talmud–how it approaches controversy and dialogue, and what that means about truth and interpretations. Those works may be less practical but I think they’re more interesting.
RM: Were there people who particularly inspired you to pursue academic Judaism?
RH: I studied at Gush Etzion, which shares a building with the Herzog college. Taking a number of courses at Herzog, where they introduce a lot of elements of academic study was probably my first introduction to the field. For example, studying with Rabbi Avi Walfish there, who showed the literary structures in the Mishnah, or how to appreciate an aggadah. Whereas most of the time, yeshivas skip aggadah, he showed how rich they were. I developed a relationship with him, and with Dr. Mordechai Sabato who taught there. Also, Rabbi Moshe Shamah, my Rabbi, encouraged me to pursue a degree.
RM: Do you think there should there be more academic Judaic studies in the religious world?
RH: There’s definitely a disconnect between the whole academic world studying the very same texts as in the yeshivot and day schools. It makes sense, because they’re working with a different set of goals, ones which aren’t necessarily compatible. But one of the things I’ve always wanted to do is to try and bridge that gap to some degree.
On the website I developed, teachtorah.org, colleagues and I developed some curriculum to try and take the best insights from academic Tanakh study which are appropriate for a classroom, and translate them for students and teachers. We want them to be able to understand and implement it, and enhance their appreciation for Tanakh.
I don’t think that gap should be fully bridged; academic study is trying to uncover what that ancient period or person is about–that’s an important goal for a historian. But for someone in a school or synagogue context, there’s a different set of goals. You’re molding a child, and want them to leave with a set of values and worldviews. They’re not the same; it’s a balance–but there’s still a lot that can be gained from making the connection between the two worlds of study.
RM: Do you have any advice for students who are looking to pursue the world of academic Judaism, and to find that balance between the two worlds?
RH: Read! There’s a lot of fantastic authors out there–find your interest. The more you read, the more you’ll gain an appreciation for the methods these authors use, and know what to look out for as a good argument or a bad argument; you’ll see where different authors are coming from. These are skills you need, no matter what area you study. Get recommendations for what to read in your field of interest. Don’t accept blindly, from any field.