Recollections of Wacholder and the Dead Sea Scrolls

An Ask Noah Exclusive Report:

My Personal Friendship with Ben Zion Wacholder,

Pioneer Scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls

– Part I –

By our Noahide friend, Brian Daniel Schuh

How Ben Zion Wacholder became a friend of our family

I was born in 19’76 C.E. My mother had attended Miami University and earned a degree in English Literature. One of her professors, Dr. Elizabeth Krukowsky, became a good friend of my mother. After Rabbi Prof. Ben Zion Wacholder’s first wife died in 19’90 and the traditional year of mourning had passed, he married Elizabeth. That is how he became a friend of my mother.

At that time, I already had quit going to churches. It was during March 30 – April 1, 19’91, that I had some kind of breakdown and had spent a month in a hospital. After this breakdown, I did not go back to church. I was in the midst of a spiritual and doctrinal dilemma when my mother decided to take me to meet Rabbi Wacholder, whom we knew as “Rabbi Ben.” While my mother and Elizabeth were busy talking upstairs, I would speak privately with Rabbi Ben. My first encounter with him was brief and brought everything into clarity. I said, “Rabbi, the trinity doctrine doesn’t make any sense.” He replied, “No, it doesn’t.” That was that, and I rejected the doctrine of a trinity.

Rabbi Ben was always asking my mother if I was reading good books. She was always buying books that she thought were thought provoking. These included:

  • “The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception,” about how the Roman Catholic Church propagated a whole theory about what the Dead Sea scrolls meant for their doctrine, without allowing access to the scrolls for scholars of other faiths to create other theories or interpretations.
  • “The Nag Hammadi Library,” a collection of Gnostic texts that were discovered in 19’45, near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi. They were probably buried sometime around 370 C.E. A partial translation appeared in Cairo in 19’56, with the completely revised edition published in 19’88.

Rabbi Ben, the Scholar

Although some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered around the same time period as the Nag Hammadi Library, beginning in 19’47, many years would pass before even the majority of the official editions of the Scrolls would be published. If the Nag Hammadi Library could be published so quickly, why was it taking so long to publish the Dead Sea Scrolls? The answer lies in the difference in their significance to the Catholic Church.

Scholars were appointed to interpret and publish the scrolls and became known as the International Team. John Allegro was the first British representative to be invited to work on the Team, which was appointed in 19’53. He was also the first to publish all of the scrolls in his possession. Allegro believed that everyone should have access to the information within the texts as soon as possible.

Allegro’s enthusiasm put him into conflict with the other scholars. He had texts ready to publish in the 19’60’s, yet not much else happened for another several decades. Allegro is given credit for putting many important manuscripts in the hands of the people and inspiring research into the scrolls. There were also several doctrinal conflicts between Allegro and the International Team. They included controversy regarding the Copper Scroll, and false allegations that he had leaked information to the press. Perhaps the major conflict was that the Catholic priests on the team were upset due to Allegro’s differing beliefs surrounding Essenism and the early Church.

The outcome of this conflict was that priests of the Catholic Church waged a press war against Allegro and effectively destroyed his credibility and career. Having been asked to leave the International Team and his credibility ruined, he chose a different line of scholarship – philology. An agnostic with no religious agenda, he was quoted as saying, “The Church can destroy my credibility and my career, but when the scrolls are published, there won’t be a Church left.”

How did the Dead Sea Scrolls affect the Catholic Church? Jewish scholars with enlightening information from the scrolls were able to force Pope Gregory to say that Mary was a maiden and not necessarily a virgin at the time when she conceived. The Pope agreed to publish a revised Roman Catholic Bible disassociating the word “virgin” from Mary. Although the publishing of the Dead Sea Scrolls did not destroy the Church, it affected the doctrine of the Church in this manner. The Pope stated that it could take up to twelve years to complete the research to revise the Roman Catholic Bible, but the revised Bible has not yet been published.

For forty years, the manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls were housed at the Rockefeller Museum in Israel. The Vatican was accused of withholding them, and their scholars were possessive and secretive. Less than 100 of the manuscripts had been published. Other scholars believed that the delay in translating and publishing the manuscripts was due to selfishness, alcoholism, and disease and death of the scholars who had been working on them. Also, the scrolls were kept in substandard conditions, including being exposed to sunlight, heat, and humidity, causing vital texts to be destroyed.

In 19’88, the museum made available thirty copies of the concordances, and Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati received one from the Huntington Library in California in 19’89. A couple of U.S. researchers had reason to believe that Rabbi Ben, like John Allegro, wanted all scholars to have access to the manuscripts, but strict guidelines were in place for the thirty concordances. Therefore, Rabbi Ben ordered one of his graduate students to obtain them.

Rabbi Ben’s student then programmed a computer and assisted him with reconstructing the unpublished texts of more than 500 scrolls with the use of a computer known as the “Rabbi Computer,” which was a charitable donation. Although Rabbi Ben had a progressive eye disease and was almost entirely blind, with the assistance of his student, his studies progressed more quickly than his eyesight deteriorated.

Rabbi Ben was swiftly faulted for “robbing” the scrollery. Some scholars accused him of holding up research for generations to come due to his achieved accuracy rate of “only” 80%. I personally commend him for achieving that high an accuracy rate, due to the obstacles he had to overcome.  He said, “If I do not do this, I will die before I read these scrolls.” The result of his study was titled “A Preliminary Edition of the Unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls,” published in 19’91 by the Biblical Archaeology Society.

Until that time, “The Dawn of Qumran,” published by Rabbi Ben in 19’83, was a valuable resource on the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, with the further research that went into publishing those additional Dead Sea Scrolls, some of Rabbi Ben’s earlier conclusions had turned out to be incorrect. When confronted, he said, “So, I was wrong,” and he was commended for his humility.

Rabbi Ben, the Man (from my fragmented memories)

The time I spent with Rabbi Ben was both a great learning experience and an entertaining one. He inspired me to study Judaism, which I continue to study to this day, over twenty years later. He also encouraged me to learn Hebrew, but I have yet to tackle that endeavor.

Rabbi Ben strongly believed in life-long learning. While I was again hospitalized in 19’93 for a few months, he and his wife Elizabeth came to visit me. I had been exercising and learning a little about martial arts, which is what some of the patients liked to do. Rabbi Ben was trying to speak with me, but Elizabeth, a very loving and devoted wife, was saying, “Rabbi, Sweetie, my sweet Rabbi,” as she patted him on the shoulder. He said, “Let me talk to the boy!” And he said to me, “Don’t strength your body; strengthen your mind.”

During some of my visits to his home, Rabbi Ben spoke freely about his life from the time he fled Poland in 19’42 at the age of 18, dressed as a Gentile, with the name Waclaw Kaczinski that was forged from a Gentile’s birth certificate. He told me that an old Jew gave him the money to get away from the village before the Nazis took people away, but he was robbed because he was so loud with excitement about having the money. Then he was able to get a second Jew to give him the needed get-away money, just in time.

Rabbi Ben and Elizabeth came to visit me at my first apartment when I was eighteen. At that time I was a dreamer, and when he asked what I wanted to do for work, I said, “I want to run a campground where all the homeless can camp out, and we’ll have food delivered to them.” I asked him, “Will you bless my endeavor?” He said, “I will bless you.” Then he had Elizabeth lead his hands to the top of my head since he could not see, and he said, “Brian, stand up.” I stood up and he said a blessing in Hebrew over me and then translated it.  He then asked if there was anything he could do for me. I said, “I need twenty dollars to buy a carton of cigarettes.” He pulled a bill from his pocket and asked Elizabeth, “What is this bill?” She said, “That’s a twenty, Sweetie.” He gave me the bill and said, “Quit smoking. It’s not good for you.” He explained that as a younger man he had smoked heavily because it was easy to light up while he studied the Talmud.  However, he eventually quit.

Other interactions with Rabbi Ben were light-hearted. He was humorous when it came to the topic of food. He was very fond of soup, and I had never been to his house without the housekeeper serving it to him while it was still extremely hot. My mother asked, “Isn’t that too hot, Ben?” With a smile, he replied, “Soup can never be too hot. At 212 degrees, it would evaporate!” One had to be careful not to get burned, carrying his hot soup to him in his sukkah booth!

Author’s personal photo of Ben Zion Wacholder