Soul of a Scholar:
A Conversation with New HUC-JIR President David Ellenson
This article was published in Reform Judaism Magazine, Winter 2001
On June 5, 2001, Dr. David Ellenson--I. H. and Anna Grancell Professor of
Jewish Religious Thought at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
in Los Angeles--was named the eighth president of HUC-JIR, succeeding acting
president and provost Dr. Norman J. Cohen. As president, he oversees the academic
and professional training programs for the Reform Movement's rabbis, cantors,
educators, and communal service professionals, as well as graduate programs
for scholars of all faiths.
Ordained at HUC-JIR in New York in 1977, Dr. Ellenson received a Ph.D. from
Columbia University in 1981; he also holds masters degrees from Columbia, HUC-JIR,
and the University of Virginia.
Formerly a pulpit rabbi in Port Washington, NY and Keene, NH, Dr. Ellenson
has also served as visiting professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in
New York, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the Center for Jewish Studies
at UCLA; and as a member of the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Department
at the University of California, Los Angeles. In addition, he is former director
of HUC-JIR's Jerome Louchheim School of Judaic Studies, which offers a full
range of Jewish studies courses to students at the University of Southern California.
The author of three books--Tradition in Transition: Orthodoxy, Halakhah
and the Boundaries of Modern Jewish Identity, Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and
the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy, and Between Tradition and
Culture: The Dialectics of Jewish Religion and Identity in the Modern World--and
more than 200 articles in diverse academic and religious journals, he is currently
writing The Way Into the Varieties of Jewishness, part of a fourteen-volume
series by Jewish Lights.
He and his wife, Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, a chaplain at the Harvard-Westlake
School in Los Angeles, are the parents of Ruth, Micah, Hannah, Naomi, and Raphael.
Rabbi Ellenson was interviewed by RJ editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer.
As HUC-JIR president, you will be the teacher of the next generation of
Reform leaders. Who was your greatest teacher?
I have had many great teachers, among them Dr. Fritz Bamberger, Rabbis Arthur
Hertzberg, Eugene Borowitz, Larry Hoffman, Dr. Jacob Katz, and, from the beginning,
my mother, who was an Orthodox Jew. When I was a teenager, we had an argument
over the question: Was the Torah literally given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai?
After a lot of back and forth, she finally said to me: "Well, David, I'm not
certain that the Torah was literally given by God word for word to Moses at
Mount Sinai. It may have been written by human beings, but these ancestors tried
to understand God's word in such a way that, if God were a human being, God
would be happy to say that he was your friend." And that seems to me just as
good an interpretation of what our tradition strives to be as any I've ever
heard. We may never actually succeed in making God our friend, or having God
as a guest in our home, but at least we are making an effort, which I regard
as not only a noble but a genuinely holy pursuit.
In an article for a book called Jewish Spiritual Journeys, you
wrote: "A sense of distance from my surroundings has always marked me. The description
of such tension has allowed me to hold up a candle to my own soul." When did
you first become aware of this feeling?
I've been aware of it since adolescence. Growing up in Newport News, Virginia,
I was very conscious of the tremendous dissonance between the world of my Orthodox
home and the non-Jewish world outside. Having said that, I don't think I ever
experienced antisemitism in Newport News. In fact, people could not have been
nicer, and we participated fully in the civic and cultural life of the larger
community. Still, I never felt a sense of complete comfort. I believe this sense
of distance is a mark of the Jewish condition in the Diaspora. In fact, I think
such unease characterizes all human beings in one way or another.
Is that a bad thing?
No. I think it's actually quite a good thing. If you identify completely with
the culture in which you live and feel completely at ease, it's unlikely that
you will feel constrained to change that culture in a positive way. I think
some degree of creative alienation is the catalyst for going out into the world
and, quite literally, re-forming it. In Jewish terms, we call this impulse to
action tikkun olam.
Wouldn't the opposite of this formulation be true as well--less alienation,
less commitment to Jewish life?
Yes. As the external negative forces that once reinforced Jewish identity have
weakened, maintaining Jewish identity and tradition has become increasingly
difficult. We live in a time where, for the most part, fourth- and fifth-generation
American Jews have, in effect, become "white folks," as one author put it. The
high rate of intermarriage today means not only that Jews have become highly
acculturated, but that a significant proportion of the larger population sees
us as desirable marriage partners. While this condition creates obvious challenges
to Jewish continuity, it has a positive side as well--people who choose to live
a Jewish life usually do so with a greater degree of intensity than may have
been true of their predecessors who were kept within the Jewish fold by a sort
of ethnic inertia. Although we are witnessing record rates of disaffection from
the Jewish community, simultaneously, within each of the movements--and certainly
within Reform--there is a renaissance in Jewish life. People are striving for
a higher level of Jewish knowledge and commitment in our synagogues. One of
the most interesting developments I've observed has been the rise of the Saturday
morning minyan in Reform congregations throughout North America. Participants
show a remarkable level of enthusiasm for davenen, singing, and serious
Torah learning. Reform Jews are more informed by Jewish values and tradition
today than at any other time in American Jewish history. The center has never
been stronger, but we need to reach people who are on the fringes, those who
rarely, if ever, walk into our synagogues. In an age of limited resources, how
do we provide intensive programs for the committed core, which we must do to
retain their allegiance, and simultaneously program for people who show little
interest in Jewish life? That is the real challenge.
Isn't it the core, historically, that has kept the Jews afloat in good
times and bad?
In his essay, "The Ever-Dying People," Professor Shimon Rawidowicz points out
that in every generation many Jews have felt that they were the last generation
of Jewry, but a "saving remnant" has always defied this prediction; there have
always been people responding creatively so as to assure Jewish continuity.
The challenge of our age--at least in America--is that Jews are accepted to
such a degree that, unless we respond with compelling initiatives, Jews will
disappear in even larger numbers in what is, after all, a voluntaristic society
in which we are highly acculturated and overwhelmingly accepted.
What initiatives do you have in mind?
We have to prepare Jewish professionals who can address the full range of our
Reform constituency--those who are highly committed as well as less committed;
those who are Hebraically knowledgeable as well as those who know little; those
who are more traditional in their practice as well as those who are less so.
To do this they need to be knowledgeable Judaically and skilled in leadership,
education, and organizational transformation. They need to serve the existing
synagogue with its current committed members, even as they reinvigorate worship,
increase the level of Jewish literacy, and challenge people to commit themselves
to social justice. In recent years, under the leadership of President Sheldon
Zimmerman and Provost Norman Cohen, the College-Institute has introduced new
courses and programs in these areas. I intend to continue and hopefully strengthen
these initiatives, which are very much in harmony with the agenda of UAHC President
Rabbi Eric Yoffie.
Do you find that there is more diversity within our Movement today than
in the past?
Yes. Look at the spirited debate before the CCAR adopted the Statement of Principles
of Reform Judaism two years ago in Pittsburgh. The principles of the original
Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 have been internalized by a great many of our people,
whose commitment to the principle of "autonomy" remains virtually absolute.
On the other hand, the adoption of the new principles indicates that more and
more Reform Jews are open to the power of Jewish tradition in guiding their
personal decision-making in ritual and other matters, signaling a renewal of
Jewish spirituality and an ever-increasing appreciation of traditional Jewish
What do you say to Reform Jews who fear that the Reform Movement is moving
The approach to tradition that marks significant sectors of Reform Judaism
today is hardly a return to Jewish Orthodoxy. After all, such affirmations within
our Movement take place against a backdrop of pluralism in which Jewish tradition
is seen as providing a sense of and source for meaning--a compelling framework
for a meaningful religious life. The Reform emphasis on tradition does not occur
within an Orthodox legal context that views such observance principally as a
matter of mutar o assur--permitted or forbidden.
How can we best serve these different factions within our congregations?
I tell my students not to fear diversity. There doesn't have to be only one
type of service. Of course, larger congregations with large budgets are in the
best position to provide alternative worship experiences. On Shabbat, Stephen
Wise Temple in Los Angeles is like a mall, where you can choose from three or
four different minyanim, plus a program for tots, one for grandparents
with grandchildren, and another for mothers and dads with kids. Smaller synagogues
may lack financial resources, but many are already accustomed to strong lay
participation and leadership, assisted by programs such as the College-Institute's
Experiment in Congregational Education.
One area of Jewish life that has deteriorated in recent years is relations
between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox branches of Judaism. Do you see any improvement
on the horizon?
I believe the fact that someone with my background--whose academic work has
concentrated on the development of 19th-century Jewish Orthodoxy and who has
taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the Shalom Hartman
Institute in Jerusalem--has been selected as HUC-JIR president may be emblematic
of an affirmation that our leadership views Reform Judaism as part of the total
polity of the Jewish people--in other words, that a sectarian kind of Reform
Judaism which sets itself apart from klal Yisrael is not the way to go.
But I am not Pollyanna-ish about the future. The Orthodox world is moving toward
the right on a whole host of issues. Principled stances that we've taken on
issues such as homosexuality and patrilineal descent as well as our affirmation
of gender equality are, within large sectors of the Orthodox world, regarded
as anathema. Still, I hope we can appreciate and emphasize a common commitment
to Torah study, the State of Israel, social action, and the fate of persecuted
Jews, all of which can transcend denominational lines.
Which Jewish traditions do you and your family observe at home?
We observe Shabbat--kiddush on Friday night, synagogue attendance, and
havdalah--and kashrut. In addition, Jewish study and matters of
Jewish and communal concern and action mark our home life and practice.
You've said, "I reject the idea that there is a distinction between spirituality
and academic study." What are you seeking in your academic explorations, and
how will this influence the College-Institute?
To me, my work in the field of sociology of religion is not an academic exercise;
it is the conduit to my soul. I'm trying to understand who I am in the world,
and the place of the Jewish people in the world. In this sense I think there
is a convergence between the academic study of religion and its practice in
our daily lives. I see Judaism as an ongoing narrative, with each successive
generation attempting to be faithful to the story it has inherited, but also
feeling the right to add a new chapter to that story. Therefore, I don't need
to apologize that ancestors of mine 2,000 years ago in a patriarchal culture
denied women access to positions of public status and authority. This viewpoint
was part of an ancient patriarchal culture, not the result of God-given commandments.
We therefore have license to reinterpret Judaism in light of our own moral insights.
Indeed, this confidence in our own right to expand the tradition is at the heart
of both Jewish tradition and liberal Jewish faith--and at the center of an HUC-JIR
HUC-JIR is now ordaining as many women as men. What impact does this
shift have on the synagogue?
Now that women have entered the public life of the Jewish people, many concerns
once thought of as domestic have taken on a communal dimension. For example,
congregations are now beginning to realize that the rabbi has a right to a personal
and family life. The very fact that men as well as women are thinking about
such issues reflects a new consciousness. Moreover, the feminist ethic of compassion,
care, and relationships inspires a restructuring of our congregations, nurturing
a significant partnership between the pulpit and a laity knowledgeable in the
wisdom, ethics, and spirituality inherent in Judiasm.
What steps do you think need to be taken to relieve the shortage of rabbis
in our synagogues?
This is probably the most serious problem that I will confront as president.
What has occurred is that our rabbinic graduates have increasingly gone into
areas of Jewish service outside of congregations, such as day schools, federations,
Hillels, chaplaincies, and university positions. In reviewing statistics on
the numbers of rabbis we've ordained since the 1970s, the numbers have not decreased
as much as one might think. In fact, only in one year was there a serious dip.
This year we're back up to 200 rabbinic students, and we'd like to raise that
number. To do so, we need to increase the number of applicants, offer more student
scholarships, and ensure adequate compensation for those who enter synagogue
professions. We should be recruiting younger people in our congregations and
UAHC camps--which is already happening through UAHC's Meitav Youth Fellowship
program, a competitive fellowship which offers the most highly engaged and intellectually
curious Reform high school students serious Jewish learning and leadership training
through intensive Hebrew, study in Israel, mentored and online learning, and
more. If we provide intense Jewish education to thirty, then sixty, and eventually
one hundred kids a year, bring them to Israel for the summer, organize several
weekend reunions while they're in college, and invite them to Israel once again
for an intensive learning experience, I think many of these people will choose
careers in the rabbinate or cantorate, education or synagogue administration.
Even if they do not, we will have created a cadre of very well-schooled congregational
leaders. We also need to address what is an increasingly available applicant
pool--middle-aged persons who are seeking second careers. Given longer life
expectancies, people are choosing such career paths in record numbers, and Christian
seminaries throughout the U.S. have begun to accommodate programs to their special
needs and experiences. We at HUC-JIR must do no less.
What other goals have you set for the College-Institute?
I would like HUC-JIR to recapture some of the intellectual elan and leadership
that the major Jewish seminaries in America enjoyed prior to the explosion of
Jewish studies on secular university campuses in the 1970s. My fantasy is to
find sufficient funding to create an institute for advanced studies that would
rival those at Princeton and Hebrew University. That is not to say we would
be concerned with academic study solely for its own sake; we would also bring
together our best minds--leading academics, professionals, and lay people--to
chart out novel directions for our Movement. I invite all our people to join
with me and the people who work at the College-Institute as partners in this
How do you feel about leaving your work of the past twenty-five years
for this new position?
Before I decided to seek the presidency, I thought about the people whom I've
studied my entire life--Kaufman Kohler, Solomon Schechter, Abraham Geiger, Zacharias
Frankel--all serious academics who also played major roles in the formation
of institutional Jewish life in the modern era. It seemed to me that the moment
had come to make a sort of quantum leap in this direction. I do have regrets
about not being able to continue teaching and writing scholarly work at the
rate I've produced up to now--but having said that, this is a chance not only
to study history but to help make it. Rabbi Eugene Borowitz has taught me about
covenantal responsibility--what it means to be partners with God in the work
of creation. It appears that the time has come to fulfill a religious duty and
vocation instilled in me by my teachers.