Haaretz - March 4, 2004
The Reform synagogue where one might learn about kashrut
By Yair Sheleg
The selection of Rabbi David Ellenson to be president of Hebrew
Union College illustrates the growing tendency of the Reform movement
to move closer to the Orthodox tradition. "You can see it in
the prayers," said Ellenson in an interview with Haaretz.
"Today a lot more prayers are being said in Hebrew and more
people are wearing a tallit (prayer shawl)," he said. "Still,
prayers in the Reform movement are much less formal and less connected
to the traditional text."
Ellenson says there is also a growing trend toward observing more
of the traditions such as the kashrut food laws and the Sabbath.
In recent years there has been significant growth in the number
of Jewish day schools run by Reform communities, rather than the
movement's traditional education format, in which children go to
public schools during the week, and get their Jewish education at
There are now 25 such schools throughout the United States,"
says Ellenson, "and almost all of them have sprung up in the
past several years." The changes are also felt in the synagogues,
which Ellenson says are offering far more adult education classes
than in the past.
"People want to learn more, to know more," says Ellenson.
"I would say that there are actually two parallel developments
- on the one hand, there are many who are unfortunately totally
neglecting their Jewishness, while on the other, the people who
are staying affiliated have a feeling that their Judaism is a more
serious matter than ever before in the history of American Jewry."
Ellenson says that even so, the new trend toward tradition does
not indicate any intention to change liberal decisions the movement
made in the past. Thus, for example, he feels that the controversial
decision to recognize a person as being Jewish if only the father
is Jewish will not be altered.
"Although the reality has proved that that decision did not
change the assimilation rate, the desire to reach out to the children
of couples in which only the father is Jewish has not changed."
(One reason for the decision was a desire to keep the children of
mixed couples from disappearing into assimilation).
Ellenson says there will be no change in the movement's support
for same-sex marriages. "There are a lot of rabbis among us
who believe that homosexuality is in a person's nature so there
is no reason not to approve such marriages," explains Ellenson.
"As a movement, we have no binding position in this matter
and each rabbi can act according to his understanding, although
the movement is willing to approve such marriages. I myself support
them, based on the assumption that people do not choose their sexual
proclivities, and if a same-sex couple falls in love we have not
only the right but the obligation to sanctify their union."
On the other side of the personal status spectrum, the movement
has a much more traditional view of the necessity for a religious
divorce, in order to avoid the problem of mamzerim (illegitimates)
for whom there is no solution in Jewish law.
Ellenson's biography is unique in the Reform rabbi landscape, and
not only because he does not come from a Reform home. "I grew
up in Newport, Virginia," says 56-year-old Ellenson. "There
were about 700 Jewish families and our home was traditional Conservative.
The synagogue was Orthodox, and that was basically the only Jewish
identity I knew."
In high school Ellenson rebelled. As a sports enthusiast, particularly
of basketball, he found it hard to come to terms with the prohibition
against playing on the Sabbath. "I did not know anything about
the Reform movement," he says. "I simply did not want
to observe the commandments."
It was only while pursuing his master's degree in religious studies
and contemplating modern Christian thought, that he began studying
Judaism too. Ellenson spent the 1971-72 school year in Israel, on
Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek.
"That year made me think about the centrality of Judaism in
my life," recalls Ellenson. "Then I heard about a Reform
rabbinic ordination program that included a year in Israel and I
decided to stay here for another year and to enroll in the program.
I was not necessarily planning to become a rabbi, but I wanted to
learn about Judaism and it suited me that the studies did not require
Ellenson stayed the additional year in Israel and on his return
to New York completed the program and became a Reform rabbi. At
the same time Ellenson was doing his doctoral thesis on Rabbi Azriel
Hildesheimer, who founded the Orthodox Rabbinic Seminary in Germany
"The subject suited me," says Ellenson, "because
Hildesheimer was coping with the question that faces me - how to
respond to changing times without losing Jewish identity. I think
that ultimately all the streams [of Judaism] face the same question.
It's just that their answers are different.
"What constantly occupies my thoughts is how to respond to
the changing times without assimilating. On the one hand I am troubled
by the question of how to attract those who are on the very edges
of Judaism, because I see surveys that show that when people identify
themselves as Reform Jews, they usually also raise their children
as Jews. It is therefore important to draw the mixed couples toward
us. On the other hand, I believe that it is important for the very
open and liberal people like ourselves to define limits, because
I am worried about synchretism - creating a religion blended with
Christianity, which will not really be Judaism anymore."
On the background of the developing closeness between the practices
of the Reform movement and traditional Judaism, there are some in
the U.S. who are talking of the dissolution of the division into
streams and a number of synagogues attended by young people are
explicitly defining themselves as not belonging to any movement.
Ellenson feels that it is still too early to talk about doing away
with the division, but agrees that the distinction between the streams
is less pronounced than in the past.
"The overwhelming majority of synagogues are still affiliated
with one of the streams," he says. "Even with respect
to rabbinic students, there is still a clear difference between
those who go to study in each of the streams, particularly between
the Orthodox and the others, or to be more precise, between those
who observe the commandments and those who don't."
Ellenson says the new atmosphere also includes a certain bridging
between streams. This year, for example, Ellenson, a Reform rabbi,
was invited to meet students at Yeshiva University, the main institute
for training modern Orthodox rabbis in the U.S.
"I think this was the first time the president of Hebrew Union
ever received such an invitation," says Ellenson. "I would
imagine that many of the students did not come to the meeting, but
there were over 30 men there and we had a serious discussion. All
in all one could say they respected me."
This gesture is perhaps that most daring, considering the hostility
between the Orthodox and the Reform, but it was not the only one.
"The guest of honor at the commencement exercises for our rabbinic
students two years ago was [Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor]
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, and this year the guest of honor will be Rabbi
David Hartman." Hartman is the founder of Jerusalem's Shalom
Hartman Institute, and is identified with liberal Orthodoxy.
Ellenson plans to use his position as president of the Hebrew Union
College mainly in order to "deepen the knowledge of my students.
I would like them to be on a higher level of learning right when
they enter the college, both in Judaic studies and in their command
of Hebrew." Ellenson himself speaks fluent Hebrew.
"One of the programs that I therefore want to promote is a
preparatory program for studies at the college, particularly for
anyone who does not have a previous background in Judaic studies,
even if this means extending their rabbinic studies from five years
to seven. A command of Hebrew is essential for rabbis, because without
it they cannot become proficient in the texts."
Ellenson says he concurs on this matter with the movement's charismatic
leader, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, and there are no differences of approach
between the political and religious leaders of the World Reform
Movement. "If you were to put Yoffie and myself in the same
room, I think you would find we have almost identical positions
on the spiritual questions of Torah study and religious ritual."
The differences, says Ellenson, are in the political sphere. Yoffie
is a leftist who, unlike most leaders of American Jewry, does not
hesitate to publicly criticize the Israeli government.
"I am not a leftist," says Ellenson. "From that
perspective, my political views do not represent the movement's
views, but I do not represent the movement in that sphere, so I
leave the public remarks in such matters to others."