A Bridge Across Religious Streams – Jewish Week, 06/11/2004
Gary Rosenblatt - Editor and Publisher
At the recent graduation exercises here of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish
Institute of Religion, an honorary doctorate was awarded to David
Hartman, a scholar who heads the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
What was most remarkable about the educational and intellectual
center of Reform Judaism honoring an Orthodox rabbi in an age of
increasingly bitter denominational divisions in American Jewish
life was how natural it all seemed.
That is due primarily to the activities and outlook of one man,
David Ellenson, 56, president of HUC-JIR for the last two years.
During the graduation ceremony he described Rabbi Hartman as his
"teacher and guide," and in a recent conversation he noted
that the previous year the seminary honored another Orthodox rabbi,
Emanuel Rackman, the venerable leader who has become controversial
in his own community in recent years for his radical attempts to
ease halachic restrictions on agunot, or chained wives.
In both cases, Rabbi Ellenson said he not only personally admired
the honorees but "I wanted to make a statement, to reach out
and affirm the concept of Klal Yisrael."
(The keynote address at the HUC graduation last year was delivered
by Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the chancellor of the Conservative Jewish
"I feel it's important to cross denominational lines,"
said Rabbi Ellenson, "and reinforce a message to my students
that they are part of a larger Jewish community."
Rabbi Ellenson is an anomaly - a Reform leader with close personal
and intellectual ties to the other branches of Judaism, particularly
Orthodoxy, and a deep respect for and understanding of the tradition.
Given his role, he is a rare bridge between two extremes of religious
Is he criticized in his own camp for reaching out? Not as much
as Orthodox rabbis are in their community for doing the same, he
says. "Remember, pluralism is inherent in the Reform and Conservative
worlds," he noted, "and my presidency is about reaching
out to all segments of Jewish life."
The author of several scholarly books on Orthodoxy, halacha and
Jewish identity, he has been teaching for many years at the Hartman
Institute in Jerusalem, one of the few academic settings that welcomes
and fosters relationships between rabbis and scholars of all the
religious streams. And during his brief tenure in New York, Rabbi
Ellenson has met with a select group of rabbinical students at Yeshiva
University, at the invitation of Rabbi Norman Lamm; installed an
Orthodox rabbi in his home congregation as president of the New
York Board of Rabbis; and contributed a scholarly article to the
online journal of Edah, a Modern Orthodox organization.
"I am deeply impressed with him," said Rabbi Saul Berman,
the director of Edah, who has participated in several panels and
lectures with Rabbi Ellenson. "He is extraordinarily respectful
of ideas that are significantly different than his own," noted
Rabbi Berman, "and he wants to understand the other opinion."
He added that Rabbi Ellenson has published more on Modern Orthodoxy
than any other scholar, and that his knowledge of the material is
While not denying the denominational rifts described in books like
Samuel Freedman's "Jew vs. Jew" or Jack Wertheimer's "A
People Apart," Rabbi Ellenson sees shared themes in how all
the branches are trying to make Jewish life relevant in a modern
world. "I see commonality rather than division," he says,
"in terms of responses to the challenges we face."
He cited, as examples, the new emphasis on "worship renewal"
in services emphasizing music and religious fervor at synagogues
and temples; the intensification of Torah study and focus on Jewish
texts, symbolized by transdenominational groups like Limmud; and
the return to tradition in Conservative and Reform prayer and ritual.
Rabbi Ellenson says that each stream of Judaism is trying to speak
to a 21st-century audience. "Wherever you look, people are
engaged in a search for meaning."
His own search began when he was a teenager, often feeling lonely
and out of place growing up Jewish in Newport News, Va. In an essay,
"A Separate Life," he wrote about his youth. Rabbi Ellenson
said he had an epiphany when, at 15, he read "Upstream,"
the autobiography of Ludwig Lewisohn, the scholar and prominent
Zionist who wrote of coming from Berlin to South Carolina in the
late 19th century and later being denied an academic position at
an Ivy League university because of anti-Semitism. Young Ellenson
felt "rage at this injustice and alienation," and said
the book gave him "a tale of myself, not the Other."
A product of the South of the 1950s and '60s (which he describes
as "a place of intimacy" as well as "alienation")
and of rigorous academic training and more than 20 years of teaching
at HUC in Los Angeles, he is a blend of intellectual fervor and
down-home charm, quoting Judaic and American philosophers and reminiscing
about growing up in what he calls a "relaxed Orthodox"
family in small-town Virginia. Rabbi Ellenson's parents were active
in an Orthodox synagogue, he was active as a teen in NCSY, the Orthodox
youth group. After receiving a master's in religious studies at
the University of Virginia, he spent eight months living on a kibbutz
in Israel before entering HUC in Jerusalem in 1972.
Rabbi Ellenson wrote his doctoral dissertation in religion at Columbia
University on Esriel Hildesheimer, a 19th-century rabbi credited
with rejuvenating Orthodoxy in Germany by helping meet the challenges
of a changing world. Today's HUC head is still intrigued by the
intersection of tradition and modernity - a collection of his scholarly
essays on the subject is due out this fall - and doubts he will
"ever feel completely 'at home' as a Jew in America."
He is a fervent Zionist, more right-wing politically than many of
his colleagues, and even when the suicide war in Israel was at its
deadliest two years ago, he insisted, despite pressure from worried
parents and families, that HUC continue its requirement that every
rabbinical student spend a year studying at its Israel branch. His
position was a difficult and not always popular one, he acknowledges,
but adds, "my commitment to Zionism is absolute."
Others credit Rabbi Ellenson with turning the tide, particularly
within the Reform movement, away from avoiding travel to Israel.
He is also a traditionalist in his firm belief that Jewish day
schools "are crucial for the Jewish future" and his goal
to "spread Jewish literature and common Jewish culture."
He opposed the Reform movement's adoption of patrilineal descent
in defining who is a Jew, but believes it is now irreversible.
With it all, Rabbi Ellenson says he and other "religious liberals"
grant "normative authority to sociological realities,"
which means he believes intermarriage is here to stay, and that
outreach to intermarried couples should be a priority.
He says he does not want to "erase the differences" between
his views and those of traditionalists guided by halacha, or Jewish
law. But he believes that "at least there can be a common set
of problems and challenges."
Rabbi Berman of Edah said that having someone like David Ellenson
heading HUC "may prevent further fissures" between the
Orthodox and Reform worlds, and increases the chances for a "gentler,
more cooperative relationship."
"His presence on the scene," he added, "can be a
major force for the continued wholeness of the Jewish people."
To that Rabbi Ellenson would surely say, Amen.
Gary Rosenblatt can be reached by e-mail at Gary@jewishweek.org.
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