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 Theological Seminary.)
"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 life.
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 "distinctive."
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.
C. 2000 - 2004 The Jewish Week, Inc. All rights reserved.