Inaugural Address

Rabbi David Ellenson
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

October 13, 2002 – Plum Street Temple, Cincinnati, Ohio

In the Talmud, the rabbis command that when one views a large assembly of people, one should praise God, “ha-yo’dei’a razim – the One who alone knows the secrets of every human heart.” At this moment, I cannot say what animates the souls of each one of you who are gathered today in this assembly. Indeed, it is difficult for me to even speak of all the thoughts and feelings that crowd my own soul at this moment. Yet, I can tell you that my heart overflows, and I hope that I can properly articulate the holiness and promise this moment holds for not only my family and me, but more importantly, for the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, our people, and our religion. My life has been personally intertwined with so many of you who sit here today, and I am touched beyond measure by all the kindnesses so many of you have showered upon my family and me — particularly during this past year. I am grateful to each and every one of you for your friendship, and thank all of you for coming here to share this moment of celebration and revitalization in the life of the College-Institute.

To Burton Lehman and the Board of Governors of this school, I do express my heartfelt gratitude. It is an honor and inspiration to work together with you on behalf of our people and our God, and I am thankful for the confidence you have placed in me by selecting to me serve as the eighth president of this institution. Let me say to each of you at this moment of awe what my illustrious predecessor Kaufmann Kohler – second president of the Hebrew Union College — said to the Board of Governors over a century ago at the outset of his own Inaugural Address, “Yishar kokhakem v’helekem – may your strength and might to accomplish good ever increase.”

On this special day, I would like to begin on a personal note. At the outset, I want to say that I miss my parents dearly and I am sad that they did not live to share this moment with me. I am cognizant that if it were not for my mother and father and the passions and commitments that marked them, I could never have been open to all the influences that have brought me to this day. My father Samuel Ellenson died twenty-five years ago at the age of 55 after a long bout with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He was a deeply emotional man who believed in the primacy of scholarship and he held an instinctual love for Judaism and klal yisrael. I have inherited much from him. My mother Rosalind Stern Ellenson, who passed away in 1989, possessed a different persona. She was a calm and measured person in both thought and deed. I not only loved her as all sons do their mothers. I liked her immensely. Well-educated in Jewish as well as secular topics, she was completely devoted to causes of social justice and Zionism. Her work as Director of the Social Services Department of Hampton, Virginia, and her service in Hadassah as well as the active role she consistently played in the life of the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Center in my hometown of Newport News provided me with the highest example of service and commitment to human and Jewish causes. She was kind and thoughtful, and she was in so many ways my best friend and my most trusted confidant. I have missed her terribly since her death, and she continues to represent for me the ideal of how a human life ought to be led. I am grateful to have been raised in the home of my father and mother, and I rejoice that my sister Judy and my brother Jimmy as well as so many other family members are here with me today.

And to Jackie and my children — I cannot imagine what my life would be without you. There is no way to ever fully express love. I can only thank God that I have been blessed with each of you. Jackie, you above all have taught me what it means to live in Covenant. You are my best friend and my closest adviser, my severest critic and my most encouraging supporter. When we were married, we pledged and hoped to build a bayit ne’e’man b’yisrael, a Jewish home that would embody and reflect the highest values of our tradition. If we have succeeded in accomplishing this, it is due to you. I remain amazed and grateful that you have chosen me as your husband, and I feel fortunate that we have opened this new chapter in our lives together.

As I stand before this assembly today, I am keenly aware that two seemingly contradictory poles – each captured by an ancient rabbinic teaching — frame the position of responsibility I now hold as well as the challenge that we confront as a community. The first is expressed in the rabbinic notion of hitdardarut ha-dorot – the decline of the generations. It is a concept that leaves each of us acutely aware of our seeming inability to meet the standards and deeds of our ancestors. An emphasis upon our unworthiness, in contrast to the greatness of those who came before us, could not be more pronounced than it is in this teaching. As the Talmud phrases it, “Im ha-rishonim ha-yu k’malachim, az anu kiv-nei adam – if our ancestors were akin to angels, then we are akin to human beings.”

However, in opposition to this perception of decline, stands an elementary rabbinic dictum known to all who labor in the fields of Jewish law, Hilchata ke-vat’ra’ei – the law is always decided according to the latest authorities. While our ancestors may loom as giants in our eyes, we nevertheless stand on their shoulders and we are regarded by God as being of infinite worth. God empowers each generation of this people Israel and its leaders to answer the demands of the day. As the Talmud phrases it, “Shmuel b’doro k’yiftah b’doro.” Jepthah, the least of leaders, is as worthy of the mantel of leadership in his generation, as Samuel, the greatest of leaders, was in his.

It is this dialectical interplay between hitdardarut ha-dorot on the one hand and hilkhata ke-vatraei on the other that informs and guides my soul at this moment. It is in obeisance to the former precept that I acknowledge that I stand today on the shoulders of so many who were my teachers. Among them all, Professor Fritz Bamberger holds a central role of prominence. Possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish intellectual history as well as general philosophy, this German-Jewish refugee always taught and spoke with care and deliberation. He was the embodiment of German Bildung, and his measured and proper being in the world stood at such odds with my own loquacious and less formal style. However, I always felt his gentleness, and I knew his appreciation and love for me at every moment. I have attempted to model my own being on his in so many ways, and I am eternally grateful to God that I was privileged to be his talmid. On this day especially, I miss him.

I also stand today upon the shoulders of so many others as well. For my entire adult life, I have devoted myself to a study of the modern Jewish experience. I have attempted to understand and analyze the diverse ways in which so many different Jewish leaders of every denominational stripe and inclination have turned at the crossroads of modern Jewish life. I have sought to understand how these luminaries have responded to the challenge of allowing Judaism to speak in relevant cadences for the contemporary world. I have studied and admired each of them, and stand in awe of their knowledge and insights, their brilliance and their creativity. All these persons boldly looked to the future as they applied their talents and their concerns to the cause of Judaism in their own day. They are my conversation partners in the ongoing dialogues that form modern Judaism, and what I say and do is a distillation in many ways both subtle and overt of what they all have said and done.

I stand as well upon the shoulders of my predecessors who have served in this office. Isaac Mayer Wise, Kaufmann Kohler, Stephen Samuel Wise, Julian Morgenstern, Nelson Glueck, Alfred Gottschalk, and Sheldon Zimmerman all gave vision and direction to our school. I thank them for all their accomplishments and I pray that the College-Institute today proves capable of building upon the foundations they have established. Each in his singular way was a giant, and I stand in respect and wonder as I survey the heritage they have bequeathed us.

While my contemporaries and I may stand in relationship to our predecessors as Jepthah stood in relationship to Samuel, the task of leadership is no less pressing for us than it was for Jepthah and others in the past. After all, hilchata k’vat’ra-ei – the law is decided according to the later authorities – and just as my predecessors were required to do in generations past, I today am called upon to articulate an ongoing vision for the College-Institute as we confront the present and move towards the future. The other side of the dialectic that I outlined at the beginning of my speech must now receive its voice.

After 127 years of existence, the College-Institute and the North American Jewish community find ourselves at a much different historical juncture than our community did when Isaac Mayer Wise ordained the first class of rabbis in this institution in 1883. His was an age shaped and informed by an unfettered confidence in Enlightenment. He had not heard of Freud, and he could speak of civilization without recognizing the discontents that stand at its base. Isaac Mayer Wise and his colleagues could confidently proclaim that the day would come when reason alone would guarantee that “superstition would no longer enslave the mind, nor idolatry blind the eyes.” Unaware that a Holocaust was looming, where monsters of intellect would divorce learning from virtue, Isaac Mayer Wise and his peers as well as his immediate successors would soon forge a Judaism that would allow a predominantly immigrant Jewish community to adapt successfully to the demands of an American setting. His immediate successor Kaufmann Kohler proved able to forge a denominationally distinct Reform Judaism that was universalistic in its outlook. This vision of Reform flourished in a setting where Jewish integration into the cultural, social, economic, and political realms of American life remained limited, and at a time when the State of Israel did not exist.

How much has changed since that time. The rivalry and jealously that formerly divided a German-Jewish American community from its eastern European sisters and brothers are at best an historical memory, and the promise of redemption offered by the existence of a Jewish State now constitutes a central element in Jewish life. The ethnic homogeneity that previously marked the North American Jewish community is a relic of the past. Today we witness an era where the rate of Jewish exogamy stands at an all-time high, and the limitations and constraints imposed by a previous age upon complete Jewish integration into all sectors of the American nation have given way to an epoch where Jews take part as complete equals in every walk of American life. At the same time, the twentieth century has borne witness to the previously unimaginable evil of the Shoah, as well as the genocides of other peoples, and we today cannot share the total certainty our ancestors did in the power of reason to achieve the good. Ours is an age of ambiguity and nuance – one in which we stand at the crossroads of global capitalism and global terror.

Yet, we must not allow the uncertainty of our own age to paralyze us. Our contemporary efforts at the College-Institute must be no less than those of our predecessors. We must recognize our own power, and we must employ our passion and our imagination as well as our knowledge to chart the course of Jewish spiritual and communal life for our own time as well as for the future.

Foremost among the commitments that we must now honor is our obligation to our brothers and sisters in Israel. At his inauguration on March 15, 1948, a scant two months before the State of Israel was born, Nelson Glueck recognized that the about to be born State was “literally under fire.” However, he went on to state that “to abandon” an embryonic Israel would grant “license to terror.” And this Dr. Glueck refused to do. Let me say with pride that my intention is that the destiny of the College-Institute will remain intertwined and interlocked with the fate of our people in the State of Israel, and I intend to do all in my power to enhance the presence and influence of HUC-JIR in Jerusalem by expanding our faculty and increasing our student body in the years ahead so that the promise of our present can reach fruition in the future.

Our students in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and New York who prepare for careers in the cantorate, communal service, education, and the rabbinate will continue to study in Israel at our Jerusalem campus, and there they will learn the true meaning of ‘areivut, the ideal of mutual responsibility that binds Jews worldwide into one people. Our graduates will know that when Jews are in distress in Argentina and Europe or any place on earth that their responsibility to the people Israel is absolute.

More than thirty Israeli rabbinic students and dozens of Israeli teachers also currently attend our Jerusalem school, and they constitute the most precious resource we could possibly provide for the growth of liberal Judaism on Israeli soil. In a country where an extremist and coercive form of Judaism on the one hand and a strident and unyielding secularism on the other have provided the only two meaningful options between which Israeli Jews can choose, the need for us to educate native Israelis as rabbis and educators who speak the language of liberal Judaism is urgent. Should we fail in this sacred obligation, history will justifiably condemn us.

Our obligations are hardly limited to Israel. We must consider our responsibility to North America as well. 21st century America represents an extraordinary challenge and opportunity for us. Stasis in our present moment would be dangerous, and a dynamic and open approach to the future is required. We must reaffirm the broad vision that our founder Isaac Mayer Wise held of an American Judaism in light of our own conditions. Like Rabbi Wise, we must recognize that the foremost concern of the College-Institute is the education and formation of scholars and k’lei kodesh who will be imbued with the spirit of Torah. At the same time, our graduates must be bilingual – they must speak the language of America as well as the language of Judaism. This means that our alumni must be prepared to speak to Jews in the synagogue. No venue can be more meaningful for the future of the Jewish people. However, the spiritual hunger of Jews in this country is acute, and we must not rest content to confine our Jewish passion to the synagogue alone. Nor can we guard our own denominational boundaries too jealously. Our students must be equipped to address Jews across what are already often-outmoded denominational lines. Our graduates must be found wherever the possibilities for Jewish renewal appear — in the settings of Jewish Community Centers and Jewish organizational life, as well as in the university.

We must also continue to nurture the concern for equality and inclusiveness that has long been the hallmark of Reform Judaism. We proudly salute a full generation of women rabbis who have made remarkable contributions to Jewish life, and we are proud that the number of women on our faculty has increased significantly in recent years – these gains must be cultivated. The open embrace of persons of diverse sexual orientations must continue to be affirmed. We recognize that the voices of those people who were previously prevented from participation in the public discourse of the Jewish people now contribute immeasurably to the fulfillment of the messianic vision of justice that lies at the heart of Jewish religious tradition.

Through the ongoing growth of our institutes, we must expose our students to the initiatives these institutes are taking to enhance Jewish life on this continent. The implementation of the core curriculum project envisioned by our faculty, supported by the holdings of our library, our archives, and our museums, and directed by our Provost Norman Cohen must receive our highest priority. This pioneering project seeks to integrate the academic, personal, and professional components of the education HUC-JIR provides its students so that our graduates will be optimally prepared to serve our community in diverse ways and settings. Our students must apply the values and wisdom of our tradition to the different venues where they will be called to serve in this new century. The future and fate of the Jewish people and the Jewish religion are at stake.

Finally, we must be ever-mindful of our role in tikkun olam — our responsibility for the betterment of the world. During the midst of World War II, as the most cherished values of western civilization were being trampled, Chancellor Louis Finkelstein of the Jewish Theological Seminary understood that the modern Jewish seminary was accountable to the larger human community as well as to the Jewish people. He therefore established an Institute for Religious and Social Studies and a Conference on Science, Religion, and Philosophy under the aegis of JTS. I find his example instructive and inspirational, and I would ask the Jewish world today to follow the model he established. Not to do so would be a betrayal of the task that God has assigned us as persons of faith to apply the teachings of our traditions for the amelioration of humanity.

It is in this spirit that I would ask that the College-Institute as an academic institution recognize the role it is called upon to play in the task of tikkun olam, and I would hope that HUC-JIR might take the lead in cooperation with other Jewish institutions so that together we might create an Institute for Advanced Studies modeled after existing institutes at universities such as Princeton and the Hebrew University. Here the College-Institute and other schools devoted to Jewish intellectual and professional development would foster study and intellectual reflection in an open and liberal Jewish spirit on the great questions of our time. During these past few years, the world has borne witness to the terror and destruction that monists and fundamentalists of all types have wreaked upon humanity. Our task is therefore to create a setting where a decisive liberal religious spirit might emerge, an institute where all types of persons — Jews and non-Jews, academics and activists, clergy and laity — of different viewpoints and convictions could come together to consider how the ethical and social obligations contained in Torah might find expression in practical programs and policy initiatives. We would here hopefully foster a new energy between American Judaism and the American and world marketplace of ideas. It would be a place where a Eugene Borowitz and a Robert Bellah, a Rachel Adler and a Stephen Carter could think about what Judaism as well as other religions might contribute to the public square. Such an institute might potentially become a central actor in the life of the Jewish people, and would hopefully contribute – however modestly — towards a better future for humanity.

As I conclude my remarks today, I would turn for inspiration and guidance to the words of Rabbi Leo Baeck, a man for whom I have always felt a special affinity. Rabbi Baeck was the last duly-elected leader of the Jewish people in Germany during the cruel era of Nazi rule. He was the teacher of my teacher Fritz Bamberger, and his direct interventions saved the lives of countless Jews. One of them was Rabbi Wolli Kaelter, who bestowed his blessing upon me today. Rabbi Kaelter was a young rabbinical student at the Hochschule when Rabbi Baeck directed him to Cincinnati to enroll at the Hebrew Union College in the 1930s. My link to Rabbi Baeck is personal and direct.

Rabbi Baeck was himself accorded countless opportunities to flee Germany during those years of Nazi hatred, but he refused to flee Germany. As a true ro’eh yisrael, shepherd among the people Israel, Rabbi Baeck decided that he could not leave his people while they were in distress and he ultimately was imprisoned in Thereisenstadt. There three of his sisters died. However, Rabbi Baeck survived and out of those years there emerged a classic of Jewish religious literature that he authored while he was in the camp. Entitled This People Israel, this book constitutes one of the great spiritual treasures of our people and I find myself turning again and again to this work for inspiration and hope. The book is never far from my side.

At the conclusion of this book, Rabbi Baeck observed that the appearance of each new life constitutes a question that God has posed about the nature and worth of human life. He further stated that the manner in which that new life is led comprises an answer to the question that God has put forth.

As I am inaugurated as a new President of the College-Institute, I pray that I prove worthy of responding properly to the question that God has now assigned my life. An inheritance cannot be fabricated. It must be assumed with full responsibility, and nurtured with courage and creativity. People are not born into community as if by fate. Rather, God calls us to the task of forging our world. I hope that we will work together in the days ahead so that the College-Institute can play its rightful role in the unfolding narrative of Jewish and human life. In so doing, we will meet our obligations to our own as well as future generations.

V’chen y’hi ratzon, v’no’mar amen — May this be God’s will, and let us say, Amen.