Rabbi David Ellenson Interviewed in Haaretz

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 Sunday schools.

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.

Sabbath basketball
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 observance.”

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 in 1873.

“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.”

Not leftist
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.”