Soul of a Scholar: A Conversation With New HUC-JIR President David Ellenson

Thursday, November 1, 2001

This article was published in Reform Judaism Magazine, Winter 2001

On June 5, 2001, Dr. David Ellenson–I. H. and Anna Grancell Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles–was named the eighth president of HUC-JIR, succeeding acting president and provost Dr. Norman J. Cohen. As president, he oversees the academic and professional training programs for the Reform Movement’s rabbis, cantors, educators, and communal service professionals, as well as graduate programs for scholars of all faiths.

Ordained at HUC-JIR in New York in 1977, Dr. Ellenson received a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1981; he also holds masters degrees from Columbia, HUC-JIR, and the University of Virginia.

Formerly a pulpit rabbi in Port Washington, NY and Keene, NH, Dr. Ellenson has also served as visiting professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA; and as a member of the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Department at the University of California, Los Angeles. In addition, he is former director of HUC-JIR’s Jerome Louchheim School of Judaic Studies, which offers a full range of Jewish studies courses to students at the University of Southern California.

The author of three books–Tradition in Transition: Orthodoxy, Halakhah and the Boundaries of Modern Jewish Identity, Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy, and Between Tradition and Culture: The Dialectics of Jewish Religion and Identity in the Modern World–and more than 200 articles in diverse academic and religious journals, he is currently writing The Way Into the Varieties of Jewishness,part of a fourteen-volume series by Jewish Lights.

He and his wife, Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, a chaplain at the Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, are the parents of Ruth, Micah, Hannah, Naomi, and Raphael.

Rabbi Ellenson was interviewed by RJ editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer.


As HUC-JIR president, you will be the teacher of the next generation of Reform leaders. Who was your greatest teacher?

I have had many great teachers, among them Dr. Fritz Bamberger, Rabbis Arthur Hertzberg, Eugene Borowitz, Larry Hoffman, Dr. Jacob Katz, and, from the beginning, my mother, who was an Orthodox Jew. When I was a teenager, we had an argument over the question: Was the Torah literally given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai? After a lot of back and forth, she finally said to me: “Well, David, I’m not certain that the Torah was literally given by God word for word to Moses at Mount Sinai. It may have been written by human beings, but these ancestors tried to understand God’s word in such a way that, if God were a human being, God would be happy to say that he was your friend.” And that seems to me just as good an interpretation of what our tradition strives to be as any I’ve ever heard. We may never actually succeed in making God our friend, or having God as a guest in our home, but at least we are making an effort, which I regard as not only a noble but a genuinely holy pursuit.


In an article for a book called Jewish Spiritual Journeys, you wrote: “A sense of distance from my surroundings has always marked me. The description of such tension has allowed me to hold up a candle to my own soul.” When did you first become aware of this feeling?

I’ve been aware of it since adolescence. Growing up in Newport News, Virginia, I was very conscious of the tremendous dissonance between the world of my Orthodox home and the non-Jewish world outside. Having said that, I don’t think I ever experienced antisemitism in Newport News. In fact, people could not have been nicer, and we participated fully in the civic and cultural life of the larger community. Still, I never felt a sense of complete comfort. I believe this sense of distance is a mark of the Jewish condition in the Diaspora. In fact, I think such unease characterizes all human beings in one way or another.


Is that a bad thing?

No. I think it’s actually quite a good thing. If you identify completely with the culture in which you live and feel completely at ease, it’s unlikely that you will feel constrained to change that culture in a positive way. I think some degree of creative alienation is the catalyst for going out into the world and, quite literally, re-forming it. In Jewish terms, we call this impulse to action tikkun olam.


Wouldn’t the opposite of this formulation be true as well–less alienation, less commitment to Jewish life?

Yes. As the external negative forces that once reinforced Jewish identity have weakened, maintaining Jewish identity and tradition has become increasingly difficult. We live in a time where, for the most part, fourth- and fifth-generation American Jews have, in effect, become “white folks,” as one author put it. The high rate of intermarriage today means not only that Jews have become highly acculturated, but that a significant proportion of the larger population sees us as desirable marriage partners. While this condition creates obvious challenges to Jewish continuity, it has a positive side as well–people who choose to live a Jewish life usually do so with a greater degree of intensity than may have been true of their predecessors who were kept within the Jewish fold by a sort of ethnic inertia. Although we are witnessing record rates of disaffection from the Jewish community, simultaneously, within each of the movements–and certainly within Reform–there is a renaissance in Jewish life. People are striving for a higher level of Jewish knowledge and commitment in our synagogues. One of the most interesting developments I’ve observed has been the rise of the Saturday morning minyan in Reform congregations throughout North America. Participants show a remarkable level of enthusiasm for davenen, singing, and serious Torah learning. Reform Jews are more informed by Jewish values and tradition today than at any other time in American Jewish history. The center has never been stronger, but we need to reach people who are on the fringes, those who rarely, if ever, walk into our synagogues. In an age of limited resources, how do we provide intensive programs for the committed core, which we must do to retain their allegiance, and simultaneously program for people who show little interest in Jewish life? That is the real challenge.


Isn’t it the core, historically, that has kept the Jews afloat in good times and bad?

In his essay, “The Ever-Dying People,” Professor Shimon Rawidowicz points out that in every generation many Jews have felt that they were the last generation of Jewry, but a “saving remnant” has always defied this prediction; there have always been people responding creatively so as to assure Jewish continuity. The challenge of our age–at least in America–is that Jews are accepted to such a degree that, unless we respond with compelling initiatives, Jews will disappear in even larger numbers in what is, after all, a voluntaristic society in which we are highly acculturated and overwhelmingly accepted.


What initiatives do you have in mind?

We have to prepare Jewish professionals who can address the full range of our Reform constituency–those who are highly committed as well as less committed; those who are Hebraically knowledgeable as well as those who know little; those who are more traditional in their practice as well as those who are less so. To do this they need to be knowledgeable Judaically and skilled in leadership, education, and organizational transformation. They need to serve the existing synagogue with its current committed members, even as they reinvigorate worship, increase the level of Jewish literacy, and challenge people to commit themselves to social justice. In recent years, under the leadership of President Sheldon Zimmerman and Provost Norman Cohen, the College-Institute has introduced new courses and programs in these areas. I intend to continue and hopefully strengthen these initiatives, which are very much in harmony with the agenda of UAHC President Rabbi Eric Yoffie.


Do you find that there is more diversity within our Movement today than in the past?

Yes. Look at the spirited debate before the CCAR adopted the Statement of Principles of Reform Judaism two years ago in Pittsburgh. The principles of the original Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 have been internalized by a great many of our people, whose commitment to the principle of “autonomy” remains virtually absolute. On the other hand, the adoption of the new principles indicates that more and more Reform Jews are open to the power of Jewish tradition in guiding their personal decision-making in ritual and other matters, signaling a renewal of Jewish spirituality and an ever-increasing appreciation of traditional Jewish sources.


What do you say to Reform Jews who fear that the Reform Movement is moving toward Orthodoxy?

The approach to tradition that marks significant sectors of Reform Judaism today is hardly a return to Jewish Orthodoxy. After all, such affirmations within our Movement take place against a backdrop of pluralism in which Jewish tradition is seen as providing a sense of and source for meaning–a compelling framework for a meaningful religious life. The Reform emphasis on tradition does not occur within an Orthodox legal context that views such observance principally as a matter of mutar o assur–permitted or forbidden.


How can we best serve these different factions within our congregations?

I tell my students not to fear diversity. There doesn’t have to be only one type of service. Of course, larger congregations with large budgets are in the best position to provide alternative worship experiences. On Shabbat, Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles is like a mall, where you can choose from three or four different minyanim, plus a program for tots, one for grandparents with grandchildren, and another for mothers and dads with kids. Smaller synagogues may lack financial resources, but many are already accustomed to strong lay participation and leadership, assisted by programs such as the College-Institute’s Experiment in Congregational Education.


One area of Jewish life that has deteriorated in recent years is relations between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox branches of Judaism. Do you see any improvement on the horizon?

I believe the fact that someone with my background–whose academic work has concentrated on the development of 19th-century Jewish Orthodoxy and who has taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem–has been selected as HUC-JIR president may be emblematic of an affirmation that our leadership views Reform Judaism as part of the total polity of the Jewish people–in other words, that a sectarian kind of Reform Judaism which sets itself apart from klal Yisrael is not the way to go.

But I am not Pollyanna-ish about the future. The Orthodox world is moving toward the right on a whole host of issues. Principled stances that we’ve taken on issues such as homosexuality and patrilineal descent as well as our affirmation of gender equality are, within large sectors of the Orthodox world, regarded as anathema. Still, I hope we can appreciate and emphasize a common commitment to Torah study, the State of Israel, social action, and the fate of persecuted Jews, all of which can transcend denominational lines.


Which Jewish traditions do you and your family observe at home?

We observe Shabbat–kiddush on Friday night, synagogue attendance, and havdalah–and kashrut. In addition, Jewish study and matters of Jewish and communal concern and action mark our home life and practice.


You’ve said, “I reject the idea that there is a distinction between spirituality and academic study.” What are you seeking in your academic explorations, and how will this influence the College-Institute?

To me, my work in the field of sociology of religion is not an academic exercise; it is the conduit to my soul. I’m trying to understand who I am in the world, and the place of the Jewish people in the world. In this sense I think there is a convergence between the academic study of religion and its practice in our daily lives. I see Judaism as an ongoing narrative, with each successive generation attempting to be faithful to the story it has inherited, but also feeling the right to add a new chapter to that story. Therefore, I don’t need to apologize that ancestors of mine 2,000 years ago in a patriarchal culture denied women access to positions of public status and authority. This viewpoint was part of an ancient patriarchal culture, not the result of God-given commandments. We therefore have license to reinterpret Judaism in light of our own moral insights. Indeed, this confidence in our own right to expand the tradition is at the heart of both Jewish tradition and liberal Jewish faith–and at the center of an HUC-JIR education.


HUC-JIR is now ordaining as many women as men. What impact does this shift have on the synagogue?

Now that women have entered the public life of the Jewish people, many concerns once thought of as domestic have taken on a communal dimension. For example, congregations are now beginning to realize that the rabbi has a right to a personal and family life. The very fact that men as well as women are thinking about such issues reflects a new consciousness. Moreover, the feminist ethic of compassion, care, and relationships inspires a restructuring of our congregations, nurturing a significant partnership between the pulpit and a laity knowledgeable in the wisdom, ethics, and spirituality inherent in Judiasm.


What steps do you think need to be taken to relieve the shortage of rabbis in our synagogues?

This is probably the most serious problem that I will confront as president. What has occurred is that our rabbinic graduates have increasingly gone into areas of Jewish service outside of congregations, such as day schools, federations, Hillels, chaplaincies, and university positions. In reviewing statistics on the numbers of rabbis we’ve ordained since the 1970s, the numbers have not decreased as much as one might think. In fact, only in one year was there a serious dip. This year we’re back up to 200 rabbinic students, and we’d like to raise that number. To do so, we need to increase the number of applicants, offer more student scholarships, and ensure adequate compensation for those who enter synagogue professions. We should be recruiting younger people in our congregations and UAHC camps–which is already happening through UAHC’s Meitav Youth Fellowship program, a competitive fellowship which offers the most highly engaged and intellectually curious Reform high school students serious Jewish learning and leadership training through intensive Hebrew, study in Israel, mentored and online learning, and more. If we provide intense Jewish education to thirty, then sixty, and eventually one hundred kids a year, bring them to Israel for the summer, organize several weekend reunions while they’re in college, and invite them to Israel once again for an intensive learning experience, I think many of these people will choose careers in the rabbinate or cantorate, education or synagogue administration. Even if they do not, we will have created a cadre of very well-schooled congregational leaders. We also need to address what is an increasingly available applicant pool–middle-aged persons who are seeking second careers. Given longer life expectancies, people are choosing such career paths in record numbers, and Christian seminaries throughout the U.S. have begun to accommodate programs to their special needs and experiences. We at HUC-JIR must do no less.


What other goals have you set for the College-Institute?

I would like HUC-JIR to recapture some of the intellectual elan and leadership that the major Jewish seminaries in America enjoyed prior to the explosion of Jewish studies on secular university campuses in the 1970s. My fantasy is to find sufficient funding to create an institute for advanced studies that would rival those at Princeton and Hebrew University. That is not to say we would be concerned with academic study solely for its own sake; we would also bring together our best minds–leading academics, professionals, and lay people–to chart out novel directions for our Movement. I invite all our people to join with me and the people who work at the College-Institute as partners in this quest.


How do you feel about leaving your work of the past twenty-five years for this new position?

Before I decided to seek the presidency, I thought about the people whom I’ve studied my entire life–Kaufman Kohler, Solomon Schechter, Abraham Geiger, Zacharias Frankel–all serious academics who also played major roles in the formation of institutional Jewish life in the modern era. It seemed to me that the moment had come to make a sort of quantum leap in this direction. I do have regrets about not being able to continue teaching and writing scholarly work at the rate I’ve produced up to now–but having said that, this is a chance not only to study history but to help make it. Rabbi Eugene Borowitz has taught me about covenantal responsibility–what it means to be partners with God in the work of creation. It appears that the time has come to fulfill a religious duty and vocation instilled in me by my teachers.