The Central Conference of American Rabbis mourns the death of our beloved rabbi, teacher, and friend, David Ellenson, PhD, z”l (1947–2023). The former president and chancellor emeritus of our Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Ellenson was a mensch of the highest order who imparted wisdom and kindness in addition to sharing his voluminous knowledge and scholarship.
Rabbi Ellenson was a devoted and generous member of the CCAR and a friend to CCAR Press. His forewords or afterwords appear in three CCAR Press volumes: The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival, The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, and From Time to Time: Journeys in the Jewish Calendar. In fall 2014, to mark the close of his first term as HUC-JIR’s president, CCAR Journal published “A Tribute to David Ellenson,” with articles by Rabbis Robert Levine and Rachel Adler. The issue also contained an autobiographical piece by Rabbi Ellenson entitled “At the Turning: Reflections on My Life.” We share excerpts of that piece in his memory.
The forces that have animated my life and work cannot be understood without recourse to my family and my past as a Jewish boy growing up in the South during the 1950s and 1960s and the multilayered world I experienced. Everything in my world talked about difference and exclusion. My grandparents had all emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States in the early 1900s. My maternal grandparents had settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while my paternal grandparents improbably came to Newport News, Virginia. My parents, Rosalind Stern and Samuel Ellenson, met at Harvard Hillel in 1945, immediately after World War II, and they married in 1946. A year later, I was born, and six months after my birth, my father, a degree from Harvard Law School in hand, returned with my mother and me to Newport News, where he began the practice of law….
To this day, I cannot fully capture how very much I love the South and the Peninsula. The approximately 2,000 Jews located on the Peninsula lived peacefully and prosperously among more than 150,000 gentiles…. My entire extended family lived in the same pleasant neighborhood, and my childhood and adolescence were filled with family gatherings and events at which aunts, uncles, and cousins were present. …
I was and remain at some very deep level of my being a Virginian. However, I was also a Jew and that was “the rub.” I never felt I fully belonged. My being a Jew in a Christian world made me an outsider and different from the time I was a small boy, an observer even as I was an eager participant in the larger world. It left me feeling alienated even as I was overwhelmingly social and active.
In sum, the fabric of my identity was fraught with tensions. The inequities and evils I witnessed as a child and as a teenager in matters of race and gender and the sense of being an outsider as a Jew to the gentile culture in which I was raised all left a permanent mark on me….
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I enrolled [eventually] in the Religious Studies Department of the University of Virginia, where I received an M.A. degree… There, for the first time, I read the works of Durkheim and Weber, where I was provided the beginnings of a vocabulary that would allow me to frame and illuminate my concerns. It was also equally clear to me that I had so much more to learn if I was to ever explore seriously the nature of what it was to be a Jew in the modern world.
This led me to move to Israel for two years. The first year I lived on Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek in the Jezreel Valley—where I worked in the fields and advanced my spoken Hebrew—while, in the second year, I enrolled in the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. Although I seriously considered remaining in Israel and making aliyah at the end of that year, I decided to return to the United States, where for the next four years I would pursue rabbinical ordination at HUC-JIR in New York and doctoral studies in Religion at Columbia University….
The precise character of my [doctoral] work was shaped by two men. Towards the end of my formal graduate education in 1976 and 1977, I came under the tutelage of Fritz Bamberger of HUC-JIR and Jacob Katz of Hebrew University, who was then at Columbia as a visiting professor…. [Professor Bamberger’s teaching made] me aware that the hermeneutic of tension I have employed in all my work is embedded in a narrative that emerged from my own childhood experiences as a Jewish boy in Virginia…. Professor Katz provided me with the content and even more importantly the methodology that would guide and inform my work for decades to come. [He] pointed out that Germany was the crucible in which modern Judaism was born. It was here that the conflict between an inherited Jewish tradition and a highly acculturated Jewish community first played itself out… Indeed, it is a primary reason that I wrote my dissertation on Rabbi Hildesheimer, an Orthodox Jew completely committed to Jewish tradition, who received a doctorate from a German university and who was completely comfortable in Western culture. A study of his life would indicate precisely how Jewish religious tradition could be and was adapted to the demands of the time and place in which he lived. In so doing, I could hold up a mirror to my own being and provide a case study of how Judaism could be adapted to the modern world….
My decision to employ his model to study Rabbinic responsa and prayer book compositions in Western Europe, North America, and my beloved Israel reflect my deepest personal commitments to Judaism and the State of Israel. It also led me to believe that academic scholarship was a vital means to illuminate an understanding of life for myself, my Jewish community, and others in the larger world…
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As a Jew who is commanded every day to remember my bondage and my exodus from Egypt… I cannot forget the books of my Jewish past, nor do I want to. Instead, I hope that my children and my students and their descendants, as our daily liturgy phrases it, will be “yodei sh’mecha v’lomdei toratecha” (knowers of God and students of Torah). My years as president of the College-Institute have been an extension of my entire life and all my values. I have aspired as a Jew born in America and connected deeply both to Israel and the larger world to place myself and my students in a chain of Jewish tradition that is humane and inclusive. Rabbi Leo Baeck provides me with a language for that aspiration…:
Every generation by choosing its way, its present way, at the same time chooses an essential part of the future, the way of its children…. Ways bind, wind, and wander. When a man forms his life, he begins to create community. He is not only born into community as if by fate, but he has now been called to the task of molding it.
My own Jewish way has wandered. Surely, the ways of my own children and grandchildren as well as my students will wander as well. Nevertheless, I and they are also bound, and my way, just as theirs, emanates from those who lived before us. I have tried—through my researches and through my work as a teacher and as president of the College-Institute—to honor the way I have inherited even as I have struggled to mold a direction for a way that reflects who I am. I look forward with confidence to how the students and graduates of HUC-JIR… will mold their own directions for the Jewish people and humanity in the days ahead.
Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD, z”l (1947–2023), served as president of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion from 2001 to 2013 and again from 2018 to 2019. He was a prolific scholar of modern Jewish thought and history.