David Ellenson, 76, Who Guided a Generation of Reform Rabbis, Dies


Rabbi David Ellenson, a scholar who wrestled with the interplay of tradition and modernity in Judaism and who shaped a generation of Reform rabbis as a teacher and later as the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, died on Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 76.

His wife, Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, said the cause was a heart ailment.

Though his father was a lawyer, Rabbi David Ellenson was surrounded by rabbis and rabbinical students for much of his life. Not only is his wife a rabbi, but one of his five children is also one, and two others are rabbinical students.

He taught for more than 40 years at the Reform seminary, which trains rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators on four campuses: in New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Jerusalem. He forged important academic and intellectual alliances across the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism, becoming something of “a denominational crossover,” said his friend Menachem Butler, an Orthodox Jew and a fellow in Jewish legal studies at Harvard Law School.

Though he was raised Orthodox, Rabbi Ellenson remained true to the beliefs and ideals of Reform Judaism. He championed the rights of women and L.G.B.T.Q. Jews to be ordained, and he promoted the belief that fathers, not just mothers, could pass on Jewish lineage, positions that were rejected by the more traditional branch of his youth.

He saw the evolution of Reform Judaism in the modern era as very much in line with the broader Jewish tradition, which he said had always been changing.

In a 2016 interview for a seminary podcast, Rabbi Ellenson said he had great respect for traditional Jewish law, known as halacha. “But the way in which I come to look at it from my Reform perspective,” he said, “is that I see it as an ongoing narrative, where each generation of Jews writes a different story in which they attempt to capture what it is they feel that God commands in their age.”

Even as he embraced change, however, Rabbi Ellenson still lived a largely traditional Jewish lifestyle. He did not, like some who studied religion, prioritize scholarship over faith and practice, said David N. Myers, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. For Rabbi Ellenson, “this was a personal journey,” Professor Myers said.

“The question that animated his life was: How does the Jewish religious tradition adapt, transform and resist the powerful forces of modernity?” he added. “He lived this tension every day.”

David Ellenson was born on Nov. 21, 1947, in Brookline, Mass., to Samuel and Rosalind (Stern) Ellenson. His father was a law student at Harvard at the time, and his mother was a recent graduate of Boston University. The family moved to Newport News, Va., when David was about a year old. His father practiced law, and his mother was a homemaker who later served as director of social services for Hampton, Va. David spent his childhood in the South and, although he eventually moved to the Northeast, he never lost his slight Southern drawl.

The family was Orthodox, but he bristled against the religious strictures imposed on him, Rabbi Ellenson said in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2004. Particularly difficult, he said, was being prohibited from playing basketball on the Sabbath.

“I didn’t know anything about the Reform movement,” he said. “I simply did not want to observe the commandments.”

But he learned about it soon enough. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the College of William and Mary in 1969 and a master’s in religious studies from the University of Virginia in 1972. After spending time on a kibbutz in Israel, he returned to the United States to pursue the rabbinate at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He was ordained in 1977 and received his Ph.D. in religion from Columbia University in 1981.

His dissertation was on the 19th-century Orthodox leader Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer, a figure who, he wrote, represented “the blend of and dissonance between tradition and modernity.” He later published it as a book, “Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy,” which is considered the seminal work on the rabbi.

In addition to his scholarly work on Orthodoxy, Rabbi Ellenson also wrote extensively about Jewish thought, ethics and what he saw as a need for Jewish religious pluralism in Israel, a society officially dominated by the Orthodox rabbinate.

He served as president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for 12 years beginning in 2001. He returned as interim president for a year after Rabbi Aaron Panken died when the plane he was piloting crashed in New York State in 2018.

At the seminary, Rabbi Ellenson initiated numerous programs and established eight faculty chairs. He transformed the seminary’s cantorial program, which had long focused on the traditional music of the synagogue, by adding the singer Debbie Friedman to the faculty. Ms. Friedman, who died in 2011, was known for infusing traditional Jewish texts with folksy melodies and a feminist twist. The cantorial school is named in her memory.

After retiring from the seminary, Rabbi Ellenson served as director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University in the department of Near Eastern and Judaic studies, where he was also a visiting professor.

His first marriage, to Lynn Andrew, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, Jacqueline, he is survived by his children: Ruth Andrew Ellenson, a writer; Rabbi Micah Ellenson; Hannah Ellenson, a student at the Reform seminary; Nomi Ellenson May, a photographer; and Raphael Ellenson, a student at Boston Hebrew College.

He is also survived by two siblings, Judith Ann Stephens and James Ellenson, and four grandchildren.

Rabbi Ellenson wrote seven books and more than 300 articles and reviews. His book “After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity” (2005) won the National Jewish Book Award as the outstanding book in Jewish thought in 2006. That same year, a book by his daughter Ruth, titled “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt,” won in the category of women’s studies.

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