American Orthodoxy

“Certainty Has Never Been Mine”: The Denominational Eclecticism of David Ellenson

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Jonathan D. Sarna

David Ellenson, Reform rabbi and eighth president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC), spent the last evening of his life at The Jewish Center in New York, a Modern Orthodox synagogue. He was there to celebrate the life and work of an Orthodox rabbi: his friend, Jacob J. Schacter, University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought, and Senior Scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future, at Yeshiva University.

No one was surprised to see David Ellenson at an Orthodox synagogue paying tribute to an Orthodox rabbi. He boasted numerous Orthodox friends and acquaintances, and he had been invited by no less than Rabbi Norman Lamm to speak at Yeshiva University.

Nor was anyone surprised when Shuly Rubin Schwartz, Chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), observed in a memorial tribute that “three successive JTS chancellors were blessed to call [Ellenson] both a colleague and a friend.” For years in Los Angeles while teaching at HUC, Ellenson had been a “pillar” of the “Library Minyan” of a Conservative congregation, Beth Am. In 2014, JTS had also awarded him an honorary degree.

David Ellenson, indeed, numbered among the most admired and beloved Jewish religious leaders of our time. He was respected by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews alike, and he was unique in his ability to appear totally comfortable in various Jewish settings across the American Jewish religious spectrum.

How did Ellenson become such a paragon of Jewish religious pluralism, the embodiment of what his friend, Professor David Myers, once labeled “denominational eclecticism”?

The answer begins in the city of Newport News, located at the southern end of the Virginia Peninsula, where his paternal grandparents settled after they emigrated from Russia around the turn of the 20th century. Newport News was something of a boomtown at that time. A railroad line connecting it to Virginia’s capital city of Richmond had opened in 1881, and by World War I, the sleepy fishing village and its sister city, Hampton, had grown into the largest coal export point in the world as well as a major shipyard. David’s father, Samuel Ellenson, after graduating from Harvard Law School and marrying, returned home to Newport News to practice law; that is where David grew up.

Fewer than 2000 Jews lived in Newport News when David was young. Almost all of them traced their roots back to eastern Europe. In the middle decades of the 19th century, when Central European Jews had settled in America and spread Reform Judaism across the South, Newport News had not yet been incorporated. As a result, the Jewish community that David Ellenson knew was dominated by Orthodox and Conservative Jews. The city’s first Reform synagogue only formed in 1955.

The Ellensons—a substantial clan with myriad uncles and aunts and cousins—belonged to the city’s most traditional Orthodox synagogue, Adath Jeshurun, the only Newport News synagogue at that time with a traditional mehitzah separating men from women. David’s father served for years as Adath Jeshurun’s president. His mother Rosalind (Stern), a graduate of what was then known as Boston’s Hebrew Teachers College, taught him Hebrew (“in an Ashkenazic accent”) as well as Jewish texts. David gained the skills “to lead every variety of Orthodox services” at Adath Jeshurun. He described himself as having been “an eager student.”[1] Years later, when he visited Orthodox synagogues, he took pride in his ability to daven and navigate the traditional prayer book. He also knew the vocabulary common to traditional Jews—the lingo, the Yiddishisms, what Chaim M. Weiser called Frumspeak. Even as president of HUC, when meeting traditional Jews, he would “code-switch” to make everyone feel comfortable.

In small Jewish communities like Newport News, Jews knew one another even if they worshipped apart. This was especially true of David’s mother, who was active not only within Adath Jeshurun but also in the Jewish Community Center, the Jewish Federation, Hadassah, and the National Council of Jewish Women. “My mother inculcated a love for Israel, a commitment to Jewish values, and a concern for the welfare of the less fortunate in the deepest recesses of my heart,” David wrote in his book, Jewish Meaning in a World of Choice. “She was completely committed to Kelal Yisrael, and when one of my rabbis wanted me to be active only in the Orthodox National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), she protested strongly and insisted that I also be engaged in AZA (B’nai B’rith Youth), which brought together teenagers from across the denominational spectrum in our small Jewish community.”[2] From a young age, thanks to AZA, David learned to interact with Jews of every sort. He would continue to honor his mother’s commitment to Kelal Yisrael throughout his life. When inaugurated as HUC’s president, he went so far as to insist that a fully kosher lunch be provided to the guests and participants. He wanted to make sure that his many friends who kept kosher would not feel excluded.

In an autobiographical preface to his book After Emancipation, David alluded obliquely to the “ambivalences and fissures” of his life in Newport News. He characterized the community as both “a place of intimacy” for him and “a place of alienation.” He felt deeply lonely: “I was in the South and I partook of, and was informed by, its heritage and manners—but as a Jew I was not of it… Part of me felt I never really belonged.”[3]

As he came to realize only much later, the loneliness that he experienced—the “ambivalences and fissures” that tore at him—echoed the experience of many other modern Jewish thinkers struggling to meet the conflicting demands of modernity and tradition. One recalls Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s discussion of loneliness, his admission that religious truth and sincere faith emerge “out of the straits of inner oppositions and incongruities, spiritual doubts and uncertainties, out of the depths of a psyche rent with antinomies and contradictions, out of the bottomless pit of a soul that struggles with its own torments…”[4] Ellenson grappled with those same challenges.

Ellenson, though, was raised with a much simpler vision of Orthodoxy than Soloveitchik’s. “The rabbis who taught me in my youth,” he recalled, “always seemed to imply that proper emunah (belief) and a life of halakhic observance and zemirot (Sabbath and holiday songs and hymns) would mend whatever ills marked the human or my personal condition.”[5] After that failed (“I could neither conjure up the type of faith they seemed to demand nor submit myself to the discipline of practice they clearly prescribed”), he discovered deeper truths in the writings of modern religious thinkers like Søren Kierkegaard and great sociologists of religion like Émile Durkheim and Max Weber.[6] Eager to learn more and to apply those insights to Judaism, he applied—after receiving his MA from the University of Virginia—to all three of the major non-Orthodox rabbinical programs at that time: Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform. He sheepishly admitted years later that he chose Reform not out of any deep conviction but because his Orthodox father convinced him that “if he wanted to make a living as a rabbi, he should go to HUC.”

Questions and doubts continued to torment Ellenson in rabbinical school as he endeavored to forge an approach to Judaism that combined “a knowledge of texts and history with the methodology of the social sciences and philosophy.”[7] In response, he entered the doctoral program in religion at Columbia University, eventually pursuing his PhD in tandem with his rabbinical degree. He found himself drawn to great minds across the Jewish religious spectrum, from the Columbia humanist Joseph L. Blau, to the Reform scholar Fritz Bamberger, to the Conservative rabbi-historian Arthur Hertzberg, to the pioneering Orthodox social historian Jacob Katz. He learned much, he realized, from all four of them. Thanks to them and others, he also became—in his own modest, understated, southern way—a yodea sefer, familiar with a wide range of texts from ancient to modern. He could cite many of them effortlessly in their original language—and even by heart. Traditional Jews who encountered him were amazed.

As he studied, Ellenson likewise interacted with brilliant graduate students from across the spectrum of Jewish life who, later on, remained his friends after they assumed senior Jewish Studies positions within the American academy. That became his path too: he decided to forge a life in scholarship and teaching rather than in the active rabbinate. He had concluded from his studies that no movement in Jewish religious life held a monopoly on truth.

“Certainty has never been mine, and conflicting emotions and a sense of distance from my surroundings has always marked me,” he confessed, in perhaps the most self-revealing sentence that he ever wrote.[8]

That, of course, was the key both to his “denominational eclecticism” and to his friendships across the Jewish spectrum (and beyond). In our charged and polarized time, when so many profess absolute certainties and associate only with men and women of their own kind, David Ellenson found truth and goodness in people of many kinds, and they loved him back in return.

[1] David Ellenson, Jewish Meaning in a World of Choice: Studies in Tradition and Modernity (Philadelphia: JPS, 2014), xiv-xv.

[2] Ibid., xv.

[3] David Ellenson, After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity (Cincinnati: HUC Press, 2004), 15.

[4] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence Kaplan (Philadelphia: JPS, 1983), 142n4.

[5] Ellenson, After Emancipation, 16.

[6] Ibid., 15-16.

[7] Ibid., 17.

[8] Ibid., 15.

Jonathan D. Sarna is University Professor and the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. He also is the past president of the Association for Jewish Studies and Chief Historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. Author or editor of more than 30 books on American Jewish history and life, his American Judaism: A History, recently published in a second edition, won six awards including the 2004 “Everett Jewish Book of the Year Award” from the Jewish Book Council. Sarna is a fellow both of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Academy of Jewish Research, and he holds four honorary degrees. His most recent books are Coming to Terms with America, a volume of essays; and Yearning to Breathe Free: Jews in Gilded Age America, coedited with Adam Mendelsohn.