Remembering David Ellenson, a Reform rabbi and Religious Zionist

The Reform world and the entire Jewish world are robbed ideologically because our friend, teacher, mentor, trailblazer, Rabbi David Ellenson, won’t be with us to make the old-new paradigms we need

Rabbi David Ellenson, who died last Thursday at 76, was a remarkable teacher and scholar with an engaging smile, an encyclopedic brain, and extraordinary vision. His passing during this moment of Jewish, Zionist, and liberal crisis is particularly painful.

A Reform rabbi who wrote a path-breaking book titled Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy, his ability to synthesize different Jewish belief systems is precisely what we need today. He spent much of his career slaying the false gods of absolutism and refusing to buy into reductionist, “either-or” thinking. He understood how central Israel is to modern Jewish identity and how central true liberalism – not university-style totalitarianism – is to Zionism. In his absence, we – his students, his colleagues, his successors, and his friends – must learn from his intellectual agility, remembering how effective he was in bringing seemingly contradictory ideas together while, most practically, fighting to keep Zionism central to the Reform movement.

In 2018, I included one of his many important essays, “Reform Zionism Today,” in my Zionist anthology, The Zionist Ideas. It was obvious to me that he was a Religious Zionist; even as he confronted the heavy-handed Chief Rabbinate, and even as he defied the usual Dati Leumi, national religious, stereotype. When he wrote that the “rebirth of Jewish life embodied in the State of Israel is fraught with religious import: the monism of universalism must be rejected,” he was courageously resisting two trends. He was confronting those “Religious Zionists” who think that only one form of Judaism and Zionism are acceptable. And he was confronting those Reform Jews who read only the Bible’s universalist passages, skipping over all the Jewish teachings about particularism, patriotism, loyalty, family, and rootedness in the Jewish people’s one homeland – Israel, not America.

A Religious Zionist view from a Reform rabbi

Rabbi Ellenson knew how many American progressives in the Reform movement resented liberal Judaism’s second-class status in Israel as well as Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. But he could always distinguish between what Israel does, sometimes better and sometimes worse, and what Israel is – and could be. For 14 years as president, then chancellor, of the Reform seminary Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, and since then, he refused to build an American Judaism that was too politically correct. He opposed placing “individual choice and religious voluntarism above peoplehood and nationality.” Instead, he challenged all Jews to forge “a meaningful sense of Jewish identity established on both national and religious foundations.”

In his 2014 book, Jewish Meaning in a World of Choice: Studies in Tradition and Modernity, Ellenson recalls living decades earlier on Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek, a secular kibbutz under the Hashomer Hatzair movement in the Jezreel Valley. In a passage that is agonizing to read after October 7, he says that whenever he viewed the lovely, busy, productive kibbutz from above while wandering the hills, he would recall the prophet Amos’s vision of the people of Israel being restored. However, while “deeply moved” by the scene, he continues, “no blessing would emerge.” Back then, this budding rabbi and historian was still trying to clarify if what he saw “was the work of God or of persons.”

But, he adds, whenever he climbed down the mountain, a different feeling overwhelmed him as he reentered the kibbutz. Watching parents kibitz with one another on the lawn while their children scampered about happily, peacefully, and safely, this child of the American experience, born in 1947, a year before Israel’s re-establishment, would inevitably start pronouncing the Shehecheyanu thanksgiving prayer for having lived to this moment. “In those moments,” Ellenson writes, “my spirit moved me instinctively to thank God for the kiddush ha’hayim, the sanctification of life, that the Jewish state and Jewish existence embody.”

Articulating “A Reform Zionism for our Time,” Ellenson wrote three sentences that I love to teach. “Our people’s return to our land is not simply mythic,” emphasizing of course, that it is epic. “It has taken on flesh and blood, and to celebrate that fact is to applaud much more than ‘mythic renewal.’ It is to acknowledge that the rebirth of Jewish life embodied in the State of Israel is fraught with religious import and significance….”

These three sentences dance between the universal and the particular, Zionism’s historical and spiritual power and achievements, the Jewish body and soul, the contribution we built with our hands, and the miracles we experienced that defy logic. Since October 7, we know how fraught our existence is – and how tough we are too. We know that, as Ellenson wrote, the “Jewish people have ‘returned to history’ with a degree of power unknown for the previous two millennia,” but “Reform Zionism” – and each of us, no matter how religious or secular, in Israel and throughout the world – “needs to know and affirm the religious significance of this fact.”

Only by acknowledging “the dialectical foundations of universalism and particularism and the interplay between them” will we be able to create a Day After, Post-October 7th Zionism that is Jewish enough to keep us rooted yet liberal-democratic enough to keep us growing, juggling, synthesizing, and living yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And how sorry I am, personally, how robbed the Reform world and the entire Jewish world is ideologically because our friend, teacher, mentor, and trailblazer, Rabbi David Ellenson, won’t be with us to create the old-new paradigms we need – although he helped give us a good start.

May his name and memory be for a blessing.

Professor Gil Troy is a Senior Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, JPPI, the Global Think Tank of the Jewish People, an American presidential historian, and, most recently, the editor of the three-volume set, Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People.

Published by Jerusalem Post