This past Sunday I attended the funeral of one of the most important Jewish leaders of our time and a personal hero of mine, Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson z”l. Scholar, leader, and above all, mensch, Rabbi Ellenson passed away on December 7 at the far too young age of 76. Rabbi Ellenson twice served as the president of the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College, first – from 2001 to 2013 and then again briefly from 2018 to 2019 following the tragic death of his successor, Rabbi Dr. Aaron Panken, z”l. Under Ellenson’s leadership, HUC transformed its physical facility as well as its educational offerings, developing a host of professional initiatives and distance learning opportunities and dedicating the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music. Ellenson’s relationship to HUC was lifelong. He was ordained at HUC, he was a faculty member at HUC’s Los Angeles and New York campuses for over thirty years, and generations of Reform rabbis trained under him. No matter one’s denominational affiliation, the warm shadow of Rabbi Ellenson’s presence extended across the Jewish world. At his funeral I saw Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, American and Israeli Jewish leadership. His death is a collective and deep loss for our people.
Abraham Joshua Heschel once reflected that when he was young, he admired clever people, and as he grew old, he came to admire kind people. In Ellenson’s case, the two went hand in hand – the brilliance of his mind and the radiance of his heart. His model of scholar-rabbi-mensch is the bar to which I aspire. Our friendship developed in New York. Our community was honored to host him as a scholar-in-residence on several occasions. His wife, Rabbi Jackie Ellenson, has roots here at Park Avenue Synagogue, and it was always a heart-palpitating experience to look out and see a leader of his stature in the pews. While I was never formally his student, over the years he became a mentor, confidant, and advisor – a relationship and role he played with so many. I wrote my dissertation on Rabbi Louis Jacobs with the model of his dissertation on Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer in mind. He and I stayed in active touch on matters of communal concern and academic interest and, most importantly, the overlap between the two –– our last lunch taking place this past August. Since his death, I have reread many of our email exchanges. His final note included an invitation for a post-holiday get together, and the incredibly gracious sign-off: “I am only sorry I was not on your dissertation committee.” I too am sorry Ellenson was not on my committee. Most of all, I am sorry that our hoped-for next conversation will now never happen.
This winter, I intend to pivot my adult education class to a three-part series on the writings of Rabbi Ellenson. This morning, in honor of my teacher, I would like to speak to you about one dimension of Rabbi Ellenson’s legacy, his writing on Israel – the place where our heads and hearts have been every day and every hour these past months.
As noted by his prized students David Myers and Michael Marmur at last Sunday’s funeral, Ellenson’s scholarly career aimed to unpack the challenge of modern Jewish life: namely, how to remain authentically Jewish while simultaneously affirming the worth of Western culture. Ellenson’s studies of nineteenth-century German Jewish leaders like Rabbis Esriel Hildesheimer and Samson Raphael Hirsch reflected the push and pull, the hyphenated identities, the balancing acts of our secular and religious selves. Part intellectual history, part sociology of religion, Ellenson’s studies of Jewish personalities and communities often focused on the critically important but often overlooked literature of the legal/halakhic writing called rabbinic responsa. Influenced by his teacher Jacob Katz, Ellenson believed that it was by way of rabbinic rulings that the fault lines of Jewish communities in transformation were brought into full view. Influenced by the famed legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, Ellenson held that legal pronouncements, whether in the Supreme Court or the rabbinic court, are the statements by which a judge – or rabbi – strives to apply inherited legal rules and principles to a new situation in order to show the community the “best route to the future.”
One focus of Ellenson’s was nineteenth-century German Jewry, fascinated as he was by the question of how a minority Jewish community balances fidelity to tradition with participation in a non-Jewish majority. That is a question of which the through line begins in this week’s Torah reading with Joseph in Egypt, tracks through the history of German Jewry, and continues right up to American Jewry today. In studying the responsa of Israeli rabbis of the past hundred years, Ellenson’s question was different: How would a Jewish majority apply Jewish law and its principles in a sovereign Jewish state in the modern world? That is the question we will explore this morning.
Ellenson’s favorite rabbinic decisor was a man named Rabbi Hayim David Halevi. Born in 1924, Rabbi Halevi was the talmid muvhak, the prized student of the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel. A prolific author of nine volumes of responsa and more than a dozen other volumes on Jewish life, Halevi competed unsuccessfully for the post of Israel’s chief rabbi but was instead selected as the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, a position he held until his death in 1998. In Halevi, Ellenson found an exponent of Jewish law whose approach – and we will return to this point – was both traditional and open-minded. Halevi’s positions were both loyal to his predecessors and insistent that Jews living as a majority in a sovereign Jewish state faced new circumstances that their predecessors did not and could not have imagined.
Today I offer three brief examples, selected from three articles by Ellenson.
Number one. In 2001 Ellenson published an article called “Jewish Legal Interpretation and Moral Values,” a study of Halevi’s 1985 ruling regarding the obligation of the Jewish majority to the non-Jewish minority in its midst. In retelling the troubling biblical tale of King Saul and the Gibeonite tribe, Halevi establishes the intergenerational obligations of every Israelite leader from Joshua to King Saul to the present Israeli government to be concerned with the well-being of the minority populations in their midst. Halevi maintains that the slightest failure of a Jewish ruler to protect a dispossessed minority in its midst brings shame upon the Jewish people and discredits God before the nations, a sin that sits not just upon a particular ruler but the entire people of Israel. While we presently lack the time to get into the particulars, Halevi also explores the tale of King Saul and the death of his sons, raising another moral problem: the notion of distributive justice, namely that people should be put to death for the sins of others. Halevi not only notes the moral and practical problematics of retributive or collective punishment, he also explains its deleterious effect on Israel’s standing before the non-Jewish world. Halevi concludes by affirming Israel’s obligation to always relate to the strangers in its midst with integrity and fairness, providing a standard of living, health insurance, working pay – thus sanctifying the name of heaven and the name of Israel in the world.
Number two and a little closer to home. In 2007 Ellenson wrote another article on Halevi – this time Halevi’s 1981 treatment of the Talmudic principle of self-defense: ha-ba l’hargekha, if a person comes forth to slay you, slay him first. As Tel Aviv’s chief rabbi, Halevi was asked that if, as his questioner believed, every Arab is part of a larger public that despises Jews, would it not be the case that every Arab falls under the category of “one who comes forth to slay you,” implying that pre-emptively killing any Arab would be justified by Jewish law. Halevi recognizes the horrifying thought beneath the question and does a deep-dive exploration into what level of hostility is required to justify a Jew’s pre-emptive shedding of blood. While he notes the difficulty of assessing murderous intention and he affirms Israel’s right to self-defense, Halevi concludes by explaining that the rabbinic principle can be applied in one and only one instance – when there is absolute certainty that there will be a murderous attack. Halevi’s narrow definition precludes the possibility that general hostility against Jews – either by an individual or community – is sufficient justification for pre-emptive bloodshed.
A third and final example, this one cutting close to the bone. In 2001, Ellenson wrote on Halevi’s stance on pidyon sh’vuyim – the redemption of captives. According to Jewish law, to what ends may Israel go to save those captured by the enemy? Halevi’s response was not a theoretical exercise. His rabbinic ruling was written in response to a June 1982 battle when an Israel tank fell into Syrian hands and the Israeli government debated whether to exchange Arab terrorists for Israeli soldiers. The then chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Goren, wrote an opinion stating that Jewish law absolutely forbade the exchange of terrorists for captive soldiers. Such exchanges, Goren reasoned, would only lead to more hostage-taking by the enemy.
Halevi responded publicly to Goren’s position, arguing that prisoner exchanges were not unto themselves contrary to Jewish law. We can’t get into the particulars today (you can sign up for my class), but while Halevi acknowledges the cogency of Goren’s conclusion, he maintains that it is not a necessary one. Halevi explains that the precedents Goren cites are no longer relevant, because the circumstances in which a sovereign state of Israel makes decisions related to freeing captives are altogether different that those experienced by earlier rabbinic authorities. In Halevi’s view a present-day exchange of prisoners would not fuel the Arab desire to capture more Jews. Moreover, Halevi reasons that if an IDF soldier knew that the state would spare no effort to liberate a captured soldier, then that soldier might be more likely to risk his life during a moment of battle. Halevi openly asks the question of which imperfect option poses the greatest risk for Israel: strengthening the power of terrorists through the release of their comrades or not sustaining the morale of IDF soldiers in future wars should they occur? For those who know the history, while two soldiers of that 1982 battle remain missing in action to this day, and the body of one, Zachary Baumel, was recovered in 2019, three soldiers and three civilians were returned to Israel in a prisoner exchange in 1984. The questions we asked decades ago are the questions we are still asking today.
All of which, I believe, is exactly the point. Why did Ellenson care to write about these issues, and why should we care what Ellenson said about the legal decisions of some Tel Aviv chief rabbi that 99.9 percent of us did not know about until this morning? Scholar that Ellenson was, he was also a rabbi, and his scholarship was never detached from the present. To put it most simply (and I think Ellenson would appreciate me saying it this way): “What Suzie says about Sally says more about Suzie that it does about Sally.” Ellenson wrote about Halevi and the issues that absorbed Halevi’s world because the questions he was asking were the questions that Ellenson was asking. The questions on Halevi’s heart were a window into Ellenson’s soul: Israel’s treatment of its Arab minority; the conditions under which Israel may take preemptive action or exact retributive justice against its enemies; the lengths to which Israel should go to redeem captives. These questions, questions asked by Rabbi David Hayim Halevi and by Rabbi David Ellenson are the questions we are all asking today – literally today. Rabbi Ellenson retrieved Halevi’s writings, studied them, sought to identify the principled questions they raised because he believed, long before October 7th, that we should be asking such questions, too. I actually have no idea what Rabbi Ellenson would have said about the terrible choices Israel faces today, whether he would come out on this side or that side of an issue. It is the core of my present sadness that his powerful voice has been stilled. I am, nevertheless, comforted in the thought that he would want us to keep asking the questions, even without him. We best honor Rabbi Ellenson by asking the questions – respectfully, thoughtfully and thoroughly – in our agreements and our disagreements, in dialogue with the Jewish past and attuned to the ever-changing needs of the Jewish present. We honor Rabbi Ellenson not in our answers, but in our willingness to create a community capacious enough to house a conversation on issues of Jewish concern. That is how Rabbi David Ellenson led and lived. This is his legacy and, I dare say, how we keep the ongoing and contentious vitality of the Zionist dream – and his memory – alive.
T’hei nishmato tzrurah b’tzror ha-hayyim. May the soul of Rabbi David Ellenson, Harav Tzvi Dov ben Shmuel v’ Tovah, be bound up in the bond of life eternal, and may the blessing of his life continue to inspire us all.
Ellenson, David. “Jewish Legal Interpretation and Moral Values: Two Responsa by Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi on the Obligations of the Israeli Government towards its Minority Populations.” CCAR Journal (Summer 2001): 5-20.
_______________. “The Talmudic Principle, ‘If One Comes Forth to Slay You, Forestall by Slaying Him,’ in Israeli Public Policy: A Responsum by Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi.” In Studies in Mediaeval Halakhah in Honor of Stephen M. Passamaneck, edited by Alyssa Gray and Bernard S. Jackson, 723-79. (Liverpool: Deborah Charles Publications, 2007; Jewish LawAssociation Studies XVII).
________________. “Interpretive Fluidity and P’sak in a Case of Pidyon Sh’vuyim: An Analysis of a Modern Israeli Responsum as Illuminated by the Thought of David Hartman.” In Judaism and Modernity: The Religious Philosophy of David Hartman. Edited by Jonathan Malin, 341-367 (2001).