Remembering Rabbi David Ellenson (z”l)

14 December 2023
Rabbi David Ellenson

Photo credit: Ajh0307, Wikimedia Commons

One week ago, the worldwide NIF community lost one of its most beloved and distinguished members. David Ellenson, renowned rabbi, scholar, and thinker, died suddenly of a heart attack in his home in New York on Thursday, December 7. David possessed the rarest combination of qualities: he was, at once, a brilliant and wide-ranging scholar, a spellbinding lecturer and legendary teacher, and the kindest and most embracing person there was. His own personal journey—moving from his parents’ Orthodox home in Newport News, Virginia, to diverse Jewish communities in Israel, Los Angeles, and New York—inculcated in him a remarkable spirit of tolerance. He maintained the friendliness of a small town boy with all of the sophistication of a world-class intellect. Indeed, for all of his manifold achievements, David had no airs or pretenses, even when he assumed the presidency of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he served with great distinction from 2001-2013 (and then again briefly from 2018-19). To meet him was immediately to become a friend of his, regardless of your status, origin or identity. 

David taught thousands of students over the course of his career at Hebrew Union College (HUC), USC, UCLA, Brandeis University, the Hartman Institute, and the Wexner Foundation. Some of them knew him as rabbi and others as professor; regardless of the title, many would agree that David was their favorite teacher. He was also a prolific scholar who authored seven books as well as hundreds of articles. His intellectual breadth was vast, ranging from medieval philosophical and legal discourse to nineteenth-century German Jewish intellectual history to the adaptation of Judaism to the challenges of the twentieth century. One of his books, After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Response to Modernity, won the National Jewish Book Award for 2006. The central question that animated both his scholarship and personal life as a Jew was how to balance the forces of tradition and the forces of modernity. He understood the many different ways that Jews have navigated this tension; his writings on the subject are among the most influential of any Jewish thinker in the United States over the past half-century.

So too, as a scholar and a Jew, David Ellenson was deeply connected to Israel. He felt at home living there, loved the Hebrew language, and actively sought, especially as president of HUC, to widen the spectrum of Jewish religious expressions in the state. He wrote extensively about Israeli legal scholars who sought to accommodate the demands of halakhah to the realities of a modern state. He was particularly drawn to figures such as Rabbi Hayim David Halevi, the Jerusalem-born Sephardic scholar who promoted the ideals of inclusivity—especially of non-Jews—in his conception of Jewish law in the state of Israel. David was deeply concerned about the political direction of the state during the Netanyahu era, but he never surrendered his profound bond to Israel. 

David Ellenson provided many gifts to the Jewish people and the struggle for justice and equality in Israel, including his five children Ruthie, Micah, Hannah, Nomi, and Rafi. NIF was the beneficiary of the prodigious labor of Hannah Ellenson, who inherited the Jewish and Israel passions of her father and mother, Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson. Hannah was the much-loved associate director of NIF’s New York/Tri-State region, brilliantly advancing the cause of justice and equality in Israel, before deciding to follow in her parents’ footsteps by studying for the rabbinate. 

On a personal note, I must add that David Ellenson was one of my closest friends in the world—a person of immense moral, emotional, and intellectual depth. In the famous exchange between two great German Jewish figures, Gershom Scholem chided Hannah Arendt for not possessing enough Ahavat Yisrael, love of Israel. Arendt admitted that she was capable of loving people, but not a people. David Ellenson had the unique ability to love, with all his heart and soul, both his people and all people, without discrimination. He has left a gaping hole in the hearts of all who knew him—and given his many friends the challenge of making the world a kinder and more compassionate place.

David N. Myers is the immediate past president of NIF’s board. He is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA as well as the director of the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy.