Friday, December 8, 2023 – כ״ה כִּסְלֵו תשפ”ד
This week the world lost a giant. Rabbi Professor David Ellenson left this world too early. And he left a tremendous legacy of scholarship of his own and he raised a generation of rabbis, cantors, educators, and scholars. Having been one of the last of his ordainees, I will dedicate this column specifically to his Zionism and his love for the people, the Land, and the State of Israel.
“I really consider myself to be a failed Zionist,” David (as he would always insist on being called) once commented. A ‘failed’ Zionist because he described only truly feeling a sense of shlemut – not so much “wholeness” as “normalization” while in Israel and especially during his year on Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek after college graduation. (Incidentally, immediately after the events of October 7th, Mishmar HaEmek opened its doors and made arrangements to host the surviving members of Kibbutz Nachal Oz where they are currently living two months later).
David loved Israel with all of his heart, his might, and his soul. He read, in Hebrew, not only ancient or philosophical and halakhic literature, but also modern Israeli literature, novels, and contemporary scholarship. He once joked that he was sitting down on a plane, and began to read the recently released book of a professor with whom he was to share the dais at a conference to which he was traveling. The passenger sitting next to him looked over and said, “Are you American?” He replied in the affirmative, to which his seat neighbor said, “ok, I guess you did better than me in Hebrew school!”
Ellenson’s belief in, and embrace of Reform Zionism led him to find the balance of universalism and Zionist particularism, nation and religion, America and Israel, and individualism and communalism – all of which promoted an ethos that constructs a sense of meaning in today’s world. Reform Zionism according to Ellenson, provides that central repository of tradition, inspiration, and values that helped him, and hopefully his fellow American Jews find that meaning.
“The Jewish people have ‘returned to history’ with a degree of power unknown for the previous two millennia. Reform Zionism needs to know and affirm the religious significance of this fact. The monism of universalism must be rejected. Our Zionism must be built upon the dialectical foundations of universalism and particularism and the interplay between them. Both poles must be accorded religious legitimacy by our movement, for only then can a platform be constructed in which each can inform and, at times, provide a corrective for the other. In so doing, a new ground for our Reform Zionism will be established.”
Quoted at length in Prof. Gil Troy’s important 2017 compendium The Zionist Ideas, Ellenson outlined his belief that “nothing should obscure or deny the religious significance the state [of Israel] possesses by virtue of the sheer fact of its existence.
“Two decades ago,” he recalled, “I lived for a year at Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek, a kibbutz of HaShomer HaTzair, located in the Jezreel Valley next to Megiddo. On many afternoons, after the day’s work had been completed, I would walk up the hills of the kibbutz. There, I would gaze out onto the valley below. And each time, when I looked, I would see the orchards and the irrigation pools, the cotton fields and the trees, the factories and the roads – and most of all the people. And I would think of the words which with the prophet Amos concluded his preachments to the people Israel: “A time is coming- declares Adonai… I will restore my people Israel. They shall rebuild ruined cities and inhabit them…” I would be deeply moved.
After some time on top of the hill, I would return to the kibbutz, and there I would see families sitting together and talking on the lawn. I would watch little children tumble and run after one another, screaming all the time in Hebrew. At this point, the words of the Shehechyanu would silently form in my heart and escape from my lips… In those moments, my spirit moved me instinctively to thank God for the kiddush ha-hayyim the sanctification of life, that the Jewish State and Jewish existence embody.
Our people’s return to our Land is not simply mythic. 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. I cherished the memory of our discussions as we searched for new models and he encouraged me to reject the model of Ahad Ha’am who saw Israel as a singular center with arrows reaching out to Diaspora communities, preferring the model of Simon Rawidovicz who proposed an ellipse with two focuses along the ancient model of Jerusalem and Babylon, suggesting that Israel and the Diaspora would be equal and critical gravitational centers that shape and define the Jewish people and would be co-creators of Jewish life.
But current events also weighed on him. As reported in the Forward, several months ago, Ellenson had started to draft a couple of essays on the judicial reform debate in Israel but then halted his work after the Hamas terrorist attacks on Oct. 7. The grave situation in Israel troubled him, and he was unsure how to proceed, unsure if his point of view was all that perspicacious.
“I’ve moved both to the left and to the right,” he said with a smile, referring to his religious and political sensibilities, respectively. “Then again, so have a lot of fine people,” he surmised, ever humbly. “I’m unsure if I should move forward with this writing.”
He wrote endlessly about the importance of Israel embracing its Jewish and democratic nature, and the halakhic and legal debates over religious and social issues such as conversion to Judaism and Israel’s Law of Return. As a scholar, he brought to light obscure and little-known thinkers whose views and writings had tremendous significance for offering contrarian opinions. As a thinker, he went to great lengths to oppose dangerous and racist viewpoints coming out of extremists in the Religious Zionist camp. It was important to David to speak out against the controversial rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Eltizur of Yeshivat Od Yosef Chai in the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, known for its extremism, who provide an extremist reading of Judaism in arguing for Jewish dominance and aggression towards non-Jews in the State, in their 2009 book, Torat Ha-Melekh: Berure Halakhah Be’-inyene Malkhut U-Milhamot (The King’s Torah: Legal Jewish Clarifications Regarding Matters of Kingdom and Wars).
“One need not be an expert on Jewish law,” Ellenson wrote, “in order to note the frightening and horrific implications of this work. Its practical effect is to call for vigilante actions on the part of Jews against Palestinian Arabs. It is therefore hardly unsurprising that Shapira and Elitzur were arrested by the Israeli police following the publication of Torat Ha-Melekh on charges of incitement and publication of racist materials, though ultimately neither of the rabbis was indicted.”
In contrast, Ellenson lifted up the lesser-known voice of Rabbi Haim Hirschensohn (1847-1935) put forth in his Jewish legal work, Malki Bakodesh (My King, in Holiness), written one year after the Balfour Declaration in response to the 21st American Zionist Conference held in Pittsburgh in 1918. The conference, chaired by Justice Louis Brandeis, proposed that the future Jewish State, like the United States, be founded on the principles of democracy. One plank in the platform called specifically “for political and civil equality irrespective of race, sex, or faith of all the inhabitants of the land.” Rabbi Hirschensohn, a native of Safed who moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1904, believed that the moment demanded an Orthodox response.
“At great length, I analyzed Rabbi Hirschensohn’s position. He asserted, in complete contrast to the views put forth by the rabbis of Yeshivat Od Yosef Chai, that the new political regime had to be a democratic one that rested its legislative authority on the will of all its people. He maintained that Jewish law mandated a democratic legal system invested with power by public consent and conducted in accord with ‘justice, righteousness, and impartiality’ for all its citizens.” Hirschensohn concluded his argument by proclaiming, “Democratic conduct like this, that is, a republican form of government with direct elections in which everyone enjoys equal rights in accordance with the highest standards of advanced civilization, will be the form of government in Israel.”
In an age where a Torat Ha-Melekh appears, the writings of Rabbi Hirschensohn shine out as a beacon to persons seeking a “usable Jewish past” to guide their deliberations about the Jewish state today. It is my hope that they will receive the wider attention they deserve and provide needed guidance to the State of Israel in these days of turmoil and discord.”
Beyond his scholarship, David would make a point, on almost every visit to Israel, to spend time with his Israeli rabbinical students whom he cherished and saw as those laying the groundwork for the manifestation of the theoretical framework of Reform Zionism. And he would also make the trek out to Kibbutz Tzuba to spend time with our Reform High School program EIE (now Heller High).
It is rare that any scholar or Reform rabbi was able to so seamlessly move back and forth between North America and Israel, to be greeted with admiration and respect in both Academic and religious circles on either side of the ocean, and to have such a deep love and respect for the abundance of Jewish cultural and religious contribution coming from the Jewish State. That was David.
At this fraught moment when Israel is at war and the notion of a liberal Zionism for Diaspora Jews feels at times like it has been relegated to the bookshelves of the theoretical, let us embrace the Zionism of David Ellenson. A deep and unmitigated love for the people, the Land, the culture, the religion and the State of Israel, alongside a serious and thoughtful tokheicha (rebuke) to the extremist and undemocratic trends surfacing and now ruling in Israel. His was a Zionism of love, of intellect, and one that was interwoven into every fiber of his being. He will be sorely and deeply missed.
יהי זכרו ברוך, זכר צדיק לברכה