Remembrance of Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson

Sermon Delivered After Kaddish Prayers at the URJ 150th Anniversary
December 15, 2023Rabbi Rick Jacobs

This past Sunday, our Movement laid to rest one of our most brilliant and beloved teachers. Tonight, with full hearts, we remember Rabbi David Ellenson, z”l. 

Rabbi Ellenson exemplified all that we cherish and hold sacred in one human being. The great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “When I was young, I used to admire smart people; as I grow older, I admire kind people.” With Rabbi David Ellenson, we don’t have to choose between smart and kind; God endowed him with brilliance and goodness in equal measure.  

One of the great privileges of my rabbinic education was being a student in Rabbi Ellenson’s first class when he joined the faculty of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles as an assistant professor of modern Jewish thought. His command of Rabbinic sources and the western intellectual canon was simply dazzling, but his gift of relating deeply to each and every person he met was equally inspiring.  

Rabbi Ellenson served HUC-JIR as president from 2001-2013 and as interim president from 2018–2019, following the tragic death of Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D., z”l. 

I vividly remember the summer I said to Rabbi David Hartman, the founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, “If you’re really serious about pluralism, you need to have non-Orthodox teachers at the Shalom Hartman’s summer rabbinic seminar in Jerusalem.”  

Rabbi Hartman answered that, in order to teach at the Hartman Institute, a person had to, “really know classical Jewish texts.” This skill, he said, was “not often found in non-Orthodox rabbis.”  

“What about Rabbi David Ellenson?” I asked. Rabbi Hartman agreed to have him teach an elective that summer to see if he had the requisite text fluency. 

Well, all the Orthodox rabbis were curious about this Reform scholar who presumed to teach contemporary Jewish law, so they signed up for his elective. I listened as my Orthodox colleagues questioned Rabbi Ellenson’s knowledge of the sources. “Rabbi Ellenson,” they tried to correct him, “didn’t you mean the passage in beginning of Tractate Sanhedrin?” Rabbi Ellenson answered, “Of course, that’s a related source. But a better articulation of your point is found at the end of Tractate Eruvin.” With his signature kindness, Rabbi Ellenson answered their sharp questions with precision and generosity of spirit.  

At the end of that summer, Rabbi David Ellenson had become one of the most respected and beloved teachers at the Shalom Hartman Institute. This held true in every other setting that he shared his humane and profound Torah over the years. 

No one doubts that David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, loved the Jewish State. I’m confident that Rabbi David Ellenson loved Israel no less. October 7th and these last few months simply broke his heart. Israel was in the very marrow of his being.  

Describing Rabbi Ellenson as a brilliant scholar, consummate mensch, prolific fundraiser, passionate Zionist, and lover of the Jewish people captures only part of this larger-than-life man we loved dearly. 

In the Babylonian Talmud, that great compendium of Jewish wisdom, the passing of revered scholars and sages carries the tribute:  

"חבל על דאבדין ולא משתכחין — Chaval al de'avdin vela mishtakchin — 
Woe unto those who are lost and cannot be replaced." (Sanhedrin 111a). 

Today, we are the ones who are lost, and Rabbi David Ellenson is the one who cannot be replaced.  

His teachings, his goodness, and his example will never stop illuminating our Movement and our world. 

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