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Ellenson, David Harry


ELLENSON, DAVID HARRY (1947– ), U.S. Reform rabbi and scholar of modern Jewish thought; president of Hebrew Union College. Born in Brookline, Mass., Ellenson was raised in an observant home in Newport News, Virginia. He received his undergraduate degree from the College of William and Mary in 1969, a master's degree from the University of Virginia in 1971, and his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1981. He was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (huc) in 1977, and from 1979 to 2001 was a professor at the huc campus in Los Angeles. In 2001, Ellenson was appointed as the president of the Hebrew Union College.

Over the course of his life, Ellenson has belonged to Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform communities. Consequently, some observers greeted his appointment as huc president as reflective of a new post-denominational trend in American Jewish life. Ellenson's wide-ranging life experiences, broad scholarly interests, and well-known affability have enabled him to forge connections with scholars and religious leaders of differing outlooks in the United States and Israel. At the same time, his vision of a liberal Judaism balanced by ethical obligation and personal autonomy, as well as a strong commitment to Zionism and the State of Israel, have infused considerable new energy into Hebrew Union College and the American Reform movement. Since becoming president of huc, Ellenson has been a vocal spokesperson on contemporary Jewish issues in North America and the State of Israel.

Ellenson's research has been devoted to the manifold efforts of Jews to mediate between tradition and modernity in a post-Enlightenment age, as indicated by the titles of three volumes of his collected papers: Tradition in Transition (1989), Tradition and Culture (1994), and After Emancipation (2004). Throughout these books, Ellenson extensively analyzes two types of Jewish sources: liturgy and halakhic responsa. In the first case, Ellenson has followed his fellow Reform scholars Jakob J. *Petuchowski and Lawrence *Hoffman in utilizing liturgical innovation and translation as a prism through which to understand the ways in which modern Jews adapt age-old ritual formulae to contemporary realities. Typical of his intellectual reach, Ellenson's study of liturgy has spanned the denominational spectrum and engaged German, American, and Israeli milieux.

The other major genre of literature that has occupied Ellenson's scholarly attention is the halakhic responsum. In a long series of studies of articles, he has sought not only to understand halakhic decision-making from within the Jewish legal tradition, but also to examine the shifting function of the responsum in modern contexts that are quite distinct from the well-guarded bounds of the pre-modern kehillah. His approach owes much to the historical sociological method of Jacob *Katz, with whom Ellenson studied. For Ellenson, responsa are important barometers of the struggle of observant Jews to remain true to traditional legal norms while confronting the challenges of modernity.

David Ellenson has devoted the majority of his research to Orthodox Judaism. His main monographic study, based on his Columbia doctoral dissertation, is Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy (1990) that traces the intellectual path of the founder in 1873 of the new-style Berlin Orthodox rabbinical seminar. Ellenson brings his historical sociological method to bear on a subject who, to him, personifies the central question of modern Jewish existence: "how to live in two different cultural worlds." Although their paths differ, Ellenson avers, "I have come to see much of his problem as my own."

[David N. Myers (2nd ed.)]

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