Last Friday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert received three guests in his office, all with the double-barreled title of rabbi and professor: They are well-known scholars among American Jews and fairly well-known in Israel: Rabbi David Hartman, who heads the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and is associated with liberal Orthodoxy; Rabbi Arnie Eisen, the chancellor of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS); and Rabbi David Ellenson, the president of Hebrew Union College (HUC), the Reform Movement's rabbinic seminary.
Far from the discriminating eyes of the ultra-Orthodox, the earth beneath the prime minister's office did not tremble when Olmert addressed each of his conversants as "rabbi" and devoted time to those who would like to find loopholes in the wall put up by the rabbinic establishment.
The three found in Olmert a favorable view of initiatives to "increase Jewish identity among Jews" in Israel and abroad. They declined to elaborate on the content of the meeting, but a talk with Rabbi Ellenson, one of the most influential leaders among American Jewry, indicated which way the wind is blowing.
During his visit to Israel, Ellenson had a hard time getting over the depressing impression made by senior Israeli figures a few days before his departure from the United States at an international gathering of university presidents. On Saturday night, he related, a rabbi recited havdalah [marking the conclusion of Shabbat] for all the participants, and Ellenson noticed the Israelis. "One of them, the president of a very large university in Israel, told me he had never seen such a service and never even heard of its existence."
He was greatly saddened, said Ellenson. "I hate the word ignorance, I prefer to be more gentle, but I know that's how it is. What does it mean that an intellectual doesn't know what havdalah is? How would you describe it? And he is not the only one among the Israelis."
Since 2001, Ellenson has been the world president of HUC, and is leading the Reform movement alongside Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism. During those years, the movement has become more Zionist and also more halakhic [following Jewish law], processes that are associated with Ellenson, who is unique among those who have led the Reform movement in that he grew up in an Orthodox home. The smiling man with a neatly trimmed gray beard, even tells biting jokes about Reform Jews that he heard in his father's home in Virginia.
Halakha is also his area of academic expertise. In the 1970s he wrote his doctoral thesis on Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer, the founder of the Orthodox rabbinical seminary in Germany in the 19th century. Today he continues with searches of rabbinic rulings and the responsa of Orthodox rabbis from the 18th century to those to date and he writes on Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalisher, a leading Polish rabbi in the 19th century and one of the harbingers of religious Zionism; Rabbi Haim David Halevy, who was the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa and other rabbis. The common denominator of these rabbis is the halakhic solutions they offered for resolving the tension between tradition and modern life in a wide spectrum of areas. "It's not that I always identify with all their responsa, but I appreciate the efforts they made to cope with the challenges of the time," says Ellenson in Hebrew, which he prefers to use here. "I see them as a model and an example for me."
He noted that his choice of rulings by Orthodox rabbis is important not just for him personally; he leads a movement that defined itself by the rejection of Halakha. "There is also a symbolic importance for the Reform movement that there is someone who can represent them in these areas as well. Usually people don't expect to hear a Reform rabbi quoting from Rabbi Haim David Halevy."
Ellenson is now writing a book with Dr. Danny Gordis on rabbinic responsa on the issue of converts.
Apart from the annual seminar for rabbis held earlier this month by the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, Ellenson had a busy schedule in Israel, including a meeting with some 100 Reform rabbinical students studying at HUC in Jerusalem and an appearance at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute's conference in Jerusalem last week. At a session on identity and demography, experts presented data indicating a decline in the number of Jewish people due to assimilation.
When he took the floor, Ellenson chose to quote in English (the language of the discussions) from letters written by Orthodox rabbis in the 19th and 20th centuries.
"In 1864 there were people whose mothers were Christian and whose fathers were Jewish, and the question arose as to whether halakhically speaking, a lenient approach should be taken to their conversion and make circumcision and ritual immersion enough for them to be considered Jews," said Ellenson. "The rabbi of New Orleans forbade it, but at the same time, sent a query to European rabbis: what should the Jewish people's policy be on such questions.
"Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalisher wrote to him that not only is it permissible, but also in his opinion it is a mitzvah to convert such children. He wrote: 'Sometimes even sinners in Israel do mitzvot.' According to halakha, there is an obligation to circumcise them. Rabbi Kalisher did not consider them Jews from birth, but Jews from 'holy seed' and he wrote: 'who knows, perhaps Torah sages will spring forth from them.'
"In my opinion, it's important to address this," continued Ellenson. "Because we are facing the challenges of intermarriage abroad and also in Israel, there are many who immigrated from Russia and the establishment doesn't recognize their Jewishness. How does it help the Jewish people to reject those who wanted to be a part of the Jewish people? The halakhic definition is too narrow. People complain all the time about the shrinking Jewish people, and at the same time build walls to bar people, instead of encouraging them to join the Jewish people."
Ellenson is not disturbed by the fact that most Orthodox Jews, and not just the rabbinic establishment, would reject such converts for the purpose of marriage, for example. "In the modern world, perhaps it is possible that there will be a shared enviroment for the entire Jewish people, and at the same time the methods will differ. We don't live in the Middle Ages, when the Jewish community was really halakhic. Today things are different, there is a variety of streams in the Jewish world. If we look at the reality of the Jewish people in our time, we see that whoever is part of the Jewish destiny is part of the Jewish people as a whole," he says.
Before the conference participants, Ellenson also mentioned Rabbi [Joseph] Soloveitchik and his famous essay distinguishing between "a covenant of fate" and "a covenant of destiny": "Most Jews in the world would not agree with it today, but there is a covenant of fate. Jews who are willing to immigrate to Israel and be part of the Jewish people, who pay taxes, who defend the state in the IDF, who identify themselves as Jews, what benefit would be gained by the Jewish people if we don't accept them? Rabbi Kalisher's responsa is very relevant and can guide us in our era."
The Reform movement in the U.S. is expanding its borders and accepting more and more people from "holy seed" who identify as Jews, as well as homosexuals, into the rabbinate, but a no less interesting process, seemingly contradictory, is also taking place within the movement as more and more Reform Jews are seeking to redefine their Jewishness by relating to Halakha more seriously.
"We see increasing numbers of people wearing skullcaps and being careful about Shabbat and kashrut observance," said Ellenson. "Men and women are more interested in Halakha and want to observe Halakha. In my eyes, this is a positive phenomenon." In the U.S., he says, people of all religions are trying to get closer to their heritage. "You could call it tribalism," he says.
And what about ignorance? Is there ignorance only among secular Israelis?
"Apparently ignorance exists throughout the Jewish world, and that's the line that connects to all the streams of Judaism, in a negative sense. There is ignorance throughout the Jewish world, and it must be fought.
"The problem is that in the U.S. if people don't have knowledge about their Jewishness, then the connection to Israel will also be cut in a few more generations. That is our mission, to teach modern Torah. There a lot of people who neglect Judaism and don't know anything about it. They associate Judaism with ultra-Orthodoxy because they see something authentic in it, and in the meantime they can abandon Judaism. They think it can't contribute anything to their modern world. There is relevance to Judaism, we have principles and values that can guide people in the modern era."