R. Shai Held: Remembering R. David Ellenson z"l

Friday, December 8, 2023

In a well-known teaching, the Talmudic Sage Shammai instructs us to “receive every person with a warm smile (be-sever panim yafot). Going further, Rabbi Yishmael teaches that we must “receive every person with joy.” Taken together, the two statements invite us to integrate how we are on the outside with who we are on the inside. Ideally, at least, we greet people warmly because we have genuinely warm feelings towards them. No one I have ever known embodied this virtue more deeply than my dear friend Rabbi David Ellenson, who passed away yesterday, leaving the entire Jewish community bereft of one of its most beloved leaders. David saw people, and more than that, he made people feel seen.

There is a great deal one could say about David Ellenson the scholar, who blazed a trail in the study of Modern Orthodoxy, and who brought a keen eye to many aspects of modern responsa literature; or about David Ellenson the institutional leader, who managed to run a major Jewish seminary with unmitigated and unfailing menschlichkeit. But the first thing one should say about David, I think, is that he was a beautiful person who really cared about people, who valued and nurtured them, and who wanted them to be and contribute all that they possibly could. And for that reason, it is no exaggeration to say that David was a role model for thousands of people.

David was big-hearted and generous. Nahmanides (Ramban) teaches that to love our neighbor is to want all good for them and to want only the good for them. I don’t know how else to say this: David was a paragon of loving our neighbor. He was noncompetitive, and he was always generous with a kind word or a warm compliment. You always left a conversation with David confident that he believed in you, that he was sure you had something significant to say or give. None of this was a show: he simply embodied the Jewish idea of ayin tovah, a kind and generous way of seeing others.

David was large, and no institution or movement could contain him. On the one hand, he was a committed Reform Jew, as he told me countless times. Yet on the other hand, if you cared about Torah and the Jewish people, you were part of his community, one of his people. Denominational boundaries, institutional rivalries– David’s heart and mind transcended all of that. That is reflected in the fact that countless leaders in the Jewish community– Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, post-denominational, or whatever– saw him as a mentor, a guide, and a fellow-traveler. When we founded Hadar, David was enthusiastic, unflaggingly supportive, and always willing to offer advice or encouragement. We consider it an honor that he was our teacher and our friend.

The late Rabbi Morton Leifman loved to say: “Soak it up, damn it!” David soaked up life. He took so much joy from learning something new, reading something stimulating, having a surprising conversation, and hearing about other people’s dreams and aspirations. That’s the David I hope the Jewish community will always remember: a person who found such delight in Torah, in the honest exchange of ideas, and in the simple art of human relationships.

May his memory be a blessing to us all.