Elliot N. Dorff
Elliot N. Dorff (born 24 June 1943) is a Conservative rabbi. He is a professor of Jewish theology at the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) in California (where he is also Rector), author and a bio-ethicist.
Dorff is an expert in the philosophy of Conservative Judaism, Bioethics, and acknowledged within the Conservative community as an expert decisor of Jewish law. Dorff was ordained as a rabbi from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1970. He earned a Ph.D in philosophy from Columbia University in 1971.
Dorff is the chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, and has written many responsa (opinion papers and legal rulings) on various aspects of Jewish law and philosophy. (There is a separate article on Conservative responsa.)
Dorff's philosophy of religion
Among other topics, Dorff is interested in Jewish philosophy. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that addresses questions such as: "What is knowledge?", "How is knowledge acquired?", and "How do we know what we know?" In addressing this subject the first issue to note is that the terms "knowledge" and "belief" are often used interchangeably by religious believers, but technically these are very distinct terms.
As a philosopher, Dorff asks about the difference between belief and knowledge. Given the philosophical definition that knowledge differs from belief (knowledge is often defined as a justified, true belief), Dorff's works explicitly analyze epistemological questions. His philosophy of religion, as illustrated especially in his book, Knowing God: Jewish Journeys to the Unknowable, stems from the analytic tradition in philosophy, with careful attention to the grounds of justified belief. He claims, however, that the Jewish tradition did not base its belief in God primarily on intellectual activity because Judaism is theistic, believing in a personal God: just as we do not come to know people through creating proofs of their existence, so too that has not been the primary way in which Jews have come to know God. Instead, to know people we talk with them and do things with them, and the same is true for how we come to know God: We talk to God through prayer; God talks to us through revelation; we do things with God through following God's commandments; and God does things with us by acting in history. In Knowing God there is a chapter on each of those aspects of the interaction that gives us knowledge of God.
In his book, Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants, Dorff creates and then explains a chart of various views of revelation and Jewish law, including the mainstream Orthodox approach, four Conservative approaches, and the Reform approach. In it he describes himself as "Conservative III," according to which revelation holds no content in of itself; rather, God inspired people with His presence by coming into contact with them. In this view the Bible is a human response to our ancestors' encounters with God, and revelation continues each time we study and reinterpret Jewish classical texts.
In the spring of 1993, Dorff served on the ethics committee of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Health Care Task Force, and in March 1997 and May 1999, he, along with other rabbis, testified on behalf on the Jewish tradition on the subjects of human cloning and stem cell research before the president's National Bioethics Advisory Commission. In 1999-2000, he served on the U.S. Surgeon General's Task Force to create a Call to Action for responsible sexual behavior, and between 2000-2002 he served on the National Human Resources Protections Advisory Commission, charged with reviewing and revising the federal guidelines on research on human beings. He is now on the California Ethics Advisory Commission for embryonic stem cell research done within the state.
Dorff is a fellow of the Hastings Center, a preeminent research institution dedicated to the examination of issues in bioethics.
Other Areas of Ethics
Dorff has written several anthologies on Jewish ethics and theologies with his co-author, Carleton College religion professor Louis E. Newman. In addition, he has written books on social ethics (To Do the Right and the Good, and The Way into Tikkun Olam [Repairing the World]) and personal ethics (Love Your Neighbor and Yourself). His books on social ethics include chapters on interfaith relations, pluralism within the Jewish community, poverty, justice, war, and communal forgiveness. His book on personal ethics includes chapters on privacy, sexual ethics, family violence, how we talk to and about each other, parents and children, and hope.
In addition to these chapters on specific areas of ethics, Dorff has written extensively on issues in ethical theory—in particular, the relationships between religion and ethics and between Jewish law and ethics. These can be found in the first chapters and the appendicies of the books mentioned above as well as in his book on Jewish law, described below.
Dorff is a rare example of someone who has written about the theory of Jewish law and has also written rabbinic rulings (teshuvot) on a number of issues in Jewish law. In his book, The Unfolding Tradition, he describes and analyzes fifteen theories of Jewish law within the Conservative Movement with comparisons to theories on the right in Orthodoxy and on the left in Reform Judaism and yet further left. He articulates his own theory of Jewish law as a living, organic system in his book, For the Love of God and People: A Philosophy of Jewish Law. In addition to describing how he understands Jewish law as being like a human being with a body (=the body of Jewish law, the corpus juris) and soul (=the Covenant between God and the Jewish People), he has specific chapters on the interaction between Jewish law and morality, theology, and custom, followed by some comparisons to the right and left of his approach and some specific examples of his own rabbinic rulings that illustrate his theory.
In Los Angeles, Dorff is a member of the Board of Jewish Family Service and has served as its president (2004–2006). Since 2008 he has been a member of the Board of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation Council, co-chairing its task force on Serving the Vulnerable. Since the 1980s he has been a member of the Ethics Committees of UCLA Medical Center and the Jewish Homes for the Aging. He is co-chairman of the "Priest-Rabbi Dialogue" sponsored by the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and he is the former President and current Board member and Treasurer of the Academy of Judaic, Christian, and Islamic Studies. He is Secretary of the Board of the Faithtrust Institute, dedicated to stopping violence against women and children. He is a past president of three academic societies: The Jewish Law Association, The Jewish Philosophical Association, and the Society for Jewish Ethics.
Dorff has written over two hundred articles on Jewish ethics, Jewish thought, Jewish law and custom (halakhah), and bioethics and has written twelve books on these topics and edited or co-edited another twelve.
On December 6, 2006, the law committee accepted a paper by Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avram Reisner on same-sex marriage and ordination of homosexual rabbis, while it upheld the biblical prohibition on male intercourse. In addition, Dorff has written responsa adopted by the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards on these and other topics: end-of-life medical issues; artificial insemination, egg donation, and adoption; assisted suicide; donations of ill-gotten gain; and violent or defamatory video games. They can be found at the Rabbinical Assembly website, www.rabbinicalassembly.org under the link "Contemporary Halakhah."
- Jewish Law and Modern Ideology: A Confrontation Based on Source Materials: United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 1971.
- Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants: United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 1977; second, revised edition, 1996.
- A Living Tree: The Roots and Growth of Jewish Law (with Arthur Rosett): State University of New York Press, 1988.
- Mitzvah Means Commandment: United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 1989.
- Knowing God: Jewish Journeys to the Unknowable: Jason Aronson Press, now Rowman and Littlefield, 1992.
- Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality: A Reader(With Louis Newman): Oxford University Press, 1995.
- Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics: Jewish Publication Society, 1998.
- Contemporary Jewish Theology: A Reader(with Louis Newman): Oxford University Press, 1999.
- To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics: Jewish Publication Society, 2002.
- Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics: Jewish Publication Society, 2003.
- The Way Into Tikkun Olam (Fixing the World) (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005).
- The Unfolding Tradition: Jewish Law After Sinai (Aviv Press, Rabbinical Assembly, 2005.
- For Love of God and People: A Philosophy of Jewish Law (2007): Jewish Publication Society.
- The Jewish Approach to Repairing the World (Tikkun Olam): A Brief Introduction for Christians (with Cory Willson)(Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008).
- Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices—six volumes on moral issues on body, money, power, sex, war, and social justice, respectively, the first three edited with Louis Newman and the last three edited with Danya Rutenberg, Jewish Publication Society, 2008-2010.
For his responsa:
- Responsa 1991-2000: The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, 2001, The Rabbinical Assembly
- Proceedings of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement 1986 - 1990, The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001.
- Life & Death Responsibilities in Jewish Biomedical Ethics, Aaron L. Mackler, JTS, 2000
- American Jewish University
- Dorff's biography on the website of the American Jewish University
- Dorff's biography on the website Counterbalance
- Ben Harris (2006-12-06). "Conflicting Conservative opinions expected to open the way for gays". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Archived from the original on 2006-12-11. Retrieved 2006-12-07. "At the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, leaders long have made clear their intention to ordain gay rabbis if the law committee allowed it. At Wednesday’s meeting, Dorff, rector of U.J.’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, said he expects the seminary to announce a final decision within weeks.."