For the Love of God and Peo­ple: A Phi­los­o­phy of Jew­ish Law

  • Review
By – January 27, 2012

Elliot Dorff has been wrestling with Jew­ish the­ol­o­gy and Jew­ish legal phi­los­o­phy for many years. As an aca­d­e­m­ic based at the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Uni­ver­si­ty (for­mer­ly the Uni­ver­si­ty of Judaism) in Cal­i­for­nia, he has pub­lished 200 arti­cles on Jew­ish thought, law, and ethics, togeth­er with thir­teen books, and lec­tures often on this top­ic. The cur­rent work is a pulling togeth­er of much of his pre­vi­ous posi­tions and flesh­ing them out in a struc­tured format. 

His papers have for­mu­lat­ed many of the val­i­dat­ed posi­tions of the Con­ser­v­a­tive Move­ment on infer­til­i­ty treat­ments and on end-of-life issues, and his Rab­binic Let­ters on human sex­u­al­i­ty and on pover­ty have become the voice of the Con­ser­v­a­tive Move­ment on those top­ics. Although he is high­ly regard­ed with­in the Con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment, this high regard does not always trans­late into agree­ment. In fact, learned mem­bers of the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary fac­ul­ty vehe­ment­ly dis­agree with many of his positions. 
Dorff, who received a Ph.D. in phi­los­o­phy from Colum­bia with a dis­ser­ta­tion on moral the­o­ry, believes that if a law is immoral based on our under­stand­ing, then it can and should be changed. The abil­i­ty to change a law is pred­i­cat­ed on the premise that the Torah is not the word of God. If the Doc­u­men­tary Hypoth­e­sis (key word is hypoth­e­sis) is accept­ed and the Torah was man-made then this log­ic holds: If man wrote it, man can change it. Dorff claims there is due regard for the weight of tra­di­tion when mak­ing changes and that com­mu­nal con­cur­rence should help guard against pre­cip­i­tous changes. Unfor­tu­nate­ly this has not always been the case. His posi­tion on homo­sex­u­al­i­ty almost split the move­ment. He places much faith in man’s under­stand­ing of what is moral, yet still main­tains that Jew­ish tra­di­tion embod­ies a rev­e­la­tion of divine truth and will. This seems very contradictory. 
This book will be judged by those who are empow­ered to act on behalf of the Con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment. If they accept Dorff s the­sis then cer­tain­ly more and rad­i­cal changes are on the way. The trick…” as Dorff states is strik­ing a bal­ance between assim­i­lat­ing to the out­side envi­ron­ment or cul­ture and assert­ing one’s own dis­tinc­tive­ness.” Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing this del­i­cate bal­ance is the man­ner in which Dorff selects rab­binic teach­ings upon which to base his inno­va­tions and inter­pre­ta­tions. Rab­bis in every gen­er­a­tion looked for prece­dents. It is high­ly unlike­ly how­ev­er that the rab­bis whose sources are cit­ed in some of these respon­sa would rec­og­nize the Judaism their deci­sions are pur­port­ed to sup­port, Dorff s demur­ral notwithstanding.
This book is a seri­ous attempt by a seri­ous schol­ar to address con­tem­po­rary issues fac­ing Con­ser­v­a­tive Jews. He devel­ops a detailed case based on in-depth analo­gies of organ­ism and covenant. He strives to under­stand the nature and func­tion­ing of Jew­ish law in a con­tem­po­rary set­ting. The strength of my analy­sis will depend on the extent to which what I sug­gest accu­rate­ly reflects the real­i­ties of Jew­ish law in the past and present.” For this review­er, this book does not meet that stan­dard. Had there been more hug­ging of the tra­di­tion instead of wrestling with it, perhaps.
Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

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