October 13, 2019

Q-and-A With Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff Photo from YouTube

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, author of “Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice,” is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary and earned a doctorate at Columbia University. He is rector and the Sol and Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy at American Jewish University, a visiting professor at the UCLA School of Law, and founding dean of the rabbinical program at the University of Judaism (now the AJU). Dorff is a renowned, much-honored and widely published expert on Jewish law and ethics, and he has served on several state and federal commissions on various issues in health care and bioethics.

Dorff spoke with Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of the Jewish Journal, from his office at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. 

Jewish Journal: Your book can be approached as a work of scholarship, but it also serves as an introduction and an explanation of Conservative Judaism for Jewish readers, not only Orthodox and Reform Jews, but also secular and unaffiliated Jews. Standing on one foot, as Rabbi Akiba was challenged to do, what is the message you want to give to your fellow Jews about the Conservative movement? 

Rabbi Elliot Dorff: Conservative Judaism tries to integrate commitment to Jewish tradition and engagement with modernity by applying the tradition in wise ways to the secular culture of our times. There’s a misperception that it’s sort of like Goldilocks, not too hot, not too cold, just in the middle. In fact, Conservative Judaism is a particular philosophical approach which honors the historical development of Judaism, which has always integrated tradition with modernity. This has been true at least since Mishnaic times. As I say in the dedication of the book, I have deep appreciation for the people and institutions of the Conservative movement because “[t]hey gifted me with a form of Judaism that is totally honest and intellectually challenging while also being vibrant, joyful, caring, morally sensitizing, and profoundly meaningful.” 

JJ: Do you agree with the reports that attendance in Conservative synagogues has declined, and if so, how do you explain it?

ED: Yes, attendance at services in Conservative synagogues has declined. When I was growing up in the 1950s, my parents (my father immigrated to the U.S. when he was 12; my mother was born in the U.S.) and their contemporaries attended synagogue primarily for two reasons: They wanted to be clearly American, and Americans (that is, Christians) attended services once a week; and it was a major social event for them. My generation and those thereafter no longer need to prove their American identity that way, and so they need to have other reasons to bring them to services on a regular basis. For many who do come, the social interactions are still part of the draw, but most contemporary Jews need to find other meanings as well. That is, frankly, hard to achieve in worship because prayer is, in my view, the hardest Jewish activity to master because it involves so many skills. That said, as I describe in the excerpt in the chapter of this book on prayer from my previous book, “Knowing God,” prayer is like baseball in that people should not expect to get a hit, let alone a home run, each time they come. Indeed, just getting a hit once in three times at bat gives you a .333 average, which is amazingly high. Home runs in prayer, though, can come in many forms (just as home runs in baseball can be at multiple places along the outfield fence) — spiritual, moral, communal, aesthetic, educational, family life-cycle occasions, etc. — and so it is well worth the effort to learn the skills of prayer to have these experiences.

JJ: Whenever we discuss the differences between the various Jewish denominations, there is a sense that we are always measuring each one against a set of essential beliefs and practices that represent “authentic” Judaism. Do you agree that there is any such benchmark? If so, what are those essential beliefs and practices?

ED: I am a pluralist. I don’t think that the major problem in Jewish life is that we have too many denominations. If anything, that’s something we can teach our Israeli cousins. What is authentically Jewish is the attempt to try to take the tradition seriously in terms of its beliefs and practices and, at the same time, to apply them to what we know about science, economics and everything else in life. That said, there are certain central beliefs in Judaism — God, Torah and Israel — and that’s how I have structured my book.

JJ: Let me ask a very personal question. As a distinguished American rabbi, how does it feel to know that the marriages you perform, the conversions you supervise and even your ordination are not recognized by the State of Israel?

ED: How does it feel? Rotten! But it’s also a major issue as to why young American Jews are not identifying with Israel. I understand the history — [David] Ben-Gurion was trying to get everyone on board, and he made a compromise with the Orthodox, whom he thought would disappear in a generation, anyway. The fact that it’s still that way now has led to very bad things for Israel itself. You have Charedi men who can’t earn a living. Forgetting about me, even for them it’s not a good arrangement, and certainly not for Israel or the Diaspora Jews. I would hope that Israel would change the whole structure. One way of doing it would be to allow for secular marriages and divorces. Those who want to use the chief rabbinate will use it, and those who want to use other officiates, they can do so, too.

JJ: Your book is full of fascinating but often provocative examples of the intersection between Jewish law and Jewish values. For example, we discover that Conservative Judaism regards it as a religious obligation to have at least two children, and a third child is desirable in order to replace the Jews who were murdered during the Shoah. Even homosexual men and women are called on to procreate or adopt and to raise their children as Jews. Is this a hard sell to Jewish men and women who are accustomed to making these intimate decisions without rabbinical guidance?

ED: Absolutely! One woman responded by saying, “What are these rabbis doing in my womb?” And I understand it. American society is based on individual rights and individual choices, and as an American, I am proud of that. As a Jew, however, I realize that it has to be balanced against communal responsibilities. As one of the co-authors of the responsum [on the subject of child-bearing], I’m either famous or infamous for it, and I get a lot of blowback. But we have to realize that all of these individual behaviors have social consequences, and the consequences of a low birthrate for the Jewish people are really dire. We are really cutting ourselves as a people and as a civilization.

JJ: We do not have to look beyond the Talmud to know that Jews and even rabbis do not always agree with one another on even the most crucial questions of ritual and practice. If contention and diversity is one of the core values of Judaism, do you hold out any hope that Jews will ever be at peace with one another?

ED: I once observed that where there are two Jews, there are three opinions — and a man came up to me and said, “Do you really need two Jews for three opinions?” But sometimes the dissension covers up the core values that we share in common. With all of our differences of opinion, we really do pull together in trying to fight anti-Semitism, trying to make sure that Israel survives as a Jewish state, and trying to make this world a better place. When push comes to shove, the old saying is true: All Jews are responsible for each other.

This story was featured as part of Jonathan Kirsch’s Feb. 22, cover story