December 14, 2018

Q&A With Rabbi Elliot Dorff

In the age of 140-character tweets and 38-second video clips, the Conservative movement is putting its foot down with a nearly 1,000-page reference tome, “The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews.” The book, published by the Rabbinical Assembly and edited by Rabbis Martin S. Cohen and Michael Katz, elucidates topics ranging from the expected — prayers, lifecycle events, dietary laws — to more abstract matters, such as taxation, intellectual property, being single, and the ethics and obligations of being a co-worker, a sibling or a grandparent.

Thirty-five leading thinkers in the Conservative movement wrote essays for the just-released book, using a thorough treatment of traditional sources to understand the contemporary application for modern Jews.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at the American Jewish University, penned chapters on charity, caring for the needy and same-sex relationships. Dorff, author of 17 books and a past president of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, as well as chairman of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, sat down in his home to talk about the book and the movement.

Jewish Journal: This is a big book, and it’s dense, with dozens of essays and four introductions. Who is this book written for? Who is going to read it and why?

Elliot Dorff: I think the intentions of the editors, Martin Cohen and Michael Katz, and the intention of [the publisher], the Rabbinical Assembly, is that, minimally, it is for rabbis to use in adult education kinds of settings. There are extensive essays on a whole series of issues of the observant life. So it includes kashrut, and Shabbat and holidays, but it’s not only that. It’s very much how you act in business; with medical issues; how you speak to each other and about each other; questions of citizenship in a democracy; of war — a whole series of things that Judaism really has a lot to say about.

But I think this book was deliberately written so anyone with a college education, and even someone with a somewhat reasonable high school education, should be able to read the essays and gain a lot from them. 


JJ: Much of American Judaism is moving away from denominational distinctions. People are identifying more as “just Jewish” than as Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. The Conservative movement, in particular, is the most rapidly shrinking. This is a very denominational book. Why do this now?

ED: There are several reasons to do it. Those of us involved in the Conservative movement for a long time have known that its vision of Judaism is intellectually honest and passionate and very wide-ranging. And this is an attempt to try to express that vision to anybody who is interested in reading it. 

I think the people who wrote for it, myself included, believe that the denominations do have a role to play in modern Jewish life. Young Jews who are trying to be post-denominational in the end, I think, will find that they’re going to have to create institutions for themselves and their children, and those institutions will be of different sorts, depending on what kind of Judaism they want to practice. So even if you don’t call it Orthodox, Conservative or Reform anymore, in the end, you have something like denominations.


JJ: What wisdom does Conservative Judaism in particular have to offer?

ED: Like every other American, I was not born with “Conservative Jew” branded on my forehead. This was something I actively chose, first as a teenager and later as an adult. And I think the reasons are very simple, namely that Conservative Judaism effectively says you can be traditional and modern in the strongest senses of those terms, while being completely intellectually honest, barring no questions whatsoever, and also really passionate and joyful.

For me the most important thing in my own religious development was a series of discussions with Rabbi David Mogilner, alav ha-shalom [may he rest in peace], who was director of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin in 1958, when I was 15 years old. We had a series of discussions with him on Monday nights with those in the division, and he was on the attack, saying ‘Why would anyone in his or her right mind believe any of these Jewish things, or do them?’ And he started with very concrete things, like kashrut and Shabbat, and he went to more abstract things, like revelation and prayer and God. And the thing that was most important to me was not any of the answers anyone suggested, but that here was someone clearly devoted to Jewish tradition, and yet he was not only willing, but actually eager to ask all kinds of questions that would upset the entire apple cart. What he showed me through that was, you didn’t have turn off your mind in order to be seriously Jewish. 


JJ:  So why is the movement shrinking, and what is going to turn it around?

ED: The vast majority of Jews are not getting married till their late 20s or early 30s. You have a 30 percent chance of having infertility problems [between ages 27 and 35], but if they are lucky enough to have children, it’s probably going to be one or two, and not three or four. 

And the tendency is not to get involved in trying to build a community until you are married and having children. That was the case even in my generation, but in my generation people got married earlier. 

So I understand that stage in life when you’re a young adult and want to be independent and don’t like institutions, and that’s fine up until around age 25, and beyond that you need to grow out of it. I think the thing that helps people grow out of that is getting married and having children. The fact that people are postponing that sometimes till their late 30s — I think that is the major reason the Conservative movement has shrunk.

I go around telling young Jews that it’s not too early to get married while in graduate school and to begin to have children, because the pressures of your first jobs, if anything, are going to be worse than the pressures of graduate school.


JJ: So you think it’s more of an issue of birthrate and demographics than people just deciding to leave?

ED: I don’t think it’s an ideological thing at all. To be honest, I think Conservative Judaism is the most authentic and wisest form of Judaism around. 


JJ: You wrote the chapter on same-sex relationships in this book. Early on, you staked out a very supportive stance on same-sex relationships. The chapter encompasses the range of views within the Conservative movement, but do you think that when the editors asked you to write this chapter they were making a statement about how this question is ultimately going to be answered in Conservative Judaism?

ED: You’d have to ask Martin Cohen, but that did occur to me. …

This is still very much an open issue in the Conservative movement. That was indicated by the vote of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards on Dec. 6, 2006, where after a lot of discussion and draft papers, there ultimately was a vote of 13 in favor of Rabbi [Joel] Roth’s teshuva [responsum] that would not permit gay and lesbian marriage or openly gay and lesbian rabbinical students, and 13 for the teshuva [that allowed both of those.]

Having said that, I have always thought that in many ways this is a generational issue. (I’m 69 and really old to be on this side of this debate.) The statistics are that people under age 40 are much more accepting of gays, and now we have statistics that say that a majority of Americans favor gay civil marriage. So do I think this is the way in which the Conservative movement is going to go over the course of the next generation? Yes, because I think that is the way America in general is already going. 

But that is not the reason why I came to my own personal decision. It was first the fact that I knew a lot of gay people who were seriously Jewish, along with the scientific evidence [about the nature of homosexuality] that convinced me that we simply had to confront this issue in a way that our ancestors had not.


JJ: In your chapter on caring for the needy, you touch on a lot of issues that are potentially political, such as immigration, health policy and public support for the poor. This is such a polarized political environment; did you feel you had to be careful with what you said?

ED: Yes. Yes.  Well, I mean, I’m a member of Rabbis for Obama — I think I’m actually a vice president of Rabbis for Obama — and that’s public, so my political leanings are pretty clear.

One of the things I learned a lot from was a project I did on poverty in the 1980s with the American Jewish Committee. … In Washington, D.C., we listened to staffers of a liberal member of congress, a moderate member and a conservative member. And I went in there expecting that the conservative member was going to be just mean and self-centered, but that wasn’t the case. He was arguing for us not to be enablers for families who one generation after another depend on welfare. And to some extent, the welfare-to-work approach is very Jewish, because if you look at Maimonides’ ladder of charity, the highest rung is to help someone earn a living. 

Having said that … the Republican budget takes away Head Start, it takes away programs for pre-K and it takes away a lot of the Pell grants and funds for college. I don’t know how you can justify that in any kind of reading of the Jewish tradition. And in terms of the poor, yes, everyone wants to get them the skills they need to earn a living, but in the meantime you have to recognize that you need to have a safety net in terms of food, clothing, health care and shelter to enable people to live while they’re getting the skills to earn a living on their own. And I don’t see how Jewish tradition can be read any other way, to be honest.