Dorff, Elliot N.

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DORFF, ELLIOT N. (1943– ), U.S. rabbinical scholar. Born in Milwaukee, Wisc., Dorff was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1970 and awarded a Ph.D. in philosophy by Columbia University in 1971. He then joined the faculty of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He later served as rector and distinguished professor of philosophy at the University and as a visiting professor at the ucla School of Law.

The author of 10 books and over 150 articles on Jewish thought, law and ethics, Dorff assumed a leadership role in the community as well, serving as vice chair of the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, co-editor of the halakhic commentary in Etz Hayim, the movement's edition of the Pentateuch, and president of the Society of Jewish Ethics and chair of the Academy of Jewish Philosophy and of the Jewish Law Association.

He was also deeply involved in public service. In the spring of 1993, he served on the Ethics Committee of then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's Health Care Task Force. In 1999 and 2000 he was part of the U.S. Surgeon General's Commission to draft a Call to Action for Responsible Sexual Behavior; and from 2000 to 2002 he served on the National Human Resources Protections Advisory Commission, charged with reviewing and revising the federal guidelines for protecting human subjects in research projects.

In Jewish Law and Modern Ideology (1970), Dorff delineates the different approaches of the various Jewish religious movements to Jewish law and argues for the authenticity of the one adopted by the Conservative Movement. While he affirms his commitment to uphold the traditional halakhah, he also supports the right to adjust it to meet radically altered conditions of living and even to change it in keeping with new moral sensibilities.

Dorff's most extensive work on Jewish law is A Living Tree (1988), co-written with Arthur Rosett, which traces the development of Jewish law through the past three thousand years, paying special attention to the rabbinic and medieval periods. It explains the relationship between religion and law and the interaction of the latter with morality.

Dorff's stress on the importance of law is also evident in his most speculative work, Knowing God (1994). Acknowledging that, as a pluralist, he accepts the relativity of all truth claims, he nonetheless believes that there is an "objective reality" that serves as the ultimate criterion for the truth of any system of ideas. However, this reality can only be known by us through "the perspective of a perceiving community," which depends for its existence on a system of law to define its principles and concretize them. Since "it is the Jewish community of the past and the present that decides (for Jews) which events are revelatory and what … the implications of that revelation are," the most direct way to experience revelation is through the study of the classic Jewish religious texts.

Dorff has written three popular works Matters of Life and Death (1998), which deals with medical ethics; To Do the Right and the Good (2002) on Jewish social ethics; and Love Your Neighbor and Yourself (2003), devoted to personal ethics. His knowledge of the moral issues faced by current medical practitioners is impressive, as is his willingness to address controversial questions raised by infertility and death and dying.

While being quite traditional in his personal practice, giving the longstanding halakhah "the benefit of the doubt," he tends to be more liberal in his rulings on issues of gender equality and homosexuality, for example. His general view is that the halakhah embodies the highest moral standards. When he feels that it does not, he is prepared to modify it, though he exercises great care to maintain the integrity of the structure of Jewish law. In this, as in all his teaching, he demonstrates the Conservative Jewish regard for the law and the role it must play in keeping the Jewish community loyal to the covenant of Israel.

[David L. Lieber (2nd ed.)]