Author Archives: Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

About Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is Rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in California.

Caring for Elderly Parents

The question of how to care for one’s elderly parents is not a new one; Jewish sources mandate that children tend personally for their parents’ physical and psychological needs. Maimonides adds one caveat referred to in the article below: Those who are extremely disturbed by their parents’ dementia may arrange to have someone else care for their parent. The following article applies Jewish law to the complicated situation of today. Reprinted with permission from Love Your Neighbor And Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics (The Jewish Publication Society).

In modern times, of course, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to live near one’s parents. The mobility of contemporary society has meant that children often live and work far away from par­ents. This may be regrettable, but it is a real phenomenon that traditional sources do not contemplate. Moreover, facilities for caring for the elderly that were not available in the past are in­creasingly being created today, as the population of the United States, and indeed of the Western world, ages.


Objecting to Maimonides’ permission for a child who cannot bear to be with a demented parent to leave his or her care to oth­ers, Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquieres asked: “Whom can he command to take care of him”? That is, who would under­take to perform that which a person’s own child refuses to do?

Hiring Helpers

Today we have clear answers to that question in the form of people hired to help in various ways at home or in assisted living facilities or in nursing homes. In part, this is a function of the demise of the extended family, but it is also a result of the large increases in longevity and the numbers of elderly in our society.

The question, then, is whether the use of such facilities con­stitutes a violation of the traditional demand that care of one’s parents must be personal. It seems to me that it depends largely on the intent of all concerned. In one of the most sensitive comm­ents that the Talmud makes about the commandment to honor parents, the Rabbis point out that even the demands for physical care must be carried out with a proper attitude:

The Values of Jewish Texts

In the following article, the author describes his opinions on how Jewish text study can lead the student to live a more moral life. In doing so, he makes reference to three modern theologians: Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), founder or neo-Orthodoxy, also known as modern Orthodoxy; Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), founder of Reconstructionist Judaism; and Martin Buber (1878-1965), an existentialist thinker.

Study of texts can be morally effective…only if other actors are present. First, the teacher must be a moral role model. He or she need not know all the moral answers; on the contrary students gain a great deal in their own moral growth when they see their teachers openly wrestling with moral issues and actively encouraging students to express a variety of views for class consideration. However teachers must demonstrate a sense of moral integrity and seriousness.

Second, the home and the community need to support what students learn in text study. In modern North America, this does not happen, resulting in considerable dissonance between what the students learn from texts and what goes on in the rest of their lives. This is true for adults as well as for chil­dren. If one thinks that the traditional concepts or values themselves need to be changed, as Kaplan and Buber did, then the way that texts are studied—and the selection of which texts to study in the first place—must be carefully considered in order to attain one’s moral goals. In any case, the more the person’s home and community live in consonance with how the text’s values are taught, the more that text study can morally influ­ence students’ lives.

Outside Sources

Third, except for the most ultra-Orthodox, Jewish text study does not exist in a vacuum. It is complemented with the study of non-Jewish texts, whether they be in very different fields, like physics or art, or in related fields, like philosophy, law, and reli­gion. Intelligent study of Jewish texts will not reject out of hand what one learns from outside sources; on the contrary, learning about other matters can enrich and deepen one’s knowledge of Jewish values. Comparative analyses can clarify Jewish concepts and values.

Torah Study & Moral Behavior

In the following article, the author compares the thoughts of three modern theologians: Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), founder of neo-Orthodoxy, also known as modern Orthodoxy; Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), founder of Reconstructionist Judaism; and Martin Buber (1878-1965), an existentialist thinker. Reprinted with permission from Love Your Neighbor And Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics (The Jewish Publication Society).

Study can teach students the content of moral norms and the skills of moral judgment, and it can motivate people to act morally. In addition, the very act of studying itself might incul­cate moral values. Kaplan and Buber were not nearly as much convinced of this as Hirsch was.

Kaplan & Buber

Thus Kaplan did not even list study in his 95-page chapter titled “Basic Values in Jew­ish Religion,” and he continually declared that world better­ment is the aim of education, to be achieved through making the Jewish heritage relevant to the present moral and spiritual needs of Jews. In line with that, however, he advocated more study and less praying, since “worship and prayer are directed toward the attainment of peace of mind, [while] the study of Torah can set in motion all of the moral influences that go into the molding of character and the shaping of society.”

torah study and moralFor Buber, also, the aim of education was functional: It is a means to train good character by exposing the student to God as a model to the extent that the instructor can.For Buber, then, the text was only a vehicle for the instructor to reveal his or her own under­standing of what it means to be in dialogue with God.


Hirsch, though, saw immense moral value in the act of study­ing itself. That is not surprising, for Hirsch’s Orthodoxy directed him much more intensely to study the traditional texts. Hirsch believed that the process of intensive textual study was the way to inculcate a number of moral values. Specifically, morality is largely a matter of the proper exercise of one’s will. The devel­opment of mental skills, though, is also a matter of free will, since students will engage in concentration, analysis, memorization, and creative thinking only if they choose to do so. Thus “the entire intellectual schooling of our youth” is, in effect, a “continuous exercise in moral education,” since it trains the stu­dent to choose to act constructively.

Balancing Work & Home in Judaism

Reprinted with permission from Love Your Neighbor And Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics (The Jewish Publication Society).

In contemporary society, marriage and family are often balanced against the values of work. Judaism prizes work: “Six days shall you labor and do all your work” is as much of a commandment as “and the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God [on which] you shall not do any work.”business ethics quiz

Jewish sources make it clear that work is important for the welfare of society as a whole, for its contribution to the psychological health and self-worth of the individual, and for the economic support it affords to oneself and to one’s family. For some people, though, the secular work ethic prevalent in contemporary society has made work the sole value, a virtual idol.

Judaism would have us recognize the idolatry inherent in a life devoted exclusively to work and would have us balance our commitments to work with serious time and energy spent on other important values, most especially those of family. Overzealous commitment to work does have a deleterious effect on one’s sexual and family relationships, and the Jewish tradi­tion would have us remember that one’s family should take precedence over one’s job.

This is poignantly stated in the Rab­bis’ comment on Numbers 32:16, where the tribes of Reuben and Gad ask to stay in the lands the Israelites had already con­quered on the eastern bank of the Jordan River so that “we might build sheep pens for our flocks and cities for our children.” On this the Rabbis comment:

“They were more worried about their possessions than they were about their sons and daughters, for they mentioned their flocks before their children. Moses said to them: ‘Do not do that; what is primary should be primary and what is secondary, secondary. Build first cities for your children and afterwards pens for your flocks.'”

As both men and women in our society are increasingly tak­ing on the responsibilities of careers, then, it is important to reaf­firm that both men and women have critically important roles to play in providing marital companionship for each other and in raising their children.Working mom and child

Traditional Sources on Artificial Insemination

Reprinted with permission from Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

Artificial insemination is the oldest [modern] method couples and physicians have tried in their attempts to overcome infertility. Because it is the least invasive, the least dangerous, and the least costly technique available, it is still the first one used today when a couple cannot conceive through sexual intercourse because of sexual dysfunction, insufficient or abnormal sperm, or inadequate motility of the sperm.

jewish bioethicsFour sources within the tradition discuss insemination of a woman without sexual intercourse. Even though they do not reflect modern methods of insemination, they are commonly invoked in present‑day Jewish discussions of artificial insemination.

Conception in a Bath

The first occurs in the Talmud:

“Ben Zoma was asked: ‘May a high priest [who, according to Leviticus 21:13, must marry a virgin] marry a maiden who has become pregnant [yet who claims she is still a virgin]? Do we take into consideration Samuel’s statement, for Samuel said: “I can have repeated sexual connections without [causing] bleeding [i.e., without the woman losing her virginity],” or is the case of Samuel rare?’ He replied: ‘The case of Samuel is rare, but we do consider [the possibility] that she may have conceived in a bath [into which a male has discharged semen], and therefore she may marry a high priest…'”

However implausible such conception may seem to us, this talmudic source clearly contemplates the possibility of conception without sexual intercourse. Its simple meaning is that artificial insemination neither invokes the prohibitions nor leads to the illegitimacy connected with adultery or incest.

Some medieval and early modern rabbis had trouble imagining such a situation, let alone basing their legal decision upon it, and so they chose instead to interpret the passage metaphorically. Others, though, accept the possibility of such conception and interpret the passage at face value. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, for example, cited this source as one justification to permit donor insemination.

Jewish Surrogate Motherhood

The following surveys some of the moral issues with surrogate motherhood, offering the author’s own conclusions. Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

The major argument in favor of surrogacy, of course, is that it enables infertile couples to have children with the gametes of at least one of them. Not only is surrogacy thus a response to the pain of infertility for the couples involved; it is also a way for that couple to fulfill an important Jewish value and hope. 

Social and Economic Concerns

Those arguing against surrogacy on moral grounds (rather than, or in addition to, the American legal and psychological issues) have raised several objections. Some, like the Orthodox rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, find it inherently demeaning: “To use another woman as an incubator…for a fee…[is a] revolting degradation of maternity and an affront to human dignity.”

surrogate mothersIn like manner, the Conservative rabbi Daniel Gordis holds that surrogacy is degrading because it involves a “commodification” of the surrogate woman’s body, that is, a transformation of the woman’s reproductive abilities into a commodity that can be traded on the market. Further degradation comes from the limits imposed on the surrogate: Gordis cites feminist Carole Pateman as pointing out that “since surrogacy contracts typically limit a woman’s sexual activity after insemination, govern the drugs and foods she can consume, and have attempted (in some cases) to remove her option of abortion, surrogacy verges on the enslavement of women.”

Rabbi Gordis also worries about the social effects of surrogacy. Surrogacy will, in his view, accentuate the social and economic differences between the relatively rich couple and lawyer as against the relatively poor surrogate mother. A New York Times article he cites reported a typical surrogacy agreement in 1987 that provided $10,000 for the surrogate mother, $10,000 for the lawyer, and $5,000 for the medical expenses involved and for maternity clothes. (Surrogacy has become more expensive since then: the cost for a typical ovum surrogacy in 1994 had risen to $42,000.)

Artificial Insemination in Jewish Law

There are a multitude of Jewish legal and moral issues relating to artificial insemination, and Jewish authorities have staked out the entire range of positions on this matter. Rulings often distinguish between artificial insemination that uses the semen of the husband (AIH) and artificial insemination using donor semen (referred to as DI in this article, but also referred to in other literature as AID). In what follows, the author, a Conservative rabbi, surveys some of the issues and rulings pertaining to artificial insemination and provides his own answers to some of the questions he raises. Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics, published by the Jewish Publication Society.


Most rabbis who have written about AIH have not objected to it. Because Judaism appreciates medicine as a divinely authorized aid to God, AIH is not prohibited among Jews, as it is among Catholics, merely because it is artificial. 

Some rabbis, though, worry about the means by which the husband’s sperm is obtained. To ensure that there is no “destruction of the seed in vain,” in violation of the rabbinic interpretation of Genesis 38:9‑10, these rabbis advocate collecting it from the vaginal cavity after intercourse. However, an obstetrician I consulted, who has many observant Orthodox and Conservative patients, told me that collecting sperm in that way is simply “unrealistic.” Moreover, the vaginal pH kills the sperm, since it is more acidic than cervical mucus.

artificial inseminationOther rabbis permit the husband to use a condom (clearly, one without spermicide) for the purpose of collecting his semen for AIH. Some of these rabbis insist that the condom have a small hole in it so that there is still some chance of conception through the couple’s intercourse.

While I have no particular objection to couples using such constraints, it does seem to me that they are unnecessary, for producing semen for the specific purpose of procreating cannot plausibly be called wasting it. Even some Orthodox rabbis agree and therefore permit a man to masturbate to produce semen for the artificial insemination of his wife. I endorse this last approach. […]

Judging Preemptive Attacks

Excerpted and reprinted with permission from S’VARA 2:1 (1991)

It is worth underscoring that the Jewish tradition reluctantly justifies war and, in our time, only for self‑defense. Some sources, however, legitimate even preemptive wars for that purpose. How would that viewpoint apply to some of the contemporary instances of intervention?

Room for Disagreement

As one might expect, in some cases the application would be straightforward while in others it would be more ambiguous. In the latter cases, even those who have the same Jewish perspective on the general issue of preemptive war may disagree as to whether a given preemptive action is legitimate.

In many cases though, they would agree, and where they differ they would at least share the same universe of discourse so that they could argue intelligently about how to apply their shared values to the case at hand.

Clear Cases, Difficult Cases

Let us begin with some of the clearer cases. From the perspective of the Jewish value system, certainly Israel’s strike against Egypt on the first morning of the Six Day War was a justifiable act of self‑defense in view of Egypt’s bellicose words and actions in the prior weeks.

In light of the incessant rocket and terrorist attacks against Israel’s northern settlements, one could probably make the same case for the initial stages of Israel’s 1982 incursion into Lebanon, although probably not for the remainder of that affair. The Entebbe raid was similarly justifiable; citizens of Israel and other travellers on her aircraft had been kidnapped.

America’s strike against Libya was probably justifiable also, although the terrorist provocation for it, while likely in view of Libya’s past behavior, was not as publicly verifiable. All of these actions were, it seems to me, legitimately undertaken in the name of self‑defense.

American action in Chile, Grenada, Vietnam, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, and the Israeli bombing of Beirut are, from a Jewish point of view, much less defensible. The intervention in Chile in 1976 was at least restricted to nonmilitary means. Even so, its morality from a Jewish point of view is doubtful in light of the fact that the regime, communist though it was, did not immediately endanger the United States and, given its own internal weakness, probably would not have posed much of a threat over the long term either.

Defensive War

Excerpted and reprinted with permission from S’VARA 2:1 (1991).

The Jewish rationale for defensive war emerges in a talmudic discussion of when it is permissible to wage war on the Sabbath: 

“Rav Judah stated in the name of Rav: ‘If foreigners besieged Israelite towns, it is not permitted to sally forth against them or to desecrate the Sabbath in any other way on their account,’ and a Tannaitic source teaches the same thing. This, however, applies only where they came for the sake of money matters, but if they came with the intention of taking lives, the people are permitted to sally forth against them with their weapons and to desecrate the Sabbath on their account. Where the attack, however, was made on a town that was close to a frontier [the loss of which would constitute a strategic danger to the other parts of the country], even though they did not come with any intention of taking lives but merely to plunder straw or hay, the people are permitted to sally forth against them with their weapons and to desecrate the Sabbath on their account.” (Eruvin 45a)

Why is Self-Defense Permitted?

This passage establishes a justification for engaging in a category of war not mentioned in Deuteronomy 20 or in the talmudic analysis of obligatory and discretionary wars. Significantly, there is no explicit, biblical justification for engaging in defensive war. The rabbis do establish a duty of self‑defense for each individual on the basis of Exodus 22:1. As the Talmud puts it, “[I]f someone comes to kill you, get up early in the morning to kill him first.” (Berakhot 58a; Yoma 85b; Sanhedrin 72a) Because each individual has both the right and the obligation of self‑defense, one might reasonably infer that the community does likewise.

jewish war defenseRabbi J. David Bleich, however, points out that there are significant problems in justifying defensive war in that way because of the restrictions placed upon the individual’s right of self‑defense. Even if we expand our vision to encompass the obligation that each Jew has to intervene to stop a pursuer (rodef) from killing another person, we cannot, according to R. Bleich, find grounds from such instances of individual action to justify defensive war on this basis.

Jewish Resurrection and Organ Donation

Reprinted with permission from Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

A surprising number of Jews think that they need to be buried complete so that they can be resurrected [from the dead] whole, and that giving up an organ for transplantation would thus leave them without it when they are resurrected.

In speaking about organ transplantation with Jewish audiences across the country, I have found that this matter is almost always raised in the question‑and‑answer period if I have not addressed it earlier, and if I have already spoken about it, people nevertheless ask about it again. One might expect this objection from the Orthodox, but my own experience in hearing this concern in many Conservative congregations is borne out also by Judith Abrams, a Reform rabbi in Missouri, Texas, who has spoken about this subject to Reform audiences. This belief, then, is deeply ingrained in the folk religion; indeed, it is often expressed by Jews who are otherwise totally secular in their thought and actions. Modern rationalism goes only so far! 

Similarly, in Israel, when the Labor Party in 1977 failed to form a coalition with the religious parties in part because of Orthodox objections to autopsies, a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, interviewing an Orthodox rabbi in Tel Aviv, began his questions with this one: “Is it true that the Orthodox are against post mortems because at the ‘resurrection of the dead,’ (tehiyat ha‑metim) those who lack parts (or organs) from their bodies cannot rise from the grave?” The rabbi denied this in the strongest possible terms: “There is no truth in all this. It is some sort of mysticism to which we do not subscribe. When the dead arise, nobody will be excluded, even if parts or all of his body are missing.” He then explained that Orthodox objections to autopsies were based instead on fears of unnecessary desecration of the body.


A historical note on the Jewish belief in resurrection may be helpful in understanding both the popular belief that impedes donation and the rabbinic disgust with this belief. In most biblical literature, people after death go down to the dark realm of the dead, where they presumably no longer have an independent existence as persons. “The dead cannot praise You, nor any who go down into silence,” the Psalmist reminds God. Job and Ecclesiastes know of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead but deny it; it is only the Book of Daniel, chronologically the last book of the Hebrew Bible (c. 165 B.C.E.), that affirms this tenet.

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