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For the Love of God and People: A Philosophy of Jewish Law by Elliot N. Dorff (review)

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 64, Number 2, Winter 2013
pp. 89-91 | 10.1353/coj.2013.0038

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The aphorism “a book is a reflection of its author” is especially apt as regards Elliot Dorff’s For the Love of God and People: A Philosophy of Jewish Law. Reflected in this volume are precisely the two qualities one associates with Elliot Dorff’s writing and persona: academic rigor made popular and relevant, as well as menschlichkeit.

Academic rigor made popular and relevant: I know of no author who can discuss philosophical, legal, and ethical issues with the clarity of Dorff. He simplifies matters without being simplistic, and he is able to clarify complexities while never talking down to the reader. His writing seems to defy the conventional classification of having to be “either scholarly or popular.” In truth, Dorff’s works are both. They are models of carefully researched and reasoned scholarship, and they are also understandable and relevant for a broad spectrum of readers.

Menschlichkeit: At all times Dorff is respectful of those with whom he differs. He cites their positions and rationales fairly (and at times even persuasively) and is never disagreeable while disagreeing. There is passion in his writing, but never anger. His own deep convictions notwithstanding, he seems comfortably to espouse an eilu va-eilu mindset.

The contents of the volume, as the title indicates, deal with Jewish legal theory and Dorff’s contention that Jewish law is best viewed as an expression of tripartite love: love between the people Israel and God, love among the people Israel as a community, and love between the people Israel and humanity. Discussions are devoted to such issues as: the resemblance of Jewish law to other legal systems, as well as its uniqueness owing to its “covenantal soul”; motivations to adhere to Jewish law; continuity and change in halakhah; the relationship between law and custom in Judaism; and most important, the relationship between morality, theology, and Jewish law.

Dorff presents ten ways in which law contributes to morality, while emphasizing that a new understanding of moral norms and their applications to new circumstances should legitimately affect contemporary legal determinations. It is in this context that he presents a brief discussion of the matter of same-sex relations and the eligibility of gays and lesbians to be ordained as rabbis. Dorff also candidly seeks to illustrate how his theory of Jewish law has influenced a number of his t’shuvot on contemporary halakhic issues reflecting scientific advances and changing moral sensitivities.

Since it is generally accepted that any fair and objective book review must contain some critiques, let me conclude with two.

In certain sections, notably at the beginning and ending, the personal pronoun “I” appears far too often. This is unfortunate, for it is uncharacteristic of Dorff’s modest word usage in his normal speech pattern.

The following is more of an observation than a critique. In the book’s concluding paragraphs, Dorff draws a distinction between the mara d’atra and the rosh yeshivah, pointing out that although the former may lack the erudition of the latter, he was often better qualified to render legal decisions because of a broader and more personal familiarity with the case and personages at hand.

Dorff is correct, of course. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky was the choice posek for many in the Orthodox world precisely because, in addition to his vast erudition, he had also functioned as a pulpit rabbi and was familiar with the realities of life. The bon mot attributed to Rabbi Isaac Elḥanan Spektor of Kovno (and several others as well!) advising a rabbi, when approached on erev Shabbat by a woman with a chicken and a she·eilah, “to look at the woman as well as the chicken” reflects this social concern.

There is also truth in Dorff’s formulation that “simply looking up some precedent” is an inadequate way of responding to medical-ethical dilemmas of the twenty-first century. One should rather engage in “depth theology,” he writes, “by identifying the underlying perceptions of human beings, human society, the role of medicine in life and the goals of both medicine and life as the Jewish tradition perceives all these things, to arrive at rulings that reflect these values and perceptions” (p. 295).


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