Why be ethical? Some Jewish reasons

Why be ethical? Some Jewish reasons

Rabbi Elliot Dorff admits to having what he calls a "stump speech." And, he concedes, it’s a bit "preachy."

Longtime director of the rabbinical and master’s programs at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University), where he is rector and distinguished professor of philosophy, Dorff — who will be scholar-in-residence at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center this weekend — will focus primarily on the subject of ethics.

But, he said, he will also find an opportunity to hammer home what he considers an urgent message, encouraging young couples "not to put off marriage [until] an age where they may encounter problems related to infertility."

"We’re not reproducing," he said, "and I don’t mean just as a result of assimilation and intermarriage. It’s a problem for the Jewish people."

Still, he said, he preaches to the older generation as well. Noting the mandate that parents must educate their children, he suggested that parents "have a responsibility to make it financially feasible for younger couples to afford things like daycare, day school tuition, and camp." And, he added, according to the Talmud, "the responsibility belongs not just to parents but to grandparents as well."

Dorff’s Friday night talk will take on the charge that "it’s not cool to think about ethics since society pays so little regard to it."

"People think of themselves as good but they’re not sure what good is, and they want to know what Judaism has to say about it," he said. "I’ll talk about the basis for the Jewish conviction and why we should care." Saturday morning’s talk will explore the theological component of the issue, or, said Dorff, "Where does God fit into this?"

On Saturday afternoon, he will target the issue of religion and politics, something to which he has given a good deal of thought in recent years. The rabbi, who holds a doctorate in ethical theory from Columbia University, serves on federal and state commissions exploring the issue of stem-cell research.

"By statute," he said, "I’m one of two representatives of religious groups" on these bodies. Despite his doctorate in ethics, he added, "I’m there as a rabbi." Dorff said that his participation in these and other government-affiliated bodies has caused him to do some rethinking on the issue of church-state relations.

While he still believes religion and government should be kept separate, he said, he has reviewed the work of founding fathers James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and has come to believe that they "did not intend to create a naked public square, devoid of religious tradition." Rather, he said, he believes it was their intention that every religious group "would bring to the public marketplace the strongest affirmations of their beliefs."

"The United States is much more religious than Western Europe," he said. "It is not realistic to pretend that this is not the case when discussing public policy. The challenge is to translate religious concerns into interfaith and non-faith terminology."

Dorff — who serves as chair of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and also teaches a course on Jewish law at UCLA School of Law as a visiting professor — is certainly no stranger to the "public marketplace." Among other activities, he served on the ethics committee of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Health Care Task Force (1993); provided the Jewish view on the subjects of human cloning and stem cell research before the President’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission (1997); and participated in the surgeon general’s commission to draft a call to action for responsible sexual behavior (1999 to ‘000).

Dorff’s Sunday presentation in Fair Lawn will focus on "the Jewish understanding of intimate relations," touching on "the Jewish understanding of sexuality and its role in our lives." Time permitting, he said, he will speak about marriage, birth control, infertility, abortion, and homosexuality.

The Fair Lawn Jewish Center is at 10-10 Norma Ave.

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