Approaching Jewish Law

February 1, 2006
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Ken Koltun-Fromm

The Unfolding Tradition: Jewish Law After Sinai.
Elliot N. Dorff. Aviv Press, 2005, 566 pp., $19.95

Elliot Dorff has put together a masterful collection of Jewish writings on the meaning and function of Jewish law within the Conservative movement in America. As one of the leading American theoreticians of halakhah, Dorff strongly defends the authority, continuity, and flexibility of Jewish law in contemporary religious practice. In Dorff’s view, legal authority is less about enforcement and far more about the social, political, and ethical factors that motivate behavior. Continuity with the law does not require slave adherence to it, but thoughtful exercise of traditional legal principles within new cultural and historical settings. And flexibility within the law will not yield social chaos so long as competent rabbis anchor their views in traditional legal categories. The title of Dorff’s book echoes these views of Jewish law: the authority of “tradition” and “Sinai,” the continuity implied in “unfolding,” and the appeal to flexibility through an “unfolding tradition” after Sinai.

The Unfolding Tradition is really an invitation to read and argue in Dorff’s classroom at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles (indeed, this book has its roots there). After a prefatory chapter on notions of philosophy and law, and another one on biblical and rabbinic legal theories that justify a Conservative approach to the law, Dorff then provides selections from various key figures within the Conservative movement, introducing each selection with his own view of its relative advantages and disadvantages. Beginning with Zacharias Frankel and moving through Mordecai Kaplan, Robert Gordis, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Joel Roth, and Gordon Tucker, among many others, Dorff explores with his readers the messiness of Jewish legal theory in all its variety. He then compares these middle-of-the-road views to those on the right (Yeshayahu Leibowitz) and left (the Reform movement), together with some legal theories that appear just on the border of the Conservative movement (David Hartman on the right bank and Eugene Borowitz on the left). Dorff concludes with a chapter on Conservative legal theories at work, including responsa on the Sabbath, women as witnesses, miscarriage, and letters pertaining to the ordination of women. All this provides a fascinating, compelling, and wide-ranging survey of Conservative approaches to Jewish law.

There are two intriguing features of The Unfolding Tradition : first, the relation between Dorff’s commentary and the selections from other Conservative thinkers, and second, the exchange of letters between Dorff and Eugene Borowitz. I am sure that Dorff struggled with just how much to say, and not say, about each selection; for in stating too much he limits the reader’s own interpretive freedom, but offering too little saps the reader’s ability to recognize distinctive features of the text. Every good teacher worries about this balance, Dorff chief among them. But Dorff has managed to do something quite extraordinary: even as he makes his views clear, Dorff writes in a style that invites challenges and arguments from the reader. Indeed, the very structure of the book enables this kind of give-and-take. I found myself disagreeing with Dorff, for example, on his understanding of Frankel and the relationship between rabbi and community. But drawing forth this kind of response from the reader is one of the great strengths of the book. This becomes breathtakingly clear in the exchange of letters initiated by Dorff’s review of Borowitz’s Renewing the Covenan t . Throughout The Unfolding Tradition , I sensed that Dorff conflated notions of community with rabbinic authority, such that appeals to community were instead strong defenses of the rabbi’s right to judge and determine law for the community. I wanted a fuller account of community, and Borowitz forces Dorff   to do so and to offer a more robust theory. Only when challenged by Borowitz does Dorff come clean on his views of rabbinic authority and its relation to the community.

In these letters between two great scholars and rabbis, we witness the exciting accomplishment of Dorff’s book: only when we confront the thoughts of others do we gain better clarity of the issues at stake, and in doing so the Jewish tradition really does unfold, through us , to inspire and sustain contemporary Jewish practice. Dorff’s book performs his theory, as it were, and for this we are all his students – and so much the better for it.

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