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Some Thoughts on Elliot N. Dorff, To Do the Right
and the Good:
A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics
(Philadelphia: JPS, 2002)
By Sasson Lerner
Posted April 22, 2003
It should be noted that, regrettably, I had no time
to read the whole of Dorff's book -- which obviously means that for the time
being I missed much of the author's thesis. Still, it seems that those parts of
the book which I have read -- the preface and the two appendices -- allow for
some preliminary conclusions.
definitely not an apologetic work -- it is not bent on showing that the
"Jewish approach to modern social ethics" is the best thing around, and
although it strives to show the positive sides of this approach, it openly
admits the existence of negative sides as well. Dorff is careful to point out
that every existing ethical tradition has its own advantages and
drawbacks, and that for this very reason all such traditions are worth study to
enable appreciation and utilization of their positive sides and sharpen one's
sensitivity to the negative ones.
admits that he opts for the Jewish approach rather than others mentioned in his
book only for reasons of ethno-cultural tradition and religious belief: "I find
the Jewish tradition's approach to moral questions interesting, first, because
it is my own tradition... In addition to that ethnic reason, I indeed believe
that God really wants Jews, and perhaps all humanity, to abide by this
tradition." But this
perception of God's will notwithstanding, Dorff does not deny the value of
other approaches to the same subject:
important thing to note is that no human being can be a completely objective
observer, none of us can attain the vantage point that Judaism ascribes to God
in His omniscience. Instead, each of us must look at the world from a
particular perspective, through a particular set of lenses. We both can and
should learn about other people's perspectives -- we can try on other people's
or other religion's eyeglasses, as it were -- but ultimately we must come to
recognize that each religion and secular philosophy suggests a different way to
think and act based on its specific way of seeing who we are and who we ought
to be. Moreover, each perspective, as a human product, inevitably has its
strengths and weaknesses; even the religions, or the forms of religions that
claim to be revealed directly by God ultimately have to be interpreted by human
beings with their particular limits and assets, insights and prejudices.
Note especially the last sentence -- I do not think
that apologists of the common variety with would affirm it with this degree of
certainty and emphasis. Regrettably, though, inaccuracies of this kind and ones
even worse abound in the book. For example, on a single page Dorff speaks first
of the Jewish tradition having "close to four thousand years of experience in
trying to understand individuals and communities," and then asserts that the
biblical tradition, though to a lesser extent than the rabbinic tradition,
embodies "the experience of judges who see the highs and lows of human life
each day in their courtrooms."
Both these statements are unsubstantiated -- but neither impedes the points made
by Dorff: first, a cultural legacy of two or three thousand years is hardly
less impressive than that of four and second, Rabbinic Judaism indeed sees many
things from the viewpoint of a court of law (whether real or imaginary), and it
was this Judaism that, since the first centuries of the Common Era, set the
agenda for the subsequent development of the Jewish tradition.
while Dorff sometimes speaks of "the Jewish tradition's approach" to
ethical issues, the subtitle of his book refers to "a Jewish approach to
modern social ethics." His inconsistency with articles might have caused some
confusion, but Dorff is careful to point out explicitly that his work
...is specifically a
Jewish approach to social ethics, not the Jewish approach, because the
Jewish tradition is much too rich and varied for any articulation of it to
legitimately make the latter claim. I nevertheless maintain that I present a
fair reading of the Jewish tradition in these matters -- that is, I present a
Jewish approach to the topics included and not just my own idiosyncratic views
-- and I try to support that claim by affording the reader a rich set of
classical materials along with the reasons for my interpretation of those
Dorff speaks in his book of "the Jewish tradition's approach," it must be
understood as a mere shorthand to his own view of that tradition in
regard to the issues in question -- but the degree to which he has presented "a
fair reading of the Jewish tradition" may be fairly disputed.
Appendix A, titled "The Right in Contrast to the Good," Dorff dwells on the
distinction between these two terms in regard to ethical theory, based on the
verse of Deuteronomy 6:18 that provided the title of his book: "You shall do
the right and the good in the eyes of the Lord." Dorff has found several ways
to formulate this distinction; thus, for example:
The "right action"
describes a duty that I have, often deriving from a relationship that I have
from times past... A judgment of the right thing to do... is an evaluation of what
an individual should do given his or her relationships to others (however
broadly "others" is construed).
So, for example, I have a
series of moral duties to my parents simply because they are my parents; these
duties, if rightfully performed, are not in payment for whatever they did for
me or in hope that my own children will treat me in the same way some day. That
is, they are not pragmatically grounded. Filial duties arise simply from
the existence of a relationship between children and parents...
That personal reference is
usually absent from judgments of a morally good thing to do, which stem more
often from the assessment of goals: The good thing is that which will produce
future desirable consequences, whereas the bad thing is that which will produce
bad results. This is true for whoever does these things: The relationship, or
lack thereof, of the actor to the beneficiary makes no difference...
A goal becomes a moral good
(rather than simply a good for me) when it is, at least partially,
other-directed. Thus, it may be good for me to get a promotion, but that is not
a moral good; it is solely a practical good... Moral goods involve the welfare
of others. I too might benefit, but if the good is moral, I alone cannot
benefit. In general, then, it is a moral good to donate time, energy, and money
to the benefit of others beyond what any call of duty may require.
neither here nor anywhere that I saw while browsing through the book -- does
Dorff cite the verse of Deuteronomy 6:18 in full: "You shall do the right and
the good in the eyes of the Lord, so that it be well with you and you come
and take possession of the good land, regarding which the Lord had sworn to
your ancestors." Thus, contrary to Dorff's thesis, the verse grounds doing both
the right and the good in purely selfish motives. This may not bear on the
definitions of the right and the good themselves, but Dorff's basically
altruistic perception of ethics (according to which self-serving deeds and
intentions do not properly fall into the category of either the right or the
good) is definitely not borne out by his main source text. This is not to say
that an altruistic perception of morality cannot be found in the Jewish, or
even specifically the biblical, tradition -- but the burden of proof lies on the
author, not on the reader.
further discussion of the distinction between the right and the good is quite
interesting and impressive in terms of moral philosophy; still, the conclusion
he comes to at the end is not substantially different from what he stated in
of "the right," it seems to me, are assertions of what must be done to advance the
basic needs of a society as that society envisions them. Those needs
include both physical and spiritual requirements. By "spiritual requirements,"
I mean values that the society regards as necessities of character and that it
may even prefer over life itself in extreme cases. "The good," in contrast, is
a declaration of the less basic needs or ideals of a society...
should be noted] that what may be considered good in one society may be what is
expected of everyone (that is, right) in another, and vice versa. Thus, while
it may be good to be clean about yourself in general society, it is your duty
to be so if you are a physician administering care to patients; in other words,
medical ethics requires a degree of cleanliness that general ethics would
consider beyond the bounds of duty and either usually good or, with a tone of
disdain, much too fastidious. Among automobile mechanics a doctor's degree of
cleanliness would be considered unrealistic and inappropriate.
use of ethical terms, then, must be flexible enough to accommodate different
social and professional groupings and varying contexts. We use the terms
"right" and "good" with relative stability only in regard to those obligations
required by any society for it to exist. Thus, it is almost universally
considered "wrong" to lie or steal, but in most societies it is only "bad" to
be lazy. Even the definition of the duties of minimal morality, though, depends
crucially, as I discussed, on different societies' perspectives on their
fundamental physical and spiritual needs... But in each society one can usually
determine what it considers to be crucial to its interests (physical or
spiritual) by checking which acts it considers right and wrong, in
contradistinction to those it classifies as retrograde ("bad") or approaching
the ideal ("good").
acknowledges that this distinction is just one theory among many in moral
philosophy,  and by
implication does not claim it represents some kind of philosophical consensus.
But what is more important in the light of his book's subtitle -- "a Jewish
approach to modern social ethics" -- is to what extent this distinction is
Jewish; that is, to what extent it is present in classical Jewish sources.
Regrettably, Dorff does not consider this question at all, and the only time he
invokes a classical Jewish source in this regard, he mixes up the two
categories that he was trying to make a distinction between:
...for example, if I were to
say that it is good to exercise every day, I could simply be saying that I like
to do that, that it makes me feel good, and I may even be implying or saying
that you might like it too. On the other hand, I could be invoking the American
ideal of fitness, based, as usual for American ideology, on its pragmatic
benefits. I might even justify my positive evaluation of daily exercise with
statements from a long line of American presidents supporting fitness programs.
In this latter usage, I would be appealing to the standards endorsed by the
According to the
convictions of Jewish ideology, though, I might even say that it is right
to exercise every day and that you are doing something wrong if you do
not. Health in the Jewish tradition, after all, is not just an ideal that one
should, if one can, to take steps to attain and retain; it is rather, in the
Jewish conception, a prerequisite for our ability to fulfill our divine mission
in life. As a result, maintaining our health is nothing less than a commanded
act as well as continual service to God. Maimonides states this explicitly:
He who regulates his life
in accordance with the laws of medicine with the sole motive of maintaining a
sound and vigorous physique and begetting children to do his work and labor for
his benefit is not following the right course. A man should aim to
maintain physical health and vigor in order that his soul may be upright, in a
condition to know God... Whoever throughout his life follows this course will be
continually serving God, even while engaged in business and even during
cohabitation, because his purpose in all that he does will be to satisfy his
needs so as to have a sound body with which to serve God. Even when he sleeps
and seeks repose to calm his mind and rest his body so as not to fall sick and
be incapacitated from serving God, his sleep is service of the Almighty.
Maimonides quotation is taken, as Dorff rightly notes, from Mishneh Torah,
Laws of [Ethical] Attitudes,
3:3. Yet, the phrase "not following the right course," marked here in bold,
says in the original 'ein zu derekh tovah -- that is, using the
Hebrew adjective for "good," the same word which, although as a noun and in
masculine (tov), yields "good" in the translation of Deuteronomy
6:18. To be sure, at this point I am not making a definitive claim that the
Hebrew usage did not change from the biblical to Maimonides' Mishneh Torah
-- but this is at least a point that should not be left unconsidered in a work
a distinction between the right and the good in his view -- without showing it
to be a Jewish distinction -- Dorff turns, in Appendix B, to "Comparative Ways
for Identifying the Moral Course of Action." Dorff's comparison is limited to,
besides the Jewish approach, "only the other traditions likely to be familiar
to North American Jews -- namely, Catholicism, Protestantism, and American
briefly discusses what are, in his view, the advantages and disadvantages of
each of these ethical traditions.
Catholics, says Dorff, "in matters of faith and morals, the pope has the right
to declare something 'infallibly.'"
"Protestant theorists place strong emphasis on individual conscience in
defining the right and the good. They expect that individual Protestants should
be guided in their moral perceptions and actions by Scripture, in particular
the stories of Jesus."
And "American secular thought, with strong roots both in Protestantism and the
Enlightenment thought, places great faith both in individual conscience and in
rule by the majority in a government with checks and balances."
Now, I am far
from expert on the intellectual traditions just mentioned, but some of Dorff's
comments strike me as misguided. Thus, his remark on the Catholic approach is
based on a decision of the First Vatican Council in 1870. Not only would a 2000-year-old
creed deserve representation through a more ancient source, but that very
council -- adjourned only two months before Italian troops entered Rome and put
an end to the Papal state -- was in fact an attempt by Pope Pius IX to create
new ideological bulwarks against the rising tide of rationalism and liberalism,
and the concept of papal infallibility was just one of these bulwarks. This
concept was so new to Catholicism that it aroused considerable opposition in
several European countries, most of all in Germany. Approved by the council,
the principle of infallibility did become part of the official Catholic
doctrine -- but many dissenters split from the official Church and formed
another one, tellingly named the Old Catholic Church. Dorff may be
justified in considering, for the purposes of his book, only mainstream
Catholicism -- but the issue still deserves a more careful discussion than he
fault Dorff found with the Protestant approach to ethics is the doctrine of
Original Sin adopted by most Protestant denominations: plagued as human souls
are by Original Sin, why suppose they can find moral guidance on their own in
the words of the Scripture? Discussion of this topic lies entirely in the field
of Protestant theology and is better left for another occasion. Of more
interest is another difficulty Dorff found with the Protestant view:
Moral and communal chaos is
another problem inherent in this system. There is ultimately no way in the
Protestant method to determine that some act is definitely right or wrong; the
best one can do is to say that I, or the members of a particular church
community, think that it is right or wrong. If others in my community do
not agree and we can live together despite the difference, then fine; but if
not, the only alternative is for me to join another denomination or to create
one of my own -- one important factor in the history of Protestant splintering,
which today counts more than 250 denominations in the United States alone. Put
in more abstract terms, Protestant methodology leads to moral relativism, if
not moral individualism, with its inherent difficulties for defining the right
and the good with any authority or clarity and for creating a cohesive
penultimate sentence is provided by Dorff with reference to a book by John
Dillenberger and Claude Welch, Protestant Christianity Interpreted through
Its Development, published in 1954 
-- so the talk of "today" should be taken with a grain of salt. But much more
importantly, why should the stated difficulty present an ethical
problem? What's wrong with people forming religious denominations out of mutual
consensus -- and quitting them once the consensus is no longer shared on matters
of fundamental importance? This is what the whole idea of religious tolerance
is about, and Protestantism had a decisive role in introducing it to the
people are usually interested in maintenance of a stable social order, for
which some minimum of shared moral values is a sine qua non -- but why
should this task be carried out in religious terms? The Western world has
actually devised much better tools for accomplishing this very goal -- which is
the point of the next philosophy discussed by Dorff, American secularism:
American secular thought,
with strong roots both in Protestantism and in Enlightenment thought, places
great faith both in individual conscience and in the rule by the majority in a
government with checks and balances... Thus, to quote the quintessential
Enlightenment American document -- the Declaration of Independence -- some
rights, "endowed by their Creator," are "unalienable" by any government
authority. As a result, defining the right and the good is a matter, first, of
individual conscience and, second, of majority vote with protections for
proceeds to remark: "I noted the advantages and disadvantages of individual
conscience as the guide earlier, when I discussed Protestantism."
But the only disadvantage he has found with the concept of individual
conscience as moral guide was, as mentioned, its inability to provide for a
stable social order -- while the latter is precisely the task of "the rule by
the majority in a government with checks and balances." To be sure such rule
may have its own problems, but Dorff's view of them is quite surprising:
Ever since Thucydides
warned us in The Peloponnesian War, however, of the reality that the
rule of the majority can very easily become the rule of the mob -- with emotion
ruling decisions rather than information, expertise and reason -- moral
theorists have rarely invoked the will of the majority as a criterion of what
is right or good. What, after all, provides the majority with the requisite,
special knowledge to make an informed and reasoned moral decision in a specific
case or the philosophical knowledge to understand more theoretical moral
issues? On the contrary, the greater the experience required, the less likely
the majority will have it. Moreover, what is the basis of the majority's
decision? Their own desires? That raises the standard ethical problem that the
desired is not necessarily the desirable, that, in other words, the criteria
for judging the right and the good are not necessarily -- and maybe even not
often -- identical with the criteria for deciding what we want. Furthermore,
what kind of stability can be ensured through such a moral system? The majority
can presumably change its mind any time, and then what is construed to be moral
today may be deemed immoral tomorrow, or vice versa.
convincing -- until one realizes that in the secular American model government
does not establish morality. The part of the Declaration of Independence
mentioned by Dorff deserves more extensive quotation:
We hold these truths to be
self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their
Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and
the pursuit of Happiness. -- That to secure these rights, Governments are
instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the
governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these
ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute
new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its
powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety
whole business is securing the unalienable rights of citizens -- which is, of
course, easier said than done, since the rights of different citizens clash
unceasingly -- but no decision of a government is binding on the citizens' views
of morality. As Chief Justice Robert Jackson put it more than a century and a
half after the Declaration of Independence, "It is not the function of our
government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of
the citizen to keep the government from falling into error."
make laws, laws bear on citizens' actions, forbidding some of them and
demanding others -- but laws do not say what is right or good. This role is left
to the individual moral conscience of each and every citizen. Of course, if
democratically established law demands you to do something that you consider
bad or wrong, you will have trouble -- especially with law-enforcement agencies
-- but that is the price people have to pay for a stable social order. The human
need for such order is actually expressed by the following sentences of the
Declaration of Independence:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long
established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and
accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to
suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the
forms to which they are accustomed.
One of the
ways to make evils sufferable is to make them fair. Part of this fairness is
letting everyone influence his government's policy: if you don't like something
your government does, you can work to make it cease doing that thing. Another
aspect of fairness is the rule by majority: since all men are created equal, no
one's moral opinion should be given more weight than that of his fellow, so
whenever a controversy arises, the fairest way of making a public decision
would be to add up the equal opinions on each side and see which side has the
most. Still, better no evil at all than a sufferable one -- hence the reluctance
of Western liberal thought to impinge on individual rights even when exercise
of these rights brings about actions deemed morally wrong by the vast majority
of a given country's citizens. Thus, most Americans seem to consider adultery
morally wrong -- not just bad but wrong in Dorff's terms -- yet few would like to
have it legally banned. On the other hand, American law unambiguously prohibits
rape -- because this is not merely a violation of a commonly held moral norm but
a grave offense against the raped person's basic right to his or her physical
and mental safety.
And if one
can do something broadly considered immoral as long as he does not violate
others' rights, he is all the more entitled to hold moral opinions contrary to
commonly accepted ones, or even to the law itself -- in which case he may be
expected to put some effort into having the existing body of law changed. Dorff
notes that "the tension between individual conscience and majority vote is
evident in such contemporary moral issues as abortion and school prayer"
-- still, this tension does not cause either the American society to
disintegrate or either side of the debate to abandon its view of what would be
the morally correct decision. Perhaps the very existence of such tensions may
be seen as a difficulty -- but it seems that they are inherent to any grouping
of human beings, and besides, recognition of and acquaintance with different
viewpoints on any issue surely enriches our minds (with the proviso that
acquaintance does not necessarily make for acceptance).
individuals' rights is precisely what prevents modern democracies from slipping
into a tyranny of the majority -- that is, as a matter of principle. In
practice, bare principles hold poorly -- hence the need for a separation of
powers, with the judiciary, not dependent directly on the will of the majority,
capable of invalidating those governmental decisions that impinge on the basic
rights of any citizen as guaranteed by the core documents of a given political
entity (e.g. the Constitution in the United States). This is actually just one
example of how the system of checks and balances prevents a government from assuming
too much power at the citizens' expense. The sophistication of governmental
machinery also ensures the kind of stability whose lack is so fervently
lamented by Dorff: to change the existing legislation or policy, the majority
of citizens has to lend support, or at least show no substantial discontent for
the proposed change over quite a long time, so as to enable the proponents to
affect all the relevant branches of power. It is still possible for a
democratic regime to be not only altered but to be outright dismantled through
the continuously and insistently expressed will of citizens -- but this can only
to be expected in a system admitting its origin with fallible human beings and
not pretending to reflect an imperative of the perfect and infallible God.
(This is the reason for terming this system's ideology "secular.")
discussed the three "other traditions likely to be familiar to North American
Jews," Dorff moves on to Judaism. In Judaism, he contends, the way of defining
the right and the good is legal -- that is, these criteria are determined by
law. How this law develops in regard to the mentioned criteria he does not
detail, merely noting instead that "a legal approach to moral issues is
This is meant to indicate that he means a legal system built on precedent
rather than fresh legislation -- which is, of course, true.
surprisingly, Dorff deals extensively with the advantages of Judaism's "legal"
approach to morality -- and to be sure, advantages there are. But regarding
disadvantages Dorff is remarkably briefer:
The inherent conservatism
of the law, though, also has some distinct disadvantages: It means that Jewish
moral thinking and action may lag behind contemporary moral sensitivities and
become downright reactionary in those areas where it does not change when it
really needs to do so.
importantly, however, Dorff continues:
In light of all these
pitfalls, why would classical Jewish sources depend so heavily on law to define
and inculcate moral norms? Part of the reason, of course, is that the tradition
presents the laws as the will of God; we are bound to those laws, including the
moral laws among them, even if we do not understand why God has given moral
norms to us in that form. Even if we cannot discern God's purposed in this, we
can look at the way in which law actually functions in society -- that is, the results
of putting moral norms into legal form. Then, just as we have described some of
the major drawbacks of this approach, we can also analyze the advantages
of Judaism's linking matters of conscience and the spirit to law.
advantages are not to be denied -- nor are disadvantages -- but what is
overlooked in this passage is that it is precisely the "will of God" approach
which exacerbates the drawbacks of Judaism's way of ethical deliberation and
causes them to be sources of faith crisis.
the inherent conservatism of traditional Jewish law, moral norms that it
expresses can easily, and indeed in many fields have long ago "become downright
reactionary" and even embarrassing (at least, embarrassing to people
acculturated to the modern world, and most contemporary Jews belong to this
category). Yet according to the view presented by Dorff, a tradition-true Jew
has not only to follow these laws but to identify with them, seeing them as the
will of the perfectly good God -- including, for example, the ban on saving the
life of a non-Jew on the Sabbath, lest he incur most heavy punishments at the
hands of Heaven if not of men.
say, a person acculturated to modernity would experience a great deal of moral,
and hence psychological, discomfort with such a ban. And while the ban itself
can be withdrawn from practice by a directive that it should be violated
because of some ad hoc contingency (e.g. of the fear of strengthening
anti-Jewish sentiment and thus endangering Jewish lives), the secondary
character of this proviso in relation to the original law would remain
self-evident -- which would leave the believer with the same moral discomfort,
only slightly alleviated by the bottom-line directive on matters of praxis.
Apparently, in such situations Dorff would concur that the basic law itself
"really needs" to be changed -- but under the prevalent conventions of Jewish
law it is hard to see how this can be accomplished, given the legal system's
conservatism, the strictness of said ban and its ubiquity in classical Jewish sources.
view of law as the basic medium carrying the moral message seems to have led
Dorff to obscure the difference between law and morality in the secular
American view (a view that lies, de facto if not de jure, at the
foundation of all modern democracies). It is the lack of distinction between
law and morality -- the view that existing law is by definition moral -- which
wrecks havoc with the consciences of modern Jewish believers. Nobody promised
that religious life, Jewish or any other, would be free of existential crises,
and how to solve them is the believers' concern -- but Dorff's failure to even relate
to the problem in its full extent will surely not contribute to the solution.
 To Do the
Right and the Good, p. xv.
 Ibid., pp.
xiv-xv; italics preserved.
 Ibid., p.
 Ibid., pp.
xvi-xvii; italics preserved.
 Ibid., pp.
241-243; boldface added.
 Ibid., pp.
249, 261; italics preserved, parentheses added.
 Ibid., p.
 Ibid., pp.
259-261; italics preserved, boldface added.
That is, Hilkhot De'ot. My translation seems to me better than Dorff's
plain "Laws of Ethics," which falls short of reflecting the original Hebrew.
 To Do
the Right and the Good, p. 263.
 Ibid., p.
 Ibid., p.
 Ibid., p.
267; italics preserved.
 Ibid., p.
286, n. 3.
 Ibid., pp.
 Ibid., pp.
 Quoted from
The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription
 To Do
the Right and the Good, p. 268.
 Ibid., p.
 Ibid., p.