Repossessing Virtue: Elliot Dorff on Seeing Duty as a Responsibility
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Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Elliot Dorff, a Conservative Jewish rabbi, first appeared on SOF as part of "Marriage, Family, and Divorce." Now a somewhat old program. It was before my time, an era when Krista and Mitch and Kate would pop in at conferences and interview interesting voices in a hotel room with mattresses and drapes serving as sound baffles. (Well, I guess we still do that once in a while, even today!)
Dorff, a Conservative Jewish rabbi, looks to the Torah and ancient rabbinic wisdom as a model for acting in the world during these difficult financial times. He has a special way of explaining things plainly. At the beginning of the interview, he opens with an idea that, although not particularly novel, but becomes more poignant in light of current events and crises: our collective focus on money and material wealth is a form of idolatry. When the Torah forbids people from worshipping “false idols,” the sacred text doesn’t just intend for it to apply to statuettes or icons or paintings. For Dorff, that means any being or object or idea that takes one’s focus away from God.
He sees the current economic and cultural crisis as more than just a spiritual dilemma — it’s a point of pragmatism that pulls together community for those in need. The Torah requires him to help the poor and the needy. And serving those in need means more than charity. Helping others means preserving their human dignity and we, he reminds us, should not look on this service to others as a duty but as a responsibility.
One of the best ways to help is to give that person a job or invest with that person. It’s a matter of dignity by empowering people in need to foster long-term sufficiency. He tells a story where he and other faculty members put this idea into practice by taking a salary cut so that fellow colleagues’ positions would be preserved.
Dorff’s perspective and grounded wisdom reminds me that the psyche of my fellow man is as important as is his basic need for food and shelter. Being able to hold one’s head up brings alleviates the burden of survival. We don’t want to simply exist, we crave respect and creation and ambition, in the best sense of the word.