Elliot N. Dorff

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Elliot N. Dorff (born 24 June 1943) is a Conservative rabbi. He is a professor of Jewish theology at the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) in California (where he is also Rector), author, and a bio-ethicist.

Dorff is an expert in the philosophy of Conservative Judaism, Bioethics, and acknowledged within the Conservative community as an expert decisor of Jewish law. Dorff was ordained as a rabbi from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1970. He earned a Ph.D in philosophy from Columbia University in 1971.

Dorff is the chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, and has written many responsa (opinion papers and legal rulings) on many aspects of Jewish law and philosophy. (There is a separate article on Conservative responsa.)


Dorff's philosophy of religion

Among other topics, Dorff is interested in Jewish philosophy. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that addresses questions such as: "What is knowledge?", "How is knowledge acquired?", and "How do we know what we know?" In addressing this subject the first issue to note is that the terms "knowledge" and "belief" are often used interchangeably by religious believers, but technically these are very distinct terms.

As a philosopher, Dorff asks about the difference between belief and knowledge. Given the philosophical definition that knowledge differs from belief (knowledge is often defined as a justified, true belief), Dorff's works explicitly analyze epistemological questions. His philosophy of religion, as illustrated especially in his book, Knowing God: Jewish Journeys to the Unknowable, stems from the analytic tradition in philosophy, with careful attention to the grounds of justified belief. He claims, however, that the Jewish tradition did not base its belief in God primarily on intellectual activity because Judaism is theistic, believing in a personal God: just as we do not come to know people through creating proofs of their existence, so too that has not been the primary way in which Jews have come to know God. Instead, to know people we talk with them and do things with them, and the same is true for how we come to know God: We talk to God through prayer; God talks to us through revelation; we do things with God through following God's commandments; and God does things with us by acting in history. In Knowing God there is a chapter on each of those aspects of the interaction that gives us knowledge of God.

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