Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics, by Elliot N. Dorff. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003. 366 pp. $34.95.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He has published widely in the areas of Jewish law and ethics. This book is one of a series of books by Dorff which deal with Jewish moral theory. All of these books are intended for the educated lay reader, as is made clear when Dorff starts off by outlining theories of ethics and how "Jewish ethics fits among them." He is careful to use language that is jargon-free, in his words, and it is clear from the outset that this book is not intended for specialists. Indeed, he even suggests that some people may prefer to skip the theoretical sections, presumably out of fear that it might put them off from reading the sections which deal with concrete issues.
One of the most admirable characteristics of all of Dorff's writing is clarity and directness. So it is a good match to have a person with inclusive knowledge of the field present this knowledge in simple, direct, and clear language. This is a wonderful book for the beginner who wants to understand Jewish tradition concerning personal ethics because it provides an expert's overall description of the field, and a clear and interesting description of approaches of Jewish tradition to modern personal ethics.
After giving an excellent concise and clear summary of ethical theories, including a proper demur about his broad sweep, Dorff tries to put Jewish thought into that picture. He grapples with the complex interplay between ethics, (i.e., moral theory), morals, (i.e., concrete norms of good or bad), halakhah, and Jewish thought (i.e., moral values found expressed in Midrash and Aggada). Because of the complexity of this interaction it becomes extremely difficult to speak of "Jewish ethics" altogether. Dorff implicitly acknowledges this difficulty, but he chooses not to deal with it because that would be counter to the goal of this book. Thus, the book deals mainly with Jewish morals in concrete situations. Even then, the relationship between halakhah and "morality" remains cloudy, although Dorff does point to distinctions that indicate a grappling with this thorny issue. It seems to me that Dorff has missed the opportunity of making a valuable contribution in this area. This may be the result of the fact that most of the chapters in the book are based upon previously published work.
The areas of personal morality that Dorff deals with are: privacy, which includes internet, spying on employees, disclosure, and intrusion; sexuality, which includes sexual relations, marriage, nonmarital sex, homosexuality, and meaningful sex; and parents and children, which includes filial duties, caring for parents, and parental duties. It also deals with family violence, which includes wife-bearing, child abuse, witnessing abuse, and the role of rabbis and other leaders in relating to abuse; and forgiveness, which includes God's role, obstacles to forgiveness, and the process of teshuvab. Finally, it deals with hope and destiny, which includes topics of support within families and communities and dealing with death. In his appendix Dorff makes a case for an interaction of Judaism and morality. He attempts to show how Jewish tradition defines, motivates, and educates a moral person.
The chapter on hope and destiny is typical of the book in that Dorff reveals his knowledge of and sensitivity to Jewish thought as the way Jewish tradition framed moral decisions. Jewish thought, aggadah, philosophy, and halakhah all combine to circumscribe a description of concrete situations that express specific values and views. It is this description which Dorff brings to bear on his subjects. This is the reason that much of the book is illuminating. He also is consistent in pointing out how this Jewish description, that is, the Jewish set of values and views, differs from dominant conceptions in United States society. …