From Generation to Generation

Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD

Sol & Anne Distinguished Professor in Philosophy, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
University Rector, American Jewish University

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD is AJU’s Rector and Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy. He is Chair of the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and served on the editorial committee of Etz Hayim, the new Torah commentary for the Conservative Movement. He has chaired four scholarly organizations: the Academy of Jewish Philosophy, the Jewish Law Association, the Society of Jewish Ethics, and the Academy of Judaic, Christian, and Islamic Studies. He was elected Honorary President of the Jewish Law Association for the term of 2012-2016.  In Spring 1993, he served on the Ethics Committee of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Health Care Task Force. In March 1997 and May 1999, he testified on behalf of the Jewish tradition on the subjects of human cloning and stem cell research before the President's National Bioethics Advisory Commission. In 1999 and 2000 he was part of the Surgeon General’s commission to draft a Call to Action for Responsible Sexual Behavior; and from 2000 to 2002 he served on the National Human Resources Protections Advisory Commission, charged with reviewing and revising the federal guidelines for protecting human subjects in research projects. Rabbi Dorff is also a member of an advisory committee for the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History on the social, ethical, and religious implications of their exhibits. He is also a member of the Ethics Advisory Committee for the state of California on stem cell research.

He has been an officer of the FaithTrust Institute, a national organization that produces seminars and educational materials to help people avoid or extricate themselves from domestic violence.  For eight years he was also been a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles, chairing its committee on serving the vulnerable.  In Los Angeles, he is a Past President of Jewish Family Services and a member of the Ethics committee at U.C.L.A. Medical Center. He serves as Co-Chair of the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue of the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.  

posted on March 6, 2016
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

And Moses instructed them as follows: Every seventh year, the year set for remission [of debts], at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people - men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities – that they may hear [the Torah] and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching.
Deuteronomy 31:10-12


Modern Jews take it for granted that all Jews can learn the tradition as deeply and extensively as their abilities and interests take them. That, though, is not the assumption of people who adhere to many other traditions. In many religions of the ancient and even the modern world, the central truths of the tradition are the sole provenance of the elders or priests. Such traditions are "esoteric." So, for example, to this day only Mormon elders are privy to the secrets of that tradition.

In contrast, the Torah already establishes that the Jewish tradition is to be "exoteric," that is, open to all adherents. Thus many, many times God instructs Moses to "speak to the children of Israel": Exodus 25:2; 31:13; Leviticus 4:2; 7:23, 29; 12:2; 17:2; 18:2; 19:2 (where it is specifically "to all the Children of Israel"); 23:2, 10, 24, 34; 25:2; 27:2; Numbers 5:6, 12; 6: 2; 9:10; 15:2, 18, 38; 17:17; 19:2; 33:51; 35:10. (Sometimes God tells Moses to speak only to Aaron and his sons, as, for example in Numbers 6:22-27, when God instructs them how to bless the people; but in the vast majority of cases, God tells Moses to speak to the entire community.) Joshua too is instructed to "speak to the Children of Israel" (Joshua 20:2), and the whole mission of the prophets was to speak to the House of Israel (e.g., Ezekiel 3:1; 20:27) – and then to defend them to God. Judaism, then, was to be the property of all Jews – "men, women, and children," as our reading this week specifies.

What is even more remarkable is that this section provides for a repetition of the whole Torah once every seven years before the whole community. Remember that our ancestors could not simply read the Torah in the form of a book, as we can, for the printing press was not invented until 1450 C.E. or so. Manuscripts were rare and expensive, and not everyone could read Hebrew. Thus a communal, oral reading of the Torah was the only way most Jews would ever come to know it -- except, of course, through what they were told and what they saw as the ongoing practices of their community (the Oral Torah). The later, rabbinic tradition (J. Megillah 4:1 [75a]; B. Bava Kamma 82a) ascribes to Moses the practice of reading a section of the Torah weekly on Sabbath and Festival mornings, while Ezra is credited with the practice of reading a short section on market days (Mondays and Thursdays). The first clear evidence of the practice of reading it weekly, though, is the creation of the Greek translation (the Septuagint), which was written in the early 200s B.C.E. apparently to make the public reading in Hebrew understandable to a Jewish, Greek-speaking congregation (see Encyclopedia Judaica 15:1246). Thus the Torah verses in our reading this week constitute the first evidence that it was not only parents who were charged with passing the tradition on to their children (Deuteronomy 6:7; 11:19), but the community as a whole needed to take concrete steps to ensure that the Jewish tradition would be known to all succeeding generations.

The practice of reading and then interpreting the Torah to the community made it clear that each and every Jew inherits the tradition. All Jews -- not just the learned, rich, or socially favored, and not just men -- share in the privilege of being part of God’s Covenant with Israel. Each one of us has the right to learn the tradition and argue for a new interpretation or application of it. We each also get to add to the tradition the insights of our own age, just as our ancestors have done in every generation. In a verse (Deuteronomy 33:4) that, along with the first line of the Shema, is, according to the Talmud (B. Sukkah 42a), the first verse that we are to teach our children, the Torah proclaims, "Moses charges us with the Torah as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob" – not just any subset of the Jewish people. The Rabbis later use that verse to say that anyone who keeps the knowledge of a Jewish law – and, by extension, any part of the Torah – from a Jew effectively steals from him or her part of what is rightfully his or hers as part of each Jew’s heritage as a Jew (B. Sanhedrin 91a).

Access to the Torah, though, also brings with it many responsibilities. First, we must all learn it, as deeply and extensively as we can. This duty stems from the Torah itself: "Moses summoned all the Israelites and said to them: Hear, O Israel, the laws and rules that I proclaim to you this day! Study them and observe them faithfully!" (Deuteronomy 5:1). None of us may slough off the obligation to know the Torah and tradition on rabbis and teachers alone; they can help us learn Torah, but we are each charged with learning God’s word and the skills to interpret and apply it.

Second, we must teach what we have learned to our children. The "we" in the last sentence includes parents teaching their own children, but it also includes two other parties. The first of those is grandparents. Based on Deuteronomy 4:9, "And make them known to your children and to your children’s children," the Rabbis (B. Kiddushin 30a) assert that grandparents are obligated to teach their grandchildren Torah just as much as parents are. So in addition to imparting a commitment to, and a knowledge of, the Jewish tradition to their grandchildren in what they say and do, grandparents should contribute, if they can, to the tuition for their grandchildren’s Jewish education in the Jewish schools, camps, and youth groups they attend.

The other party responsible for ensuring that Jewish children receive the Jewish heritage that is rightfully theirs is the community. The first attempt at creating a school system was apparently made by Simeon ben Shetah in the earlier half of the first century B.C.E., but a comprehensive scheme was carried out by Joshua ben Gamala a few years before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. As the Talmud (B. Bava Batra 21a) says,

Remember for good the man named Joshua ben Gamala, because were it not for him the Torah would have been forgotten in Israel. At first a child was taught by his father, and as a result the orphan was left uninstructed. It was thereupon resolved that teachers of children be appointed in Jerusalem; and a father [who resided outside the city] would bring his child there and have him taught, but the orphan was again left without tuition... Finally Joshua ben Gamala came and instituted that teachers should be appointed in every province and in every city, and children about the age of six or seven placed in their charge.

Thus, in our day, when Jewish education has become economically prohibitive for many families, both grandparents and the Jewish community as a whole must guarantee that every Jewish child can learn Torah in both formal and informal educational settings – that is, schools, camps, and youth groups as well as at home.

Third, as Deuteronomy 5:1, cited above, states, our duty is not only to learn Torah, but to practice it. Universal access to the Torah among Jews means that no Jew can legitimately claim that Jewish practice is only for rabbis. Each of us may and must learn the Torah, and then each of us must practice it. Thus, when the Rabbis debated whether study or practice was the greater Jewish duty, the Rabbis concluded, along with Rabbi Akiba, that study is more important, but only because it leads to practice (B. Kiddushin 40b). We each have the duty to learn Torah with the intention of using our knowledge to figure out how we are going to make it a significant factor in how we live our lives.

Finally, these duties apply to all of us – "men, women, and children," as our Torah reading demands. Judaism is a privilege and an obligation open to us all as members of the sacred Covenant between God and Israel, and it is we who must ensure that the knowledge and practice of that Covenant with God is passed on from generation to generation.

Shabbat shalom.

More on this topic can be found in Elliot N. Dorff, Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), Chapter Four, "Parents and Children."