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 October 28, 2014
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

But Abram said, "O Lord God, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless... Since You have granted me no offspring, my steward will be my heir." (Genesis 15:2-3)


This is the first of many stories in Genesis about infertility. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel (and, after bearing four sons, even Leah) all have fertility problems. Later in the Bible, Hannah does as well. At the same time, God's blessing to Abram here in chapter 15 and again in chapter 17 is that he and Sarah would have offspring as many as the stars in the heavens, and the psalmist describes someone who is truly blessed as a person who sees children's children (Psalm 128:6). What does this biblical message say to (1) people who can have children; to (2) those who have trouble having children; and (3) to those who cannot have children?

To those who can have children, the Torah is affirming the great blessing that children are. It is not just that you then have heirs, which is Abram's concern here. It is also that you see yourself as part of the great chain of being as well as extending your own family line. Moreover, you yourself grow in the process of raising them. In doing that there will be good times and bad, joy and heartache, but in the end parents experience aspects of life that stretch them and make them more mature because they are responsible for others in the most intimate and significant ways. Parenthood also enables one to appreciate the value of life more fully. The Rabbis had a sense of this when they ruled that only men who were married with children were eligible to sit as judges in capital cases, for only they knew the value of the life of both the victim and the accused (T. Sanhedrin 7:3; B. Sanhedrin 36b). Moreover, because of the deep demographic crisis of the Jewish people at this time, in which we are not even reproducing ourselves as a people, the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has ruled that couples who can have children should have at least two and then one more than they were planning on having for the sake of the Jewish people ( see "Mitzvah Children") . And then, God willing, there may be grandchildren, the blessing that psalmists envision.

What does this say, though, to people who have difficulty having children? It says, first, that you are not alone, that infertility problems are as old and as frequent as our Matriarchs and Patriarchs. Furthermore, as this and the following biblical stories involving infertility indicate, infertility often brings with it feelings of inadequacy in the people who want to be parents and tensions in their marriage. After all, even if one or another of the new artificial reproductive techniques is being tried, every month is a final exam, as it were, and if there is a history of infertility, couples are likely to fail many such monthly exams, leading to yet further disappointment and anxiety.

What the Torah does not say - because it does not know about this possibility - but what modern Jewish law does announce, is that infertile couples may, but are not required to avail themselves of the new medical interventions to help them procreate. To understand how Jewish law as interpreted by the Conservative Movement deals with the moral and medical aspects of the use of such techniques, see Elliot N. Dorff, Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics, Chapters Three (using a couple's own gametes) and Four (using donor gametes).

What do the Bible and the later Jewish tradition say, though, to people who cannot procreate? It says, first, that everyone is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27; 5:1; 9:6) and is therefore of infinite worth, whether married or not, and whether the parent of children or not. Second, it says that those who cannot procreate are not obligated by the first of the biblical commandments to "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28; 9:1) because the logic of being commanded entails that the one being commanded can fulfill the command; if one cannot, the commandment makes neither logical nor legal sense and does not obligate such a person. Third, the Jewish community, with its long history of seeing children as a blessing and as necessary to the continuity of the Jewish people, should go out of its way to avoid adding to the psychological burdens of those who cannot procreate by refraining from making disparaging remarks and by other such pressures. Fourth, the Talmud (B. Sanhedrin 19b) says that people who teach other people's children are as if they had created them and so such people might either actually engage in teaching children about Judaism or support those who do financially and/or in other ways. Fifth, the Talmud also says that people who take orphans into their homes and raise them are "as if they had given birth to them" (B. Megillah 13a) and "do right at all times" (B. Ketubbot 50a), thus expressing both praise and support for adoption, so couples who cannot procreate biologically - and also those who can - may consider adoption as an honored option.

May people blessed with the ability to procreate produce three or more children for their own sakes and for that of the Jewish people; may those who have difficulty procreating be successfully helped to do so; and may those who cannot procreate be relieved of any guilt about that and find other ways to fulfill the part of human experience that children bring - through teaching, through supporting Jewish education, and/or through adoption.

Shabbat shalom.