The Meanings of Fatherhood in our Time

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 June 18, 2023

In the Torah, we are commanded to honor our father and mother (Ex. 20:12) and respect them (Lev. 19:3), but it is only later, in a second-century source recorded in the Talmud, that we get a sense of how the Jewish tradition construes fathers’ duties to their children:

Our Rabbis taught: A man is responsible to circumcise his son, to redeem him (from Temple service if he is the first born, "pidyon ha-ben"), to teach him Torah, to marry him off to a woman, and to teach him a trade, and there are those who say that he must also teach him to swim. Rabbi Judah says: Anyone who fails to teach his son a trade teaches him to steal. (B. Kiddushin 29a)

This, of course, is only about fathers’ duties to sons; other sources specify that fathers must support their daughters until they are married, but in the patriarchal society of the past, mothers taught daughters what they needed to know to become Jewish women. It cannot be mandated in law, but our ancestors certainly hoped that parents and their children would not only fulfill these mutual duties, but enjoy a warm, supportive, responsible, and loving relationship.
Two aspects of the father-child relationship are important to note. First, men are not just sperm donors, any more than women are just egg donors. Therefore, children growing up without fathers need to have an adult man in their lives to demonstrate that being an adult man does not mean being Rambo or a member of a gang. Grandfathers or uncles can fill that role for some children, good friends of the family or teachers or coaches can do this for others. For many, though, Jewish Big Brothers/Big Sisters plays a critical role for both boys and girls in giving them a caring, personal example of what a father figure looks and feels like. Readers might volunteer or use JBBBS.

Second, as life expectancy grows, many of us must care for elderly parents. Therefore, the Talmud’s understanding of what “honor” means becomes increasingly relevant to us: “Honor means that he must give him food and drink, clothe and cover him, lead him in and out (B. Kiddushin 31b).

May we enjoy the love and support of our parents through most of our lives and care for them in their old age.


Readers interested in this topic may be interested in reading "Parents and Children," which is Chapter Four of my book, Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics (Jewish Publication Society, 2003).