By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Never has there been a Jew at the helm of a university divinity school, certainly not one who is a woman and Orthodox.
That has changed with the appointment of Laurie Zoloth to head the University of Chicago Divinity School, known as the leading institution in the country for students seeking to become professors of religion.
The former Northwestern University bioethicist and professor in religious studies, says that her selection, though unusual, is not that unlikely. The divinity school’s Christian origins have made way for a wide religious diversity in its academic program.
Founded in 1892, the divinity school teaches religion, ethics and theology across five different religions: Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. The institution began as a school largely for Protestants but by the 1940s rapidly expanded to other religions.
Zoloth was honored to have been offered the prestigious position, the second time for a woman. “Bringing a Jew to this leadership position does offer a new way of thinking about how we train people who are going to lead the American religious communities,” she says
In her private life, Zoloth takes the claims of Judaism seriously. “I have a practice, a personal and communal practice, within the Orthodox community, within my minyan.” She stays involved with an Orthodox minyan in Evanston in addition to Yavneh, the Orthodox community at the University of Chicago and greater Hyde Park area.
In her professional life, she says, “It’s good to be at a school where the ethical and existential claims of religion are given seriousness and complete attention across a wide range of methods and scholarly discipline. It’s a deeply intellectual community.”
Zoloth, 67, was raised in a secular home in Los Angeles and went to a Conservative religious school as a child and public school. She didn’t think seriously about religion until she had children of her own.
“Then, of course, there’s the issue of a bris, the naming of your children for relatives. Suddenly you’re back in the context of a family in which you have to choose to honor the tradition or discard it. I chose to honor the tradition. Orthodoxy is the tradition I feel the most comfortable in, that presents for me an authentic path to prayer and community.”
She and her husband, Dan Dorfman, a rabbi, Hillel director and a lawyer, who passed away last year, raised five children while in California. Two of her sons have pursued rabbinical degrees in London and in Israel.
Zoloth earned a bachelor’s degree in women studies at UC Berkeley. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of the State of New York and a master’s degree in English from San Francisco State University and another in Jewish studies from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. At that school she received her doctorate in social ethics.
Her pursuit of religious studies arose from her study of English literature. “I became very interested in the content more than the fictional styles. So many writers that I admired cared deeply about religion, about faith. I realized I didn’t know enough about my own religion.”
At UC Berkeley, she became involved in Congregation Beth Israel, “a vibrant and exciting Orthodox community” made up of students and professors.
Zoloth began her career as a neonatal nurse working in impoverished communities. In the early 2000s, she became a professor of Social Ethics and Jewish Philosophy at San Francisco State University. From 2003 to 2017, she was jointly Professor of Medical Humanities and Bioethics in the Feinberg School of Medicine and Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern University. From 2005, she has been an Affiliated Professor at the University of Haifa.
She is widely published in the fields of religious studies and bioethics with a focus on the ethics of genetic engineering, stem cell research, synthetic biology and social justice in health care.
Studying ethical issues and ethical dilemmas in medicine was a new field when she became a bioethicist. The field of bioethics has addressed a broad swath of human inquiry, ranging from debates over the boundaries of life such as abortion or euthanasia, surrogacy, the allocation of scarce health care resources and the right to refuse medical care for religious or cultural reasons.
Zoloth joined the ethics committee of Kaiser Permanente in California. She became the author of Health Care and the Ethics of Encounter: A Jewish Discussion of Social Justice and other books including a Jewish perspective on genetics. She also served as president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities and in 2014 was the president of the American Academy of Religion.
She is a lifelong activist from the ‘60s beginning with the civil rights movement. “What was most important was civil rights, making sure that democracy was inclusive and making sure everyone had the right to vote.”
She marched against the Vietnam War and advocated for the fair treatment of farm workers, “how our food should be gathered and under what conditions.
“There was the continuing issue of the rights of refugees and what are our responsibilities to the stranger. The Torah speaks in clear terms that we’re obligated to be welcoming to the stranger, given our history as Jews. We’re obligated to seek justice in situations of injustice.”
The University of Chicago Divinity School upholds that tradition. “We want to do more in extending our reach into other areas. We’re obligated to Tikkun Olam in a scholarly way. We should always seek to learn what we don’t yet know and how to address those questions. What does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to be free? And what must we do about the suffering of others?”
In a message to the university community, Zoloth wrote “the texts, ritual practices and ethical claims of religious communities have long been a part of the great conversation that is human civilizations. In the five religious traditions in which our faculty are serious international experts, we know that the ideas and concepts that that we study have shaped the history, aesthetics and moral sensibilities that traditions bear within societies. Religion enters the public square in profound ways at this moment in history.”
The Rev. Martin Marty taught in the Divinity School, the Department of History, from 1963 to 1998. He is enthusiastic about the choice to lead the Divinity School. He wrote the foreword to a book which she co-authored, and knew of her as a leader in the American Academy of Religion and other such agencies. “Her teaching record at Northwestern University and elsewhere, and her impressive publications commended her to the University of Chicago, where I expect she’ll feel right at home and will be seen as a good fit, who can challenge the scholarly community to enlarge its scope and deepen its disciplines.”