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An Orthodox Jewish woman takes the helm of Chicago Divinity School

For Laurie Zoloth, every word and deed, from academia to social action to raising chickens in her backyard, is seen through the prism of Deuteronomy 16:18-20 — 'Justice, justice shall you pursue.'

Laurie Zoloth is the new dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School.  Photo by Seth Joel

(RNS) — There is not a minute, an action, a choice, in Laurie Zoloth’s life she doesn’t examine by a line in the Torah, “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.”

The new dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School – a former nurse and union activist who became a nationally respected bioethicist and a professor in multiple fields — is an Orthodox Jew. She observes the sacred space and time of Sabbath, declining work from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, and keeping kosher, the ancient Jewish dietary laws.

For Zoloth, every word and deed, from academia to social action to raising chickens in her backyard, is seen through the prism of Deuteronomy 16:18-20.

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“I am a lifelong activist from the ’60s,” said Zoloth, 67. Her antenna always tuned to idealism, she dropped out of Swarthmore to become a licensed practical nurse to care for poor women, boycotted grapes with the United Farm Workers, rallied for civil rights, marched against the Vietnam War and cut sugar cane in Cuba in 1969 to oppose the U.S. trade embargo.

Her move in July to lead one of the nation’s most prestigious divinity schools comes at “a historic moment in our national life,” said Zoloth in an interview about how she came to this moment and her ideas for her deanship at the divinity school.

“The questions of religion are at the center of our national life. We see today questions of good and evil, how we ought to live and what we owe one another. Our job is to uncover the truth and ask 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? The university exists to pursue this,” she said.

Richard Doerflinger, left, representing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Laurie Zoloth, director of genetic medicine at Northwestern University, appear before the Senate Commerce Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee on Capitol Hill on Sept. 29, 2004, to discuss embryonic stem cell research. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)

These were the same kind of questions that prompted Zoloth to return to academia in the 1970s, earning bachelor’s degrees in women’s studies and nursing, master’s degrees in Jewish studies and in English, and a doctorate in social ethics.

Her academic and social passions converged just as the field of bioethics was developing, with patients and doctors addressing questions about withholding or withdrawing treatment, the right to informed consent in medical research and more. Zoloth joined the ethics committee at Kaiser Permanente in California by convincing the health care organization: “You need women. You need Jews. You need nurses. Hire me.”

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After leading the Jewish studies program at San Francisco State University, she moved on to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., where she had dual appointments in the department of religious studies in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and in the Feinberg School of Medicine and led the Faculty Senate.

Along the way, Zoloth served as president of American Society for Bioethics and Humanities and also of the American Academy of Religion.

At AAR’s 2014 annual meeting, Zoloth said: “As scholars and as citizens we must do the work of giving people a full and accurate understanding of our society. We must engage. We must speak out. … If we are neutral in a situation of injustice, we have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

The Rev. Martin Marty, an emeritus professor at the UC Divinity School, historian of religion and former associate dean, said Zoloth’s views are “exactly the kind of approach that probably made her attractive to the faculty.”

Indeed, the news release announcing her appointment pinpointed “her work on evolving issues of science and society.”

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It’s not unusual to have Jewish faculty at university-based divinity schools and at independent denominational seminaries. Amy Jill Levine, now a University Scholar at Vanderbilt, describes herself as a “Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Christian divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt.”

However, Frank Yamada, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, said he’s not aware of someone Jewish as dean of a university divinity school and Zoloth is now leading “one of the most prestigious in the country.”

Zoloth recalled when the divinity school search committee approached her. “I wasn’t looking to move but when the University of Chicago calls, you don’t say, ‘No.’

“It is an extraordinarily exciting place, deeply intellectual and full of robust and deep conversations on issues that matter. The great questions that religion raises can be researched and taught and brought to life here,” said Zoloth.

Those questions, however, will not be addressed in an academic bubble. Zoloth’s plan: Wake up every weekday morning for her daily 4-mile run and go to work prompting scholars “to be seekers of truth, terrific teachers and great researchers but also to be courageous.”

“Every gesture is a moral gesture,” she said. “There is no nowhere. There is no place that you cannot participate.”

Not even your backyard.

Consider Zoloth’s chickens. She first began raising fowl for eggs and composting the waste in her organic garden decades ago in Berkeley when her five children were young.

There will be no chicken coops for her with her move to Hyde Park, home of the University of Chicago. She’s given up coops for a co-op she’ll share with her youngest child since her husband, Rabbi Dan Dorfman, died last year.

The chickens are being given to friends in Evanston, where Zoloth participated in a 2009 battle to overturn a ban on backyard chickens in the upscale Chicago suburb.

Zoloth told the campus paper at the time that the ban had been aimed at poor immigrants and that it was particularly foolish during a recession when “sustainable living becomes not just thinking about carbon footprints. It is also rethinking what your choices are. Rethinking every choice leads you right to what you plant in your front yard or what you eat.”

So the chicken cause is a bird of a feather with Zoloth’s lifelong focus.

“Justice, justice, shall you pursue,” she said. “It’s my favorite verse.”

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