December 01 2023

A Conversation with the 2014 AAR President, Laurie Zoloth

Laurie Zoloth is the 2014 president of the AAR and the director of the Brady Program in Ethics and Civic Life at Northwestern University. She is a professor of religious studies, on faculty in the Jewish studies program, and is also a professor of bioethics and medical humanities at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine. From 1995–2003 she was a founder and director of the program in Jewish studies at San Francisco State University. In 2001 she was the president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, and she was a founder and vice president of the Society for Jewish Ethics. She served for two terms as member of the NASA National Advisory Council, the nation's highest civilian advisory board for NASA, for which she received the NASA National Public Service Award in 2005. She has also been on the founding national boards of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, the International Society for Stem Cell Research, The Society for Scriptural Reasoning, and NASA’s International Planetary Protection Advisory Committee.

RSN: How did your parents and your extended family influence your early career and education?

Zoloth: My maternal grandparents spoke little English and were devotedly Orthodox; my paternal grandmother spoke several languages, and was devotedly Marxist—all of them were immigrant Jews, who lived the Jewish-American experience vividly and differently—on the one side, living in a Yiddish-speaking re-creation of their Russian shtetl, on the other side, embracing all things modern, quoting Kafka, singing the International, and gossiping about Emma Goldman. My own parents were determined to assimilate, and we lived in a Los Angeles that was fiercely modern and secular. While I thought my Yiddish grandparents warm and sweet, possessive of the mysterious language of adults, and always the place to go for holidays, I was completely taken with my Marxist grandmother’s worldview and thought of religion as the opiate of the masses throughout childhood and into college, Swarthmore, where I studied Russian literature, and then UC Berkeley, where I studied the history of the women’s movement in the Progressive Era. The Judaism that was passed on to me was largely cultural, with formulaic forays into after school Hebrew school classes, where I argued with my rabbi. I had seen a nun on the beautiful marble steps of the forbidden-to-look-at Catholic Church, she was holding a sobbing women, and comforting her. I asked my rabbi, “where are the Jewish nuns?” Being rather distant from the synagogue, I thought maybe I had missed them. He replied: “When you grow up, you will have a husband and your own children, and you will comfort them, and not some stranger in the middle of Pico Boulevard.” It took me years to understand that this was actually not the sum of Jewish thought.

RSN: At what point did you decide you wanted to become a scholar of religion?

Zoloth: I took an utterly nontraditional path. In high school, I became involved in the movement to boycott grapes, led by Cesar Chavez, and gathered food for the farmworkers, going to Delano to see Chavez break his fast with Robert Kennedy a week before Kennedy was shot. It was the first mass I had ever seen. I became a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in high school and spent much of my time once I was at Swarthmore at anti-Vietnam war rallies and protests. I left college in my sophomore year to go on the first Venceremos Brigade, cutting sugar cane in Cuba for three months, and then traveling in China as a part of a delegation brought to represent the women’s liberation movement by the All-China Women’s Federation. I returned and left college to work as a community organizer in Philadelphia’s white working class segregated communities. There, I trained as a licensed vocational nurse, and helped to start a 1199 union at my first hospital job. After a year my husband and I went to visit friends in Berkeley and decided to stay. I got a job as an LVN, and then, becoming interested in medicine, I returned to UC Berkeley and finished my BA. I had my first two sons, and still working as a nurse, served as union shop steward. I then got a second BS in nursing, became a registered nurse and worked the night shift in a neonatal intensive care unit. Working nights means that you have a great deal of time to read, and I decided that I would return to school and get a MA in English since I loved literature. I went to the wonderful Cal State system, wrote a novel, studied religion, and decided I was more interested in the moral of the story than the story. The writers I studied—Peretz, Rich, Cather, Berry, and yes, Kafka—were passionately involved in a world about which I knew absolutely nothing: a world claimed by faith. I decided if I was going to understand literature I would need first to understand religion, especially my own. And I began to take classes in Jewish thought—my very first course in religion in my life, which led to both a deepening involvement with a wonderful Orthodox religious community, and to a second MA in Jewish Studies at GTU. The Jewish community and its gifted teacher, Rabbi Joseph Leibowitz, created a place where I could study the questions that most interested me and those that my years as a left-wing activist had not fully answered—the questions of morality and ethics: Why was it that people chose to be evil? How ought a good person live? And at GTU, I was able to study with serious students both within my tradition and with scholars with a deep appreciation of their own traditions. There, for the first time, I read the literature about the Shoah, which had barely been discussed in my childhood, and there I was taught Talmud, Maimonides, Hebrew scripture, and from the Jesuits, ironically, Emmanuel Levinas.

My family was somewhat baffled, and by this time my Yiddish grandparents who would have understood had passed away, but I found the study of religion endlessly fascinating and critically important. I also found the sources of political justice theory and the regard for the stranger were deeply a part of the Jewish tradition. I applied for the doctoral program and began also to spend every Shabbas afternoon with a small group of people, including my teachers, Jacob and Jo Milgram, David Winston, and Danny Matt, who read classic Jewish commentaries and scriptural texts together. The GTU and its joint classes with UC Berkeley created remarkable and comprehensive conversation about Jewish thought.

RSN: What has compelled you to research, publish, and lecture in the area of bioethics and Jewish studies?

Zoloth: In my first year as a graduate student, I was still working in the NICU. The state of the technology was such that even at an excellent tertiary hospital where we were able to save the life of the baby, it was in such a way that she was tethered to advanced life support, and would often only live for months, unable to go home. I would do a shift at work and then go to my seminar in literature and religion. But that year, David Hartman, the great Jewish philosopher of blessed memory, was also teaching in the program, and I took both his seminar and his class. He asked me why I was studying literature when what clearly was important to me were the dilemmas of my work: “fiction- shamiksion,” he said impatiently, “you should study philosophy!” 

So I changed my area of study to ethics, and with three other students (we called ourselves the Gang of Four) I took every class that my advisor Karen Lebacqz taught. Karen was one of the founders of the field, and California had wonderful teachers of ethics: Al Jonson, Elliott Dorff, Larry Nelson, John Golenski, Carol Robb, Bill O’Neil, Ted Peters. Golenski had a new contract with Kaiser Permanente to start ethics committees in all the forty-five hospitals in California. One was the hospital where I worked. I walked up to him after a lecture and told him I wanted to work with him and learn to be a bioethicist. “If you hire me,” I told him, “you will have a Jew and a woman and a nurse on your team.” I spent months following him around and learning the practice of clinical ethics. After two years, I began to work for him full time. He was a consultant to the Oregon Health Care Decisions project, and the distributive justice aspects of this work became the subject of my doctoral research. As a scholar, I continued my interest in social justice and the problems to which I had devoted my life as a community and union organizer: poverty, healthcare disparities, and the gulf between the wealthy and the workers who created wealth.

I find in Hebrew scripture, the Talmud, and the long arguments and narratives from the medieval period to modernity—especially in the work of Emmanuel Levinas, and increasingly Hannah Arendt—the resources for a thoughtful reflection on the problems encountered in medicine and emerging science. My research has always been directed by the interesting questions I have been asked: Should humans travel into space? Should stem cell research proceed even at the cost of destroying embryos? May we study and then recreate organisms using synthetic biology? My research was never far from its context: my five children, my work as a bioethicist at Kaiser, my students, the ordinal ethical question that underlies research in ethics: How ought I to live? This question turns one always back to the resources of Jewish thought and tradition.

RSN: Can you tell us about your current academic life at Northwestern University?

Zoloth: I have appointments in both the Department of Religious Studies and in the medical school, and I am a member of the Jewish studies faculty, the systems and synthetic biology faculty, and the faculty for reproductive medicine.

For the last six years, I created and then directed a new program at Northwestern in the Department of Philosophy, called the Brady Scholars Program in Ethics and Civic Life. This program takes sixteen undergraduates, who, in their sophomore year, enroll in three seminars in ethics—The Good One, The Good Neighbor, and The Good Place—in which they closely read classic work in moral philosophy and religious ethics. They also meet in small groups of four headed by a graduate student, also selected for the program. During their first year they study the city in which they live: Evanston, a small city with the same grave problems as any American city, in which issues of race and class divide the city, but in which exists enormous creativity and determination. They ask "How could we make this place a better place to live?" and they collectively decide on what sort of problem they will research. In their second year in the program, they spend part of the year abroad comparing the city they choose to visit with Evanston to see how another culture and nation state addresses the issue. In their final year, they return to campus as seniors and see if they can apply the theories of moral philosophy and religious ethics to the practice of change in their city, both continuing to read texts and working with the community on a concrete problem.

Many times, it is a lesson in failure, and after their first idea fails, on how to rise again and try a new plan. Social justice, they learn, is easy to demand and far harder to enact. The program has done some substantial projects: planted a new orchard; convinced the university not to dump its waste in a site in the poorest neighborhood in the city, worked to move the site out of the city; built greenhouses and pumpkin fields in abandoned lots to help support a market in organic produce; set up a mentoring program with the local high school. Throughout the term, we have weekly teas to discuss ethical issues, and annually, we invite a visiting scholar to teach and work on a year-long project which has produced four books based on the scholar’s annual Brady lectures.

I also teach a class on religion and bioethics in our department and classes in the medical school for medical students and those working on bioethics masters’ degrees. As a member of the graduate school faculty, I supervise doctoral students with great joy. As a working bioethicist, I serve on a number of national advisory boards as a part of my research and service, at NASA, as a member of the national Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, and at the National Institutes of Health as a member of the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee.

RSN: What is your greatest joy in teaching?

Zoloth: There are so many joys! Because I teach in several difference contexts there is always an occasion for joy: the moment when the lecture you have worked on in private suddenly takes on new resonance when you speak it to an audience, and their questions show you insights you’ve not thought of; or the moment when you are planting a tree with your students and one quotes happily from Levinas about breaking the “totalizing quality of existence” and explains it carefully to the man she is working with, who has taught us how to mulch properly. It is a joy and a privilege to teach religious studies and to invite students to join in a complex, intense, and profound discussion driven by the questions of our field and the questions of the world. It is a joy to see them join in the great conversation of the humanities, the inquiry about the nature, goal, and meaning of a human life, vividly lived and carefully examined: “What does it mean to be human, what does it mean to be free?” and to ask “What must I do about the suffering of the other?” But perhaps the greatest joy is the practice of scriptural reasoning, a comparative study of sacred texts in which we read Hebrew scripture, the New Testament, and the Qur’an together. There is an unparalleled joy in introducing students into this practice and watching how the abundant meanings of the texts emerge for them.

RSN: What are your goals as the Academy’s president in 2014?

Zoloth: My goals are the ones I set out in my presidential statement. First, I want the AAR in our meetings and in our work all year to be a community of scholars in the best sense of that term. We need to be utterly transparent and openly democratic in our governance—the AAR is not only the staff or the board: it is each and every member, and each member should feel a sense of ownership in all that we do.

The AAR is our union and our guild as well as our academic home, and the annual meeting should mirror our commitments to inclusion, access, fairness, and, of course, elegant discourse. We will create a just and sustainable “place” of our meeting elaborating on the efforts to be good stewards of the earth, sharing the social goods of the work with new and old colleagues.

Second, I want the AAR to support our scholarship in the academy and to be an advocate for the field of religion and theology and for the humanities in general, for we must speak strongly on behalf of our field and its worth. We face unprecedented challenges not just in funding, but in our purpose and our gravity. The pressure to raise tuition and to cut programs that do not promise quantitative results or translational products is significant. The epistemic claims of science and technology fascinate our students and sustain the imagination, and it is increasingly the case that fields like neuroscience, genomics, and medicine research “religion” as an object of study. Yet, we contend that science cannot be conducted, nor technology developed, nor professionals trained without the sort of questions raised by humanities disciplines—ones of meaning, justice, and telos. We need to understand how our mutual scholarly interests can be pursued collaboratively and not competitively.

As we argue for a growing role for religious studies in the university, we can draw from the deep interdisciplinary praxis of the field to raise both epistemic and ontological questions about the university itself. To that end, we have formed a committee to study how to support the contingent and adjunct faculty, and we will study how to reach out to deans, provosts, and presidents of our universities to support our work.

Finally, I want the AAR to be more robustly “in the world,” to be a critical place for the development of research on how the interdisciplinary resources of the field contribute to a wider civic life. We have texts, traditions, and critiques that can be meaningful in the public debates about how we understand social justice, how we respond to a threatened environment, how we reflect on issues of war and peace, how we understand the relationship between our economy and the needs of our neighbors. We must continue our tradition of addressing ourselves to such questions and to disseminating our research to our society. That is why this year I have asked the members to turn their attention to the pressing problem of climate change, which I believe interrupts our usual academic discourse. I want the AAR to be an international resource for scholars and a prominent and respected voice in public policy and academic research on this topic, and on other critical ethical issues we face as a nation and as a world.