An Orthodox Jewish woman takes the helm of Chicago Divinity School

(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.

“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…

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