Laurie Zoloth, a leader in the field of religious studies with particular scholarly interest in bioethics and Jewish studies, has been appointed dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Zoloth serves as a Charles McCormick Deering Professor of Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University, holding appointments in the Department of Religious Studies in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and in the Feinberg School of Medicine. President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Daniel Diermeier announced her appointment as dean, which will begin July 1, 2017.
“The University of Chicago Divinity School has a long history as a leader in the academic study of religion. It has an opportunity not only to expand and deepen this work in the coming years, but to bring this expertise to a much richer, informed, dispassionate public discourse on religion,” Zimmer and Diermeier said. “Laurie’s leadership in the field of religious studies, her scholarship in areas of Judaism and ethics, and her work on evolving issues of science and society make her an excellent choice as dean.”
Zoloth’s research explores religion and ethics, drawing from sources ranging from Biblical and Talmudic texts to postmodern Jewish philosophy, including the writings of Emmanuel Levinas. Her scholarship spans the ethics of genetic engineering, stem cell research, synthetic biology, social justice in health care, and how science and medicine are taught. As a founding board member of the Society for Scriptural Reasoning, she also researches the practices of interreligious dialogue, exploring how religion plays a role in public discussion and policy.
Zoloth is author of Health Care and the Ethics of Encounter: A Jewish Discussion of Social Justice and co-editor of five books, including Notes from a Narrow Ridge: Religion and Bioethics and Jews and Genes: The Genetic Future in Contemporary Jewish Thought.
“The Divinity School is the nation’s leading institution for theological research and education, home to creative, honest and serious scholarship,” Zoloth said. “I look forward to listening, thinking carefully and learning thoughtfully to help shape the future of the Divinity School, furthering it as a site of intellectual leadership in Chicago and around the world.”
Zoloth has been the president of the American Academy of Religion and the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. She was the inaugural director of the Jewish Studies program at San Francisco State University and director of graduate studies in religious studies at Northwestern. She is an elected member of the Hastings Center and a life member of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge.
Her work on bioethics and health care led her to serve on the NASA Advisory Council, the space agency’s highest civilian advisory board; the International Planetary Protection Committee; the National Recombinant DNA Advisory Board, and the executive committee of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. She served as chair of the first bioethics advisory board at the Howard Hughes Medical Research Institute and has testified in front of Congress, the President’s Commission on Bioethics and state legislatures.
Zoloth began her career as a neonatal nurse working in impoverished communities. She said those early years are central to how she views religious studies and bioethics—an approach that brings together theoretical exploration with an understanding of how arguments of theology and moral philosophy can address societal challenges.
Zoloth holds a bachelor’s degree in women studies from the University of California, Berkeley and a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of the State of New York. She received a master’s degree in Jewish studies and a doctorate in social ethics from the Graduate Theological Union. Zoloth also holds a master’s degree in English from San Francisco State University.
Zoloth served as a professor of ethics and Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University before joining the religious studies and medical school faculty at Northwestern. At Northwestern, she was founding director of the Brady Program in Ethics and Civic Life at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and founding director of the Center for Bioethics, Science and Society at the Feinberg School of Medicine. Zoloth also served as the president of Northwestern’s Faculty Senate.
Zoloth succeeds Dean Richard A. Rosengarten, associate professor of religion and literature. In a note to the Divinity School community, Zimmer and Diermeier thanked Rosengarten for his demonstrated commitment to the Divinity School.
Zoloth’s appointment follows a national search, informed by a Divinity School faculty committee chaired by Daniel Arnold, associate professor of the philosophy of religions.
The Divinity School was founded in 1892, the year that the first classes were held at UChicago, and it was the first of UChicago's six professional schools. It is internationally recognized for scholarship across many religious traditions and for scholarly and comparative perspectives on religion and public life. The school is known for research that spans disciplines, with many of its faculty members holding joint appointments in other departments or schools.
photo: Seth Joel