What's a Nice Jewish Boy Like Me Doing in a Place Like This?

Law School Dean Howard Eisenberg originally presented this speech at a Law School retreat on Oct. 15, 1999.

Some Thoughts on Spirituality, the Legal Profession and Religious Diversity

Twenty-five years ago if you had asked me whether it was more likely that in 1999 I would be managing the Chicago Cubs, sitting on the United States Supreme Court or serving as dean of the Marquette University Law School, I would have said without hesitation that although the chances of me managing the Cubs or being on the Supreme Court were pretty remote, there was absolutely no possibility that I would ever be the dean at Marquette. And yet as we enter the new millennium, I find myself the Jewish dean of that Catholic and Jesuit Law School just down the street. It is really true that God works mysterious ways -- sometimes She even works shocking ways!

When I became Dean many people were shocked. That included my own mother. And my appointment was startling. Marquette University had existed for 115 years, and I was the first Jewish dean of any college. Our Law School became part of Marquette in 1908, and I was the first non-Catholic dean in all that time. During that 90-year history, I was only the second person who was not himself a graduate of this Law School. Some people were even more surprised by the fact that the University had chosen a "liberal" as dean, and a liberal who was best known in this state as a former State Public Defender.

My liberal friends were actually more flabbergasted by my appointment as dean. Any number of people asked me, "How could" I be dean of a Catholic Law School when they assumed that my personal point of view on some social issues was not consistent with positions of the Catholic Church on those issues. Of course, these expressions of disbelief stereotyped both my views and the views of Catholics, as if the only things the church cared about or I cared about were question of sexuality and reproductive freedom. What was most interesting was that people who questioned my agreement with the teachings of the church on such issues as abortion and homosexuality never once questioned my ability to be dean of a Catholic Law School because I wasn't even Christian, much less Catholic. It has always seemed to me that if someone wanted a reason to say that I am an inappropriate person to be dean of a Jesuit institution it isn't because of my view of social issues, it is the basic fact that I am not Christian.

It is extremely significant to me that in all the interviews I went through before I was hired and in the four and one-half years I have been dean, no one at this university has ever asked my views on these high profile social issues. I have been asked many times about my views on the role of teachers and administrators at a Jesuit Law School. I have been asked to speak about my experience representing low-income people and the problems of legal access. In fact, when I was interviewing, I wanted to make certain that everyone knew I was Jewish, even though it is actually on my resume and is an important part of my life activities. The academic vice president. said he knew, and I really knew he knew. But then I said that if I should take this job I would continue to provide pro bono representation to the indigent, almost all of whom are convicted felons, some murders. Dr. Lazarus said immediately, "That's one of the reasons we want you here, because you do that work." And, to be honest, that is exactly one of the reasons I came to Marquette.


Since 1995 I have been involved in many university activities, I have spoke to alumni groups throughout the United States, I have discussed the meaning of Jesuit education and particularly the importance of being a Jesuit Law School. I have been asked to assist in the development of a Mission and Vision Statement for the university, and in all that time the issues that consume so much energy in the media have never even arisen. That should tell us something. It may be that there are more important issues relating to faith and spirituality than those discussed in USA Today and on radio talk shows.

And this is part of the problem; we have taken the "spirit" out of spirituality and the faith out of religion. One's view on individual, discrete issues, has become more important than one's belief in God or the ultimate acceptance of certain transcendent values and core beliefs. We want issues of religion, faith, and spirituality to fit a USA Today graphic or a 30-second sound byte on the evening news. Belief in God is now defined by your position on certain social and political issues. Or worse, belief in God is defined by how many times you say you believe in God.

It seems to me that the popular view of people of faith has also become stereotyped. Religious people are said to oppose abortion, hand gun control, welfare and homosexuals and favor capital punishment, spending for the military and public support of private schools. Frankly, most of those views are crazy, upside down. Our popular culture has marginalized people of faith as being just another interest group, rather like labor unions, chambers of commerce, and farmers. Moreover, all too often people of faith are portrayed as being out of the mainstream, a little kooky, and somewhat extreme, certainly right wing. As with some many other aspects of American life and popular culture, we have reduced spirituality, faith and religious belief to simple minded caricatures, almost cartoons in which the "religious " person is portrayed as a weeping Jimmy Swaggart or a made up Tammy Faye Baker.

There also is a sense of cynicism when these people talk about religion, faith and spirituality. It is as if the only people who think about God and Godliness are those who want to use spirituality as a way to gain fame or fortune. I was at a program, recruiting students for our Law School, and an older women asked what our tuition was. I told her, and she responded: "Yeah, those Jesuits always understood about money." When I told her quite directly and in no uncertain terms that her statement offended me, she responded: "It's OK. I'm a Catholic and I went to Jesuit schools." Clearly, she had missed something along the way.

I feel well suited to write on this topic of collaboration and mission because it seems to me that something needs to be said about two dimensions of the discussion: the diversity of faith and spirituality, and those who look to God and religion as a source of professional strength and support. Perhaps I am in as good a good position as anyone to talk about those issues. In fact, my presence here today belies virtually all of the stereotypes about people of faith. And frankly, my friends, it is time that people like me were more direct. Faith, belief in God and adherence to core human and religious values is not something limited to only a few in our society -- these are universal values that are to be embraced by everyone.


First, no one religion has a monopoly on spirituality, faith or religion. There are people of all faiths who believe in the importance of a Higher Spirit and the impact that Spirit has on their daily lives. While some of these people are certainly Christians, others pray in different ways, follow different rituals, and may have different systems of beliefs. The Native American faiths, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and other religions practiced by relatively few people in the United States are legitimate ways of expressing a belief in God and in being a good and spiritual person. God is nonsectarian and nonparochial, and She takes joy in all people of good will wherever they pray, in whatever language and through any ritual that respects human beings.

Secondly, we must reject those in our society who apply social litmus tests to decide whether someone is religious, God fearing or a person of faith. God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican. God does not have a political agenda. God has many agendas and they are not susceptible to pigeonholing into a political box. I tell people who think that Christians are right-wing to read the Sermon on the Mount; I tell people who disagree with the position of the Catholic Church on abortion to look at the work of the church caring for the needy, the impoverished, the seriously ill. Catholicism is about a lot more than abortion and homosexuality. I tell people who complain about the role of women in Orthodox Judaism to read the Talmud.

Those people who want to ridicule faith and religious belief can take bits and pieces of ritual or teaching out of context. But religion is a transcendent set of values governing our entire lives, not just selected bits and pieces. Religious faith is not a multiple-choice test, in which you have to gain a "passing" score on some key points. There are deeply spiritual people who are "pro choice " and there are people of good will and deep religious faith who support capital punishment and handgun ownership. And you and I both know that there are men and women of every faith and every denomination who go to church and get their names in the synagogue newsletter who besmirch God's name and God's teaching while professing to be religious and righteous and who are, in reality, people who promote greed and intolerance.

So long as issues of faith, spirituality and religion are bound up with political issues, we are going to have a hard time helping people understand that Jesus' message of love resonates for everyone, even for people who are not Christian. The life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth can inform the lives of men and women of all faith tradition, just as the wisdom of Talmud, Koran and the Eastern prophets have important messages for everyone. We must shed the parochialism of spirituality and talk directly about why it is important for all of us. It is not something to be embarrassed about; it is something to be proud of. It makes us better people, not narrower or more filled with hate.


I am often struck by the similarity of the core messages in Christianity and Judaism. While this is not surprising, considering they both come from the same source, often this basic fact is overlooked or trivialized. I have been nourished by my association at Marquette with members of the Society of Jesus and by my contact with deeply committed Catholics. Perhaps I have rubbed off on a few people, although I must admit that I am always worried that people will view me as representative of Jewish people generally. There is no more a "typical Jew" than there is a "typical Catholic" and such stereotyping really doesn't advance our concern about the Godliness of all people.

I know I shouldn't minimize the difference in beliefs. Catholics believe different things than Lutherans, and Christians believe some different things than Jews or Moslems or Buddhists. And we know that, but so long as we don't start saying or believing that "my religion is better than your religion" we can work together and to accept and appreciate the differences in our beliefs, and not allow the differences to make impossible the dialogue on issues of common ground.

Now how in a practical everyday way has my belief in God effected the work I do? How does it make a difference for me, personally? First, let me say that often I fail. I would hate anyone to hear this talk and then point out that I sometimes do not live up to my own expectations. That is true, and it makes me feel guilty, but it doesn't make me a hypocrite. None of us are perfect; we all slip off the straight and narrow. The fact that we don't always practice what we preach does not mean that the goal is unworthy or that we cannot strive to achieve the goal.

Recently I was at a meeting of Jesuit educators and one dean described his procedure for hiring new faculty. He said that he always had a meal in a restaurant with the prospective faculty member to observe how that person interacted with the wait staff. The dean's attitude was that if a faculty member did not show respect for a server in a restaurant, that person would probably not be respectful to students or colleagues. That made a lost of sense to me. Acting with love and kindness towards everyone is one of the easiest yet hardest things we can do. Kindness is one of the bedrock principles of every religious faith. Hospitality toward strangers, charity for the widow and orphan, concern for the disabled. Ignatian spirituality emphasizes cura personalis, care for the whole person, but often we pay only lip service to this teaching.


We have made legal education an ordeal, in which some instructors have viewed their role as trying to portray the most unreasonable, unpleasant and demeaning judge or opposing lawyer a law student will ever have to deal with in the "real world" of law practice. This has had two effects. First, it made whole generations of students, at Marquette and elsewhere, loathe and despise everything about their legal education. Indeed, many graduates of our Law School will tell you that they never met any judge or opposing attorney who ever gave them as much grief or as much stress as their professors in Law School.

Secondly, and more importantly, generations of law students thought they were being taught that in order to be a good lawyer, a zealous advocate, you had to be a son-of-a-bitch. Somehow, in the midst of talking about the teaching of St. Ignatius, we have turned out lawyers who try to win cases by being personally offensive, by being snide and by generally being unreasonable and difficult to deal with.

Worse yet, some lawyers cut corners to be unpleasant -- they are also dishonest. This emphasis on sarcasm, personal attack, offensive personality and lack of cooperation often turns into a contempt for opposing counsel, for opposing parties, for our system of justice, and for the rule of law in general. I have never seen any statistics on the number of lawyers who have been subjected to attorney discipline based upon the law school from which they graduated, but it would appear to me that an education at a Catholic and Jesuit Law School which has a mission based on the teaching of Jesus Christ and St. Ignatius of Loyola has not eliminated or even necessarily reduced the percentage of graduates who are dishonest or are subject to professional discipline. To me that is very sad and quite troubling.

One of the ways we can all put faith, spirituality, and religion into practice is simply by being nicer to everyone. To servers in restaurants, to our support staffs, to our colleagues, to opposing counsel and to everyone we come in contact with. That would be an important first step. Cura personalismeans that the Golden Rule is operative even in law offices, even at depositions, and even in "lawyer" letters we send to opposing parties and their counsel.

In the last few months I have been studying the Talmud with a rabbi here in Milwaukee. We have been studying part of the Talmud called Ethics of our Fathers which is really a primer on basic moral values and how those values shape our everyday life and everyday conduct. One of those values that I use every day is a traditional Talmudic teaching that you should give everyone the benefit of the doubt. You should not assume the worst about people; you should not assume the worst motivations for everything others do. And you should not say bad things about people. There is actually a foundation in New York which is established exclusively to promote the elimination ofla'shon hara or speaking evil. Could you imagine how our practice would be different if the Model Rules of Professional Conduct forbade speaking badly about others?

Our profession would be different if we assumed that opposing lawyers were dealing fairly and honestly with us. The world generally would be a better place if we did not act on negative perception, assumption, or rumor and waited for proof before we took some step that brings discomfort or anguish to someone else. This is a very Christian view. This, too, is a very Talmudic view. Morality and spirituality in the workplace and in the way we live our lives begins with us. If we do not do it, no one will. When referring to unethical, immoral or mean-spirited conduct, it is no answer to say that, "Everybody is doing it." "Everybody" must end with each of us!

I tell law students on their first day of orientation at Marquette that the primary task of a lawyer is to resolve a client's problems as quickly, as inexpensively and with as little acrimony as possible. I tell them that as attorneys we must regard ourselves as a "helping" profession in the most literal sense of that term. Law teachers have a special duty to teach students not only substantive law and procedure, not only the skills necessary to be a successful lawyer, and not even just the ethical rules adopted by the Supreme Court. We must be prepared to teach students to be good and moral citizens in the fullest sense of those words.


It is possible to be a good person, a decent person and a moral person and not believe in God. Going to church is not a condition for being a spiritual person or even a religious person. We all know people who go to the synagogue on Saturday or church on Sunday and spend the rest of the week ignoring the message of the Testaments, Old and New.

But let me say this: A sincere belief in God and a religious faith is certainly helpful to shaping our behavior. I suppose that, in the abstract, it is possible for a person to independently develop the moral values of the Torah, the prophets, the New Testament, the Koran, the Book of Mormon and all the other holy writings without any religious training, without ever studying theology or going to a religious service. But it won't be easy and it will consume most of that person's life. Most of us are not that smart and don't have that much stick-to-itiveness. The transcendent values of religious faith have stood the test of time -- that is why they are transcendent.

We can and must bring God into our work places. That doesn't require a Bible on the desk nor a mazuzah or crucifix on the wall. That doesn't require group or public prayer. Because those symbols and prayers do not always have the same meaning to everyone. What can be comforting to one person may be deeply disturbing, and even offensive, to other people. But bringing God into our daily lives and our daily work does require that His message change how we conduct ourselves, every day, in every situation. How do we interact with our colleagues, with our staff, with our opponents? What language do we use? Do we go out of our way to do pro bono work, to help the needy, to listen to those who have problems? Living a spiritual life must become "business as usual" for each of us, Jew or Gentile, Christian or Moslem. We each bring to our work our experience and our religious faith, and that is of critical importance, but our faith and religious value system must transcend work as lawyers, as teachers, as judges and extend to all persons of good will. If we succeed in doing this, we will have advanced God's Will and our individual faith. Our clients, our colleagues, our students, and society will be better served. We will be better and more effective attorneys, and altogether better human beings.