This Day in Jewish History |

2008: A Convert to Judaism Celebrates Her Bat Mitzvah - at Age 61

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who engages constantly with questions of justice, has been involved in Jewish life since converting in 1969.

David Green
David B. Green
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Martha Nussbaum.
Martha Nussbaum.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

August 16, 2008, is the date on which philosopher Martha Nussbaum celebrated her bat mitzvah – at the age of 61. The ceremony took place on Shabbat Nachamu, during a service at Temple K.A.M. Isaiah Israel, in Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago, where Nussbaum holds multiple appointments, most notably in the law school.

Martha Nussbaum was not born or raised a Jew. Born May 6, 1947, in New York City, she grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, the daughter of George Craven, a Southern-born lawyer whom she has described as a “racist” who was “bigoted against African Americans and Jews,” and Betty Warren, an interior designer who could trace her ancestry back to the Mayflower, the ship that brought the Pilgrims from England to the New World in 1620.

Nussbaum has been quite forthright in describing her adult life and career as “a repudiation of my aristocratic upbringing.” After attending a private girls prep school in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, where she wrote and performed in a five-act French-language play about Robespierre and the French Revolution, Nussbaum attended college at Wellesley and New York University. She seriously considered becoming a professional actress before she turned to classics and philosophy. She eearned her master’s and doctoral degrees in classics at Harvard University.

It was in 1969, when she married a fellow classicist, Alan Nussbaum – who is today a professor of linguistics at Cornell University – that Martha Craven converted to Judaism. She has written about having had "an intense desire to join the underdogs and to fight for justice in solidarity with them." She also told an interviewer from the New York Times that she had “kind of gotten to the end of my rope with Christian otherworldliness. I wanted a religion in which justice was done in this world.”

The marriage to Nussbaum ended in 1987, but Martha Nussbaum, who has been romantically involved with the economist Amartya Sen and legal scholar Cass Sunstein, continued to remain involved in Jewish life – and in her determination to engage constantly with questions of justice.

Her career has taken her from Harvard to Brown University and, finally, in 1995, to the University of Chicago. A listing of her positions there gives a sense of the breadth of her interests and her engagements: In addition to her appointment in law and ethics, she is affiliated with the university’s classics and political science departments, its divinity school, and she is a member of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies. A prolific writer, Nussbaum has tackled the issues of gay rights and the rights of the disabled, religious freedom and tolerance, but also looked at the origins of emotional phenomena like revulsion, shame and love. And she has sharply and famously attacked thinkers as diverse as Alan Bloom, Judith Butler and Noam Chomsky – all of them, more or less, for not taking sufficient responsibility, in her eyes, for the practical implications of their philosophical work.

Nussbaum is an amateur singer – more than a decade ago, a profile in the New York Times described how, because she “detests earphones,” when she would take her 12-mile runs along Chicago’s lakefront, she would replay in her mind a memorized soundtrack of “The Marriage of Figaro” – and she has said that she decided to have a bat mitzvah because she wanted to learn cantillation, the notes for singing Torah and haftarah in synagogue. That being said, she used the opportunity of her bat mitzvah to give a lengthy and intellectually meaty dvar Torah that was subsequently published online with the title “The Mourner’s Hope.”

In her talk, Nussbaum attempted to understand the connection between the Torah portion read that day, the Sabbath following Tisha B’Av, and the haftarah, the reading from the Prophets that follows the Torah reading and is generally thematically related to it. Whereas the Torah portion of V’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11) includes a reiteration of the 10 Commandments, and in general, as she described it, “emphasizes the binding, covenantal force of laws,” with their rules of justice, the haftarah (Isaiah 40:1-26) is a consolation over the destruction of Jerusalem. The speaker wonders aloud what link the two readings are meant to have, considering that they appear to be “moving in two very different worlds: the inner world of the longing heart, of suffering that needs the consolation of an embrace; and the world of universal justice, imposing demands on all of us.”

Nussbaum compared this apparent divergence with the two arguably unrelated strands that could be said to characterize her own career: “trying to map out some principles of social and global justice on the one hand, and investigating the structure of the personal emotions on the other—focusing in fact, in the latter case, on ideas of grief, consolation, and compassion, on the way one mourns the death of a beloved parent, the way one seeks consolation when one has experienced some terrible pain. People tend to feel that I simply work on two unconnected topics.”

What Nussbaum does in her dvar Torah is to suggest that Judaism wants us to be able to feel the pain, and be able to console, not only of those we know and love, but also of those “on the other side of the world.” Reading the two texts in tandem, she says, teaches us that “we only have true consolation of the self if we have the commitment to a life of universal justice. For the narcissistic type of consolation is no good for the self. The voice of true or adequate emotion is the same as the voice of universal reason, and its message is that justice is to be pursued for all, in recognition of the human needs of all.”

The bat mitzvah concluded her talk, which is described in only an abbreviated form above, by suggesting that the message of her readings demands courage if it is to be followed – courage that she thinks can be drawn from the “arts and humanities” – because, “In a world of moral obtuseness, the message of universal justice is threatening. Joyful to the needy, it is threatening to the powerful…. It is about putting one’s whole self into the search for justice, which means not just some nice words, but a patient and persistent effort of imagination, analysis, and, ultimately, action.”

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