Jill Dolan, Dean of the College, Princeton University
On November 29, 2016, the Office of Religious Life at Princeton honored its student leaders of faith groups. I was fortunate to be invited as their guest speaker and looked forward to offering words that underscore the importance of these students’ contributions to the campus community and my hopes for their future. Below are my remarks from this event. Thanks for reading.
I realize that those of us in this room might have vastly different feelings about the recent presidential election, and even about the many events that followed, from reports of hate crimes and hate speech near or on our own campus, to national reports of bullying, chanting, and “heil-ing” by groups elsewhere. But I imagine, as student leaders of faith groups, you share with me a deep concern for human rights, and a propensity to be empathetic in the face of political and other differences. And for that reason, I’m glad to be with you tonight, because more than ever, we need empathy, and human rights, and the faith that they continue to be achievable.
You should know that my own faith is secular and humanist; to be even more specific, my faith is feminist and anti-racist. Although I was born into the religious tradition of Conservative Judaism, and still consider myself a “cultural” Jew, my religious practices are confined to the annual high holidays, when my partner, Professor Stacy Wolf, and I seek out a tiny Reconstructionist Jewish congregation in New Hope, Pennsylvania, where we feel most at home.
The rabbi is a young feminist woman who talks of god judiciously, and mostly invites us to revel with her in the spiritual belongings of a temporary, holidays-inspired community. The others at the synagogue are diverse. They include a mixed-race family whose children we’ve seen grow up over these last nine years, and other LGBT couples and families, and people who, to our surprise but perhaps even our pleasure, don’t even “look” Jewish.
In the overlapping marginal communities to which Stacy and I belong—Jewish, queer—we’ve long stopped trying to predict who is who. What used to be called “gaydar” stopped working for me some time ago and, likewise, I’m more often than not surprised at who’s Jewish and who isn’t. (My own name, Dolan, often announces me as Irish, even though my Russian Jewish grandfather began his life named “Dolinsky”—the U.S. Army changed it for him when he enlisted in World War I.)
My inability to recognize by sight those who comprise my communities—religious and otherwise—by the furtive gestures and signals of a subculture might be seen as progress, but it might also be seen as privilege. That is, to act against the implications of my surname, I often take to the gestures and embodiments with which I grew up: certain tones of voice, certain mannerisms and styles, by which those who “know” can recognize my religion of birth and my ethnicity. But I don’t have to employ these codes; I can pass if I want, or if I feel I must.
Likewise, the subcultural codes that I had to learn to navigate my LGBT communities when I came out in the 1970s are no longer a matter of survival, since many especially white middle-class, educated queer people have assimilated into dominant culture communities. For others, the safety of passing is impossible. Those of us who mark our religious affiliations—with a hijab, a yarmulke, a turban, a cross—make visible our faith commitments in ways that might make us vulnerable, that might make us targets for those who despise everything for which we stand.
Why am I talking about the danger of religious and other identity affiliations at a dinner meant to celebrate your leadership on campus? Because now, more than ever, we need you. We need your commitments, your courage, and most of all, your faith. As a Jew; as a lesbian; as a person committed to social justice; and as a person who places her highest expectations of faith in her fellow human beings, I fear the degradation of our common bond.
I’ve spent my career as a scholar arguing that theatre and performance help cement our common humanity, and demonstrating how they can promote social change. And I’ve argued that theatre practice is analogous to religious practice. Both bring people together to experience a kind of transformation, which hopefully extends out of the theatre or the temple into everyday life. One of my colleagues, a performance theorist and theatre director named Richard Schechner, said that ritual emphasizes efficacy, and theatre underlines entertainment.
But I actually think that performance and ritual can both be pleasurable and effective. Both nurture and teach us; both move us and affirm us. Both inspire what theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement,” in which we see the familiar through the lens of wonder and awe for what exists in the world around us. Good theatre—and good religion—encourage us all toward grace, and ways of being in community that ennoble and change us.
I have faith in these practices of face-to-face, present-tense, live community that theatre and religion represent. I’m grateful to those of you willing to lead your communities, to mount the bully pulpits of your various faith systems to gather people together, to call out our common humanity. We need you to do this work. We need you to have faith; and we need you to be able to explicate the varieties of faith practices across our communities at Princeton.
Almost 12 years ago, I wrote a book about utopia in performance and the possibility of finding hope at the theatre. At the time, some of my more cynical colleagues criticized me for what they saw as the religiosity of my arguments. But I defended my belief that performance practices are in fact also spiritual practices, in which we take a moment out of our daily lives to approach the ineffable.
Theatre and performance can be a space not where we narrate the contours of a better world; that would be hegemonic, as my “better world” might not look a lot like yours. Instead, attending theatre, like attending a place of worship, is in itself a utopian gesture, because that willingness to see the world “as if” instead of just “as is” represents, to me, a gesture of hope. And at this historical moment, hope is exactly what we need.
German philosopher Ernst Bloch describes what he sees as the utopian nature of “the wish.” So I’ll leave you tonight with what I wish, for you and for our campus community:
Thanks for having me here tonight, but mostly, thanks so much for all you do. And thanks for listening.