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PHIL 128A: The intersection of culture, religion, philosophy and the law

Should the state recognize polygamy? Should feminists struggle to emancipate women from cultural practices to which they themselves do not object?

If these questions, introduced in the syllabus, pique your interest, note that they are only a taste of the legal and multicultural debates to be addressed in Dr. Lisa Fishbayn Joffe’s Spring 2018 course entitled Gender, Multiculturalism and the Law in the Liberal Tradition (PHIL 128A).

In her research, Joffe, Interim Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and Director of the Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law, examines how the law looks at controversies between cultural and religious practices, such as women’s legal and religious rights. “A lot of my scholarly work is on the research about how law grapples with those kinds of conflicts, so this course grows out of that,” said Joffe in an interview with The Brandeis Hoot.

Interested by the intersection of cultural and religious identity with law and philosophy, Joffe chose to address polygamy, among other subjects, in her class. “My experience as a lawyer is one that allows me to be involved in situations where the political philosophy is taken to town and used to actually resolve real disputes,” Joffe explained. Polygamy, she noted, requires judges to apply political philosophy.

To address the subject in her course, the class will first examine the theoretical aspects of polygamy and then look at two recent legal cases, one in America and one in Canada, regarding whether the state should recognize polygamous marriages.

“Part of thinking about this is thinking about colonialism and how we feel about the marital practices outside of the Christian tradition,” said Joffe. The other aspect, she explained, is thinking about the implications of polygamous marriages for women and children. “There’s all kinds of different disciplines that intersect when we’re trying to resolve those kind of questions around the family,” Joffe said.

Joffe taught a similar course as a professor at University College London before coming to Brandeis, but has updated much of the curriculum and course materials, as many topics covered are part of present-day debates. “These are very live issues,” said Joffe. For example, the course will discuss whether or not religious and cultural groups are entitled to choose their own curricula to educate children in their communities, whether the state can intervene to provide certain foundational education requirements.

“There’s a case that’s only at the lawsuit stage in New York which is being brought by men who were educated in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community who argue that New York law isn’t being followed,” said Joffe. “They’re not getting adequate secular educations so they come out of schools, they don’t speak English properly, they don’t have any math or science skills, so they don’t have the skills that would allow them to choose to exit the community if they wanted.”

Students will discuss historic cases, such as “Wisconsin v. Yoder,” a U.S. Supreme Court case about Amish families who were taking their kids out of school before high school, and more recent cases, such as a case decided last week in England about sex segregation in publicly funded schools. In the second aspect of the education unit, students will read works of political philosophy about the extent states should be involved in determining curriculum, said Joffe. “I want to give students the skills to critically evaluate these kind of disputes that they see in the newspaper all the time,” Joffe said.

As excited as Joffe is to share her own work with students, she is most excited for the in-class discussions throughout the semester. “The dialogue with students opens up new understandings for me. I do lots of informal teaching in my role as director of the project, but it will be great to have a sustained opportunity to work with students,” she said.

Students interested in taking Joffe’s course should enroll through Sage. The class will meet on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 to 10:50 a.m. In addition to class discussion, there will be a few movies shown in class. Joffe will be sure to provide the popcorn!

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