Randy Cohen, the original ethicist of The New York Times, only celebrates one Jewish holiday, and it is, not surprisingly, one in which he and a group of attorneys sit around and debate how the lessons of an ancient text apply to modern dilemmas.
“It’s a very disputatious seder,” Cohen said in an interview on the fourth day of Passover. “Every line” of the Haggadah “is significant.”
The writer who spent a dozen years giving advice on how to ethically exit every kind of rock-and-a-hard-place situation said that despite his lack of religious observance, he takes “enormous amounts of pleasure” in debating the Jewish text with litigators, most of them public defenders, in a home in his Upper West Side neighborhood.
A few years removed from his time as The Grey Lady’s resident advice columnist, Cohen will be the headliner at a Gratz College fundraiser at Har Zion Temple on May 1 to discuss lessons learned from the frontlines of battles over questions like: Do you let your 18-year-old son smoke weed in Amsterdam, even though he is not allowed to do so in the United States? Or, should a member of the clergy reveal to his admiring congregation that he no longer believes in God, even if that means he would lose his job?
One realization that Cohen said he has come to since the column started in 1999, is that he subconsciously took positions that were almost never at odds with the Jewish values he had been taught.
“What I mean by that is I rarely took a position with which my mother disagreed. She’s the personification of Judaism to me,” said the 65-year-old, who grew up attending a Reform synagogue in Reading, Pa.
Cohen also points out that the women behind the “Dear Abby” and “Ask Ann Landers” columns were Jewish, too.
“We’re overrepresented in this profession, and I think not by chance. We’re judgmental in a good way. The idea of forming these judgments, then putting them out for people to discuss — we were brought up doing that,” he said.
When Cohen first started, he and his editors thought the column would only last a few years before exhausting every possible situation. They were, he said, “completely wrong.”
“People are infinitely resourceful in their ability to do horrible things,” said Cohen, who was replaced in 2011 as part of a larger turnover at The New York Times Magazine, where his column appeared.
Cohen answered every question imaginable in his column, but the one that drew the most blowback from readers, he said, came from a woman who was offended when the Orthodox real estate agent she had hired to rent out her house refused to shake her hand.
“As a feminist, I oppose sex discrimination of all sorts,” she wrote. “However, I also support freedom of religious expression. How do I balance these conflicting values? Should I tear up our contract?”
Cohen responded that she should, in fact, dispose of the contract. He reasoned that since refusing to shake someone’s hand on the basis of race is unacceptable, “bias on the basis of sex is equally discreditable.”
“I stopped counting when I hit 4,000” emails reacting to that answer, he said. Representatives of the Orthodox Union even met with Cohen and Times editors amid the uproar. He still stands by his position more than a decade later.
After leaving the Times, Cohen started hosting his own public radio program, “Person Place Thing,” in which he talks with guests, most recently actor John Turturro, about the aspects of life they find meaningful. He has also published four books and a play. Before he started the Times column, he spent years writing for Late Night with David Letterman.
“It looks all but random. There seem to be these big lurches from career to career, and you think, ‘Here’s a guy who can’t keep a job,’ ” Cohen said, “but these jobs all in one way or another involve writing and in one way or another involve me. It’s the same sensibility applied in different ways.”
Coincidentally, the non-religious ethicist’s daughter interned with The Colbert Report several years ago, and next year host Stephen Colbert will drop that act to replace Letterman.
“I continued long after I stopped working there to respect and admire Dave. It’s astonishing how good the show was for how long,” Cohen said. “In addition to those things that anyone watching the show can see, he was also a great boss.”
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