Books: The chutzpadik Jewish lawyer

Alan Dershowitz takes his unique lens to Abraham and the history of Jewish litigation in his latest book.

Alan Dershowitz (photo credit: REUTERS)
Alan Dershowitz
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Alan Dershowitz is looking to take on a new role: Bible commentator.
The legendary lawyer who has made a public career of defending Israel and has recently been taking shots at the UN and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign is taking a slightly different tone with Abraham: The World’s First (But Certainly Not Last) Jewish Lawyer.
Going into impressive detail in analyzing multiple readings of the main passages of Abraham’s life and covering the full gamut of traditional and modern Jewish commentators as well as non-Jewish commentators, he presents a new angle to the father of the Jewish nation.
To keep the journey entertaining and not overly imposing for the less initiated reader, he sprinkles in an encyclopedia of Jewish jokes, particularly highlighting Woody Allen.
Breaking Abraham’s life down into distinct events that serve as paradigms for different kinds of Jewish lawyers and human beings, he alternately praises Abraham and critiques him.
He discusses Abraham’s famous debate with God to try to save the lives of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah who are waiting on “death row.” Dershowitz says that he “passes the test with flying colors and in the process establishes himself as the patriarch of the legal profession: a defense lawyer for the damned who is willing to risk everything, even the wrath of God, in defense of his clients.”
This is where he is most comfortable with and admires Abraham, where he has the chutzpah to tell God, the ultimate law enforcer, that he knows better and that God’s punishment of the defendants (Sodom and Gomorrah) is an injustice.
Not surprisingly, this is the role that he has always seized for himself as a lawyer.
No matter who the client (including infamous ones like OJ Simpson), the charges or the stakes, his ideal lawyer fights for the accused to avoid the possibility of an innocent person being punished, even at the cost of some guilty persons going free.
In contrast, the Abraham who “refuses to argue with God and with his wife over the lives of his children – failing God’s next test” is condemned by Dershowitz.
Here he surveys the famous “Akeda” story, of Abraham being ready to sacrifice his favored son Isaac at God’s command, and of his banishing his less favored son Ishmael into the wilderness of the desert, potentially to perish.
In both cases, his sons ultimately survive, but he reads the text (and he is far from the only one to do so) as primarily implying that they survived despite his intentions.
Traditional Jewish commentators applaud Abraham for passing the test of faith, being willing to heed even the most difficult command from God, and maybe even knowing that God would not actually compel him to go through with the command to kill his son Isaac.
Dershowitz, like many modern people not bound by traditional limits on interpretation, declares that any lawyer or leader who lacks the backbone or is too overly humble to challenge a command that is unjust, no matter that it comes from the Creator of the universe, has failed.
“When the judge of all the earth contemplates doing injustice, it is the duty of a moral person to resist that injustice...
even if the resistance displeases his god,” he writes.
So great does he consider Abraham’s failure to be that he compares his acquiescence to God’s command to Judah Benjamin, a 19th-century American-Jewish lawyer who fought hard to maintain the Confederacy’s institution of slavery.
Dershowitz says that, “like Abraham, Benjamin listened to the wrong voice when it came to the most important moral issue of his time.”
He concludes the Abraham narrative and analysis, covering about half of the book, explaining that “a singular approach” to interpreting the story is “small-minded” and that different Abrahams arise from the text as themes for moral responses to moral challenges.
Most of the rest of the book is a review of some fascinating more modern Jewish lawyers as well as Jews who were literally or figuratively put on trial.
Early 20th-century progressivist Louis Brandeis and 1970s feminist movement leader Ruth Bader Ginsburg, each of whom ultimately became US Supreme Court justices despite some opposition by less progressive voices, both make prominent appearances.
There are many other Jewish lawyers’ stories told as well, but the next part of the book also focuses on Jews on trial due to anti-Semitism, including Alfred Dreyfus of 19th-century France, and Natan Sharansky, imprisoned for years by the Soviet Union.
These portions of the book allow Dershowitz a segue into defending the State of Israel, which he explains has been repeatedly unfairly “put on trial” by the United Nations and much of the international community.
In one of his most intense passages, he states, “One might dismiss the UN’s obsession with Israel if the body’s failure to prevent suffering was not so serious. The UN could have... saved millions of lives during ongoing genocides. It is a broken institution. And until it ends its obsession with Israel, the UN cannot be fixed.”
He remarks that Jewish and Zionist human rights legend René Cassin, who was among the primary drafters of the UN’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights, would be turning over in his grave “as the shields... constructed to protect the helpless from oppression and genocide have been beaten into swords to be used to facilitate these human wrongs.”
He does predict that Israel will ultimately be vindicated against being put on trial or challenged by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and by the International Criminal Court, but “at a heavy price.”
In an unexpected turn, he uses the epilogue to address intermarriage and assimilation rates in the US, concluding that “we may vanish altogether from the American legal scene.”
His prediction here is that “an America without Jews will be a less exciting, innovative, progressive and compassionate place,” having given Jewish lawyers credit beyond their numbers for fighting for progressive political causes in the US over the years.
But keeping some trademark optimism, of a sort, he adds that “the bagel will endure, along with many colorful words – from ‘schlep’ to ‘schmuck’ to ‘yenta’ to ‘chutzpah,’” and expresses hope that “the Jewish legacy in law will endure.”
Ultimately, his book is as much about his explaining how his Jewish identity influenced him to become the often chutzpadik lawyer that he is as much as it is about Abraham, not just the first Jew, but the first Jewish lawyer, who Dershowitz would point to as one of his forebears.
Close-readers of the Bible, lawyers and people interested in law will find Dershowitz’s journey to be a thought-provoking one.