By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org
In his latest sharp-witted work, the world’s perhaps best-known Jewish lawyer profiles the man he considers to the first-ever Jewish lawyer: the biblical patriarch Abraham.
Retired Harvard Law School professor Alan M. Dershowitz, who has been called “the nation’s most peripatetic civil liberties lawyer” and one of its “most distinguished defenders of individual rights,” on Oct. 6 came out with “Abraham: The World’s First (But Certainly Not Last) Jewish Lawyer.” The attorney and Israel advocate says he has been working on the book for essentially 70 of his 79 years.
“Abraham is the only biblical character that starts his career arguing with God,” Dershowitz explains, referring to Abraham’s protest against God’s planned destruction of the town of Sodom. In this narrative, Abraham convinces God not to “sweep away the righteous with the wicked.”
“What could be more appropriate for a criminal lawyer?…I have taught about him and thought about him, and finally, at the age of 77, decided to write about him—since that was about the age that Abraham was when some of these adventures took place,” says Dershowitz.
The book also profiles some of the leading Jewish attorneys since Abraham, including Louis Brandeis, Theodor Herzl, Rene Cassin, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Irwin Cotler. It highlights Dershowitz’s understanding of why Jews are so prominent in the legal field—“We’ve had a lot of practice, as a people, in defending ourselves, but also defending others,” he says—and candidly elucidates the author’s four decades as a practicing lawyer.
“I argue with federal judges all the time who think they’re God,” says Dershowitz.
Finally, Dershowitz’s book shares his thoughts on “the future of the Jewish lawyer.”
On the day his book was published, Dershowitz gave the following interview to JNS.org.
JNS: What makes Abraham a lawyer?
Alan Dershowitz: “Abraham was the first person to argue with authority. In the days of the bible, no one argued with authority. If you argued with a king, you would get executed. If you argued with God, he would track you down. Abraham had chutzpah.”
But Abraham is not the only type of Jewish lawyer. In your book, you say there are six lawyer prototypes. What are they?
“First you have the idol shatterer, who doesn’t care about the rules or the law. You have the radical lawyers, those who participate in sit ins and demonstrations; there are always Jews lawyers that do that. There are adversarial lawyers, such as civil rights lawyers, who argue with the state and authority. And then commercial lawyers, like real estate lawyers, and rescuers—human rights lawyers—think of Irwin Cotler. There are house Jews, the lawyers who will obey any immoral order in order to be thought well of by the establishment, like so many members of Congress who said they didn’t like the Iran deal but figured they might as well go along with it.”
What prototype are you?
“I am an adversarial lawyer. I am the lawyer who argues with authority. While I operate within the rules and I am respectful…I don’t care who is on the other side. If justice demands it, I will fight for it.”
Is that why you became a lawyer?
“I had no choice but to become a lawyer. I was so argumentative and feisty as a young boy that I had to be a lawyer.…Then I read Abraham and it was like this aha moment. Wow! In what other religion does the founder start out by arguing with God? I knew my calling.”
But the essence of the book is not all about you. It talks in general about why Jews are so attracted to the legal profession. Why is that?
“We are good at it. We are always being persecuted, so we have to be good at it.”
Would you consider this book a religious book? A book for Jews?
“No, it is a book for both Jews and non-Jews. There are three people who talk about my book on the back cover, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, a Protestant minister, and an atheist.…And this book is also not only for lawyers. Anyone interested in the legal system—and we are all subject to our legal system—should read it. I am told it is a very funny book. All the reviews say it’s humorous. If you want to read a good Jewish joke, my book is a good place to do that.”
So what’s next?
“I am thinking about writing about why I left the left and couldn’t join the right, about my disillusionment with politics. I’ve already drafted a few things. But who knows? I am retired, so I only have to do things I want to do now.”
Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.