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Abraham
Cover of Abraham
Abraham
The World's First (But Certainly Not Last) Jewish Lawyer
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Part of the Jewish Encounter series

One of the world's best-known attorneys gives us a no-holds-barred history of Jewish lawyers: from the biblical Abraham through modern-day advocates who have changed the world by challenging the status quo, defending the unpopular, contributing to the rule of law, and following the biblical command to pursue justice.

The Hebrew Bible's two great examples of advocacy on behalf of problematic defendants—Abraham trying to convince God not to destroy the people of Sodom, and Moses trying to convince God not to destroy the golden-calf-worshipping Children of Israel—established the template for Jewish lawyers for the next 4,500 years. Whether because throughout history Jews have found themselves unjustly accused of crimes ranging from deicide to ritual child murder to treason, or because the biblical exhortation that "justice, justice, shall you pursue" has been implanted in the Jewish psyche, Jewish lawyers have been at the forefront in battles against tyranny, in advocating for those denied due process, in negotiating for just and equitable solutions to complex legal problems, and in efforts to ensure a fair trial for anyone accused of a crime.

Dershowitz profiles Jewish lawyers well-known and unheralded, admired and excoriated, victorious and defeated—and, of course, gives us some glimpses into the gung-ho practice of law, Dershowitz-style. Louis Brandeis, Theodor Herzl, Judah Benjamin, Max Hirschberg, René Cassin, Bruno Kreisky, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Irwin Cotler are just a few of the "idol smashers, advocates, collaborators, rescuers, and deal makers" who helped to change history. Dershowitz's thoughts on the future of the Jewish lawyer are presented with the same insight, shrewdness, and candor that are the hallmarks of his more than four decades of writings on the law and how it is (and should be!) practiced.

Part of the Jewish Encounter series

One of the world's best-known attorneys gives us a no-holds-barred history of Jewish lawyers: from the biblical Abraham through modern-day advocates who have changed the world by challenging the status quo, defending the unpopular, contributing to the rule of law, and following the biblical command to pursue justice.

The Hebrew Bible's two great examples of advocacy on behalf of problematic defendants—Abraham trying to convince God not to destroy the people of Sodom, and Moses trying to convince God not to destroy the golden-calf-worshipping Children of Israel—established the template for Jewish lawyers for the next 4,500 years. Whether because throughout history Jews have found themselves unjustly accused of crimes ranging from deicide to ritual child murder to treason, or because the biblical exhortation that "justice, justice, shall you pursue" has been implanted in the Jewish psyche, Jewish lawyers have been at the forefront in battles against tyranny, in advocating for those denied due process, in negotiating for just and equitable solutions to complex legal problems, and in efforts to ensure a fair trial for anyone accused of a crime.

Dershowitz profiles Jewish lawyers well-known and unheralded, admired and excoriated, victorious and defeated—and, of course, gives us some glimpses into the gung-ho practice of law, Dershowitz-style. Louis Brandeis, Theodor Herzl, Judah Benjamin, Max Hirschberg, René Cassin, Bruno Kreisky, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Irwin Cotler are just a few of the "idol smashers, advocates, collaborators, rescuers, and deal makers" who helped to change history. Dershowitz's thoughts on the future of the Jewish lawyer are presented with the same insight, shrewdness, and candor that are the hallmarks of his more than four decades of writings on the law and how it is (and should be!) practiced.

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  • Introduction

    The Jewish Lawyer

    Abraham, the world's first Jew, was also the world's first lawyer, arguing with God on behalf of the doomed sinners of Sodom. He was thus the first in a long line of Jewish lawyers. Joseph soon followed, serving as a counsel to the powerful, as many Jewish lawyers have done since. Then came Moses, who was not only a lawgiver but also an advocate on behalf of Jews who had rejected him, his laws, and his God. Daniel, who in the Apocrypha serves as a defense lawyer to Susanna, perfected a technique of cross-examination that is still effectively used today. And Deborah the judge dispensed justice under a palm tree. But Abraham was the first, and this book is about him and his progeny: the numerous Jewish lawyers who--for better or worse, but in my view mostly better--have changed the world by challenging the status quo, defending the unpopular, contributing to the rule of law, and following the biblical command to pursue justice.

    The story of Abraham is the account of a complex man whose actions and inactions reflect the very different archetypes of the Jewish lawyer over time and place. No one knows, of course, whether the Abraham we know from the Bible ever really existed or whether he is a mythical or composite figure. Nor would it ever be possible to challenge the biblical account of Abraham historically, because--unlike the New Testament and Qur'anic accounts of Jesus and Muhammad--it takes place well before modern recorded history. In any event, it really doesn't matter, unless one is a biblical literalist. Neither does it matter, for purposes of this book, whether the Bible was written by the singular hand of God or by multiple human authors. What matters is that the biblical Abraham has been and remains one of the most influential characters in history, whether or not he was an actual historical figure. His story stands as a cornerstone of three great religions and has influenced, and continues to influence, billions of people. Abraham matters--to Jews, to Christians, to Muslims, and to all who study the Bible or the Qur'an. And so this book will treat the biblical narrative as gospel (or, as lawyers might put it, the transcript of testimony).

    The biblical account of the patriarch of the three great "Abrahamic" religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--comprises several overlapping subplots, some of which are in the text itself, while others are based on midrashic and other authoritative commentaries. Each of these subplots reflects a different characteristic of lawyers in general and Jewish lawyers in particular.

    The biblical Abraham, like so many Jewish lawyers throughout history, was an immigrant. He left his "parents' home" and, along with his nephew Lot, made aliya to a promised Jewish homeland, thus also becoming the world's first Zionist. Like other immigrants, he changed his name--from Abram to Abraham. He also changed his religion, shattering his father's idols (according to a midrashic addendum to the text of the Bible) and making a covenant with a new God. By destroying these icons, Abraham became the first "iconoclast," a term applied to many Jewish lawyers throughout history who have shattered idols--both religious and secular--ever since Abraham showed the way. Why have so many Jewish lawyers broken with tradition and challenged established doctrines? Perhaps understanding Abraham will give us a clue.

    Before long, Abraham challenged the authority, indeed the morality, of his new God and accused Him--as so many Jewish lawyers have accused authority--of applying a double standard of justice and acting hypocritically: "How dare You, the Judge of all the world, not Yourself do...

About the Author-
  • ALAN M. DERSHOWITZ is the New York Times best-selling author of more than thirty books. His articles have appeared in hundreds of publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, Harvard Law Review, The Yale Law Journal, The Jerusalem Post, and Haaretz. He is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus, at Harvard Law School, and has worked for more than fifty years in the areas of civil liberties, human rights, and criminal law. Honors he has received include the Anti-Defamation League's William O. Douglas First Amendment Freedom Award.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    October 19, 2015
    In this fresh commentary, Dershowitz compares the words and actions of the biblical Abraham to the various historical archetypes of the Jewish lawyer. He asserts that Abraham may be seen as the "first Jewish lawyer," exercising the legal roles of iconoclast, advocate, collaborator, and negotiator. For example, scholars and Bible students have debated how best to understand the fact that while Abraham questioned the justice of God's intent to destroy the Sodomites, he failed to challenge God's command to sacrifice Isaac. In the first case, notes Dershowitz, Abraham acted as a legal advocate, zealous to defend his unrelated and almost certainly guilty client; in the second, when he fails to argue on behalf of his own son, he bears a disturbing resemblance to certain Jewish lawyers complicit, by their silence, in immoral acts against Jews by those in power. At once frank and wry, Dershowitz demonstrates how the Jewish value of the rule of law, and the actions of Jewish lawyers themselves, have contributed to the pursuit of justice. Clear and accessible, with endnotes to please scholars, this book will likely appeal to both Jews and non-Jews.

  • Kirkus

    August 1, 2015
    The great patriarch as a template for Jewish lawyers across the ages. Famed Harvard attorney Dershowitz (Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law, 2013, etc.) presents Abraham, father of three religions, as the original Jewish lawyer. Describing him as "an idol smasher, a conniver, a rescuer, an advocate, a compliant fundamentalist, and a shrewd real estate investor, the author identifies a wide range of lawyerly traits, good and bad, in the portrait of the patriarch provided by Scripture and the Midrash. Dershowitz begins with an overview of what little we know of the life of Abraham, along the way pointing out legal touches in the story. For instance, he argued like a defense attorney for the lives of the people of Sodom, and in procuring a burial plot for his wife, he negotiated like a real estate attorney might. Dershowitz goes on to look at Jews as defendants. He examines a few specific examples, such as Alfred Dreyfus and Leo Frank, but his focus is much more global. He asserts that the very injustice suffered by the Jews over the course of centuries has honed their collective respect and aptitude for the law. "Jews have come to appreciate justice and the rule of law," writes the author, "because we have experienced so much injustice and the rule of might over right." Dershowitz profiles a number of great Jewish lawyers from the modern era as well. The author begins with a great concept, but the effort seems lacking. A comprehensive look at Abraham as a proto-lawyer, influencing future generations, would be a welcome and fascinating addition to the corpus of Jewish studies. Dershowitz only provides a cursory glance here, but the book, replete with Jewish jokes and Woody Allen quotes, is a homey start. An interesting concept deserving of twice the effort.

    COPYRIGHT(2015) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    October 1, 2015

    This latest volume from Dershowitz (law, emeritus, Harvard Univ.; Taking the Stand) begins with an assertion that sounds like a gimmick--that Abraham, arguing with God to spare the people of Sodom, was acting as the first Jewish lawyer--but continues to discuss the lives and careers of numerous notable Jewish lawyers. The author concedes that it was only recently that the last professional and social barriers against Jewish lawyers fell. Scripture does command God's people to pursue justice, and that example may have emboldened these iconic figures to defend the oppressed and defy controversy. VERDICT Smart, entertaining, and of interest to readers of all faiths.

    Copyright 2015 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    October 15, 2015
    Dershowitz is a divisive figure. On that score, his latest book doesn't disappoint. It begins with a retelling of the life of Abraham, patriarch of the ancient Israelites. In this version, Abraham is the first Jewish lawyer, an advocate who willingly goes toe to toe with no less an opponent than God. His performance in that highest of courts, which set the standard for millennia of Jewish lawyers to come, left big sandals to fill, as Dershowitz humorously observes. This intriguing premise is followed by various stories of persecuted Jews and noteworthy Jewish lawyers and jurists who pursued justice and zealously represented the downtrodden. In the book's final chapter, Dershowitz worries that demographics do not favor Jews and that fewer Jews will result in a less creative and compassionate America and American legal profession. A bit of awkwardness in this otherwise engaging mix of legal and Jewish history is Dershowitz's backhanded compliment at WASPs when he notes that hard as it is to imagine, America would be a less interesting place without them.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2015, American Library Association.)

  • Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct and The Better Angels of our Nature, and Rebecca Goldstein, author of Betraying Spinoza and Plato at the Googleplex "The wit of the book's subtitle continues in this sparkling history of the world's first Jew and the world's first lawyer. You don't have to be Jewish, or a lawyer, or even a believer in the existence of Abraham and his main legal adversary to be entertained and informed by this delightful book."
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The World's First (But Certainly Not Last) Jewish Lawyer
Alan Dershowitz
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