Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Q&A with Alan M. Dershowitz

Alan M. Dershowitz is the author of the new book Abraham: The World's First (But Certainly Not Last) Jewish Lawyer. His many other books include Taking the Stand and Chutzpah. He is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law Emeritus at Harvard Law School.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the Abraham book? 

A: I have been thinking about Abraham for more than 70 years, since I studied him in Yeshiva. When I first read about his argument with God I was inspired to argue with my rabbis. It didn’t go so well for me, but I continued arguing with authority figures throughout my life. Abraham inspired me to become a lawyer.

The book was also inspired by my defense of Abraham at a mock trial conducted at Temple Emanuel in NYC. Over the years I have defended several biblical figures, including Jesus, in Moot Courts. It’s been great fun and I have learned a lot in the process. 

Q: You describe Abraham as “the world’s first lawyer.” What strategies did he use in his arguments that are still employed today? 

A: First, Abraham got God to agree with the principle that it would be wrong to destroy the city if there were 50 innocent people in it.  Having established the principle, he began to negotiate a precise number, and he got God down to 10. Understanding that he had as good a deal as he was going to get, he settled the case instead of pressing it even further. 

I have employed similar strategies in negotiating on behalf of accused criminals, though I haven’t always been as persuasive as Abraham was. Abraham argued with God. I often argue with judges, who think they are God. 

Q: In the book, you ask, “How can one reconcile the confrontational and argumentative Abraham of the Sodom story with the compliant and acquiescing Abraham of the Akedah?” How do you answer that? 

A: The brilliance of the Bible is that not everything is easily reconcilable. The Bible reflects different aspects of human nature, even within a single person such as Abraham. 

In my book, I propose several theories of reconciliation. For example, the Abraham who argues with God was essentially invited by God to express his opinions, whereas the Abraham who offers his son for a sacrifice was commanded to do so by the Almighty.

But none of my efforts to reconcile are completely satisfactory. So the struggle continues between the argumentative nature of human beings and their compliant nature. Each of us has an element of both Abrahams. 

Q: Another question you ask is “Why are there so many Jewish lawyers?” What do you see as some of the reasons for this pattern, and do you see it continuing? 

A: Jews have become lawyers for several reasons. First, we are damn good at it, because we learn how to argue from our religious sources. Second, Jews have always needed good defense lawyers, because we are always persecuted and need to be defended. Third, we are commanded to pursue justice, and the main role of the lawyer is to help in that pursuit. 

Tragically, the age of the Jewish lawyers, along with the Jewish doctor, may be ending, at least in America. It is being replaced by the age of the Jewish hedge fund entrepreneur, the Jewish technology start-up guru, and the Jewish politician. 

But our influence on the law will continue even in the absence of Jewish lawyers, through the Bible and the academy. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I am thinking of writing a book entitled: “Why I left the left, but couldn’t join the right.” Like many traditional Jewish liberals, I am deeply frustrated by the bigotry of many on the left against Israel and Zionism. 

But I could never join the right, which today rejects the rights of women, gays and others who continue to be discriminated against. I am uncomfortable with both the left and the right. Imagine that: A Jew being uncomfortable! Now that’s a headline. 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: I am trying desperately to retire, but it isn’t working. I am busier than ever. This is my 34th book and I have at least another half dozen book ideas. I am also consulting on some of the most interesting legal issues of the day. 

At 77, I feel my age in my knees and my back but certainly not in my brain. Fortunately, there is medicine for the knees and the back and I am as active as I have ever been. And as argumentative! I think Abraham was nearly 100 when he argued with God. So I have no excuses.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Alan M. Dershowitz will be participating in the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, which runs from October 18-28, 2015, at the Washington DCJCC. For a previous Q&A with Alan Dershowitz, please click here.

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