Abraham: The World's First (But Certainly Not Last) Jewish Lawyer

Pantheon Books  2015


According to Alan M. Dershowitz, himself a renowned attorney, law professor, and author, the biblical Abraham was not only the forefather of the Jewish people, but also the world's first Jewish lawyer. In this highly readable and often downright funny volume, he demonstrates this by illustrating that the typical American-Jewish lawyer and Abraham shared many characteristics such as a willingness to challenge authority and standing up for the rights of others. In short, Dershowitz says that both could well be described as chutzpadnik.

At first sight, the reader might well be forgiven for thinking that Dershowitz is himself chutzpahnik in even mentioning the biblical Abraham and "chutzpah" in the same sentence. But it soon becomes evident that Dershowitz knows his Bible. He escorts his reader from Abraham's birthplace in Ur to Hebron, where he negotiated the purchase of a burial site for his wife Sarah. Along the way he gives us fresh insights into the destruction of Sodom and the Akedah and a surprising analysis of Sarah's character. Serious though these topics are, Dershowitz intersperses his narrative with illustrations from contemporary sources, even jokes from pop culture.

Just as Abraham and the Jews of the Bible had to overcome many trials, so have individual Jews and the Jewish people had to face trials ranging from the trial of Jesus to the UN's hostility to Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people. In the second part of the book, Dershowitz analyzes a number of trials and demonstrates how today's Jewish lawyers were influenced by Abraham without their being conscious of the biblical origin of their arguments.

Jewish history is full of heroic lawyers who have stood up to power. In particular Dershowitz cites some of the founders of modern Zionism who were trained in the law: Zeev Jabotinsky, David Ben Gurion, Menachem Begin, and Yitzhak Shamir along with such great Americans as Justice Louis Brandeis, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and others. While it would be comforting to think of all Jewish lawyers as acting in the best interests not only of their clients but of the Jewish people, Dershowitz recognizes that this has not always been the case. He cites several examples of Jews who collaborated with Hitler or with Stalin, including Justice Felix Frankfurter, Benjamin Cohen, and the former Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky.

Were Dershowitz to end his book there, dayenu—it would have been sufficient. But he devotes the closing pages of Abraham to a consideration of the place of Jewish lawyers in the American Jewish legal system. He reminds the reader that in the relatively recent past, Jewish lawyers were faced with discrimination that limited their success. This began to change following World War II, and today Jews occupy positions of great power and prestige in every part of the legal community. Looking to the future, Dershowitz ponders whether this freedom and success will cause "Jewish" lawyers to disappear and, if so, whether the values of the biblical Abraham simply become an integral part of the American legal system.

Not only is Abraham: The World's First (But Certainly Not Last) Jewish Lawyer a rich read for the professional and layman alike, but also even serious scholars will be impressed by the extensive notes which constitute the last forty pages of the book.

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