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

  • Review
By – May 20, 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.

Peter L. Roth­holz head­ed his own Man­hat­tan-based pub­lic rela­tions agency and taught at the Busi­ness and Lib­er­al Arts (BALA) pro­gram at Queens Col­lege. He lives in East Hamp­ton, NY and San­ta Mon­i­ca, CA and is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to Jew­ish publications.

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