“Abraham: The World’s First (But Certainly Not Last) Jewish Lawyer” by Alan Dershowitz— A Short History of Jewish Lawyers


Dershowitz, Alan M. “Abraham: The World’s First (But Certainly Not Last) Jewish Lawyer”, (Jewish Encounters Series), Schocken, 2015.

A  Short History of Jewish Lawyers

Amos Lassen

When we think of lawyers, many times the name Alan Dershowitz pops into my head and it should since he is one of the world’s best-known attorneys. I can think of no one better suited to give 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”.

Dershowitz reminds us that the two greatest examples of advocacy on behalf of problematic defendants are 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. These established the template for Jewish lawyers for the next 4,500 years. This could well be 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 mind. “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 looks at and profiles Jewish lawyers “well-known and unheralded, admired and excoriated, victorious and defeated” and he gives us a look into practice of law ala Dershowitz-style. He writes of Louis Brandeis, Theodor Herzl, Judah Benjamin, Max Hirschberg, René Cassin, Bruno Kreisky, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Irwin Cotler and others and these are just a few of what he calls “’idol smashers, advocates, collaborators, rescuers, and deal makers’ who helped to change history”. He shares his thoughts on the future of the Jewish lawyer with shrewdness and candor. Here Abraham is a Jewish lawyer of the best kind and is it not interesting that the first Jew became the first Jewish lawyer?

In the first half of the book, we revisit the stories of Sodom & Gomorrah, the sacrifice of Isaac, the smashing of the idols, etc. which Dershowitz uses to teach principles of contracts, ethics, and zealous advocacy as Abraham makes deals with and challenges God. In the second half of the book, Dershowitz shows parallels between Abraham and famous modern Jewish and non-Jewish lawyers and how well the latter group has remained true to Abraham as the biblical lawyer.

We get a brief study of the influence of the Hebrew Bible influence on today’s law and then how it works in opposite ways.

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