In Abraham: The World’s First (but Certainly Not Last) Jewish Lawyer (Schocken, Oct.), Harvard Law professor and defense attorney Alan Dershowitz offers a new perspective on the biblical patriarch. Here, Dershowitz, who has written extensively about law with books such as Reasonable Doubts: The O.J. Simpson Case and the Criminal Justice System (Simon & Schuster, 1996), talks about how Abraham is a "Rorschach test for biblical leaders" and what the future holds for Jewish lawyers.
What aspect of Abraham’s personality do you most admire?
Abraham is a lawyer for all seasons. He knows when to argue, when to stop, when to compromise, when to be tough, when to show weakness, when to be honest, when to be deceptive, when to negotiate a good deal and even when to accept a bad deal. In this respect, Abraham is a far better lawyer than I have been, since I generally fight hard and argue and leave it to others to be conciliatory and compromise.
What do you believe are laypeople’s biggest misconceptions about Abraham?
Most people remember Abraham as the compliant fundamentalist who willingly accepted God’s immoral command to sacrifice his son Isaac. But I think Abraham was testing God and never would have actually killed his son. Maybe they were each testing each other in a theological game of chicken. In the end, God backed down. Otherwise there would be no Jewish people, since we are all descendants of Isaac.
What surprised me most was how differently the three Abrahamic religions view Abraham, and most especially how they view the near sacrifice of Isaac. Some Christians believe that Abraham actually killed Isaac, but that God resurrected him, as he did Jesus. Muslims believe that the near sacrifice was of Ishmael rather than Isaac. But all agree that Abraham is the father of monotheistic religions.
How did your view of Abraham change from when you began this book?
After delving deeply into the several Abraham stories in the Bible and the numerous commentaries, I began to see him as a Rorschach test for biblical leaders. Everybody sees something different in the various Abrahams. Indeed some scholars find it hard to believe that the same Abraham who argued with God over strangers in Sodom would willingly offer to sacrifice his own innocent son. The stories of Abraham raise some of the most profound, moral, theological, and literary issues.
What are your thoughts on the future of the Jewish lawyer and how demographic trends will affect the Jewish role in American law in the decades ahead?
We may be witnessing the end of the era of great Jewish lawyers as Jews more easily assimilate and as many of the young Jews gravitate toward hedge funds, start-up businesses, and other opportunities that used to be closed to Jews. The Jewish impact on the law will never end as long as the world is interested in justice, but the role of Jewish lawyers may well diminish by the end of this century.