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Finding the Justice: Talking to Alan Dershowitz about His New Book, The Genesis of Justice: Ten Stories of Biblical Injustice

By Rebecca E. Kotkin

One of the most fascinating aspects of Biblical study is the myriad interpretations of each chapter that spring to mind. Depending on the lens through which it is read, the Bible yields questions, metaphors and puzzles that prompt the student to consider its implications for human nature, theology and morality. As only he could do it, Harvard University law professor and legal scholar Alan M. Dershowitz takes a new approach and examines Genesis as a chronicle of the development of justice. In his most recent book, The Genesis of Justice: Ten Stories of Biblical Injustice that Led to the Ten Commandments and Modern Law, Dershowitz probes the ancient text and explores the profound questions it raises about fairness, ethics and virtue.

 "I wanted to give readers of the Bible a new way of looking at the stories through a prism of justice and morality," Dershowitz explained in a recent interview with InterfaithFamily.com. "I was not approaching the text through theology--although, of course, it raises theological questions--but rather I wanted to make people go back to the stories they read in their youth and reread them as adults in a mature way. The book is written from a Jewish perspective, but I wanted to make the Bible more accessible to Jews and non-Jews alike."

 Highlighting ten episodes in the Book of Genesis, Dershowitz challenges the reader to reinterpret these stories as pivotal events in the development of a system of justice. Beginning with Adam and Eve eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge, Dershowitz probes the notions of law and punishment and how human relationships with each other and with God evolved from a world where rules were absent or arbitrary to a formal system of laws and process. "The Book of Genesis offers a peek into what a world without law would look like," Dershowitz said. In The Genesis of Justice, he analyzes the layers of ad hoc justice that emerged in Genesis as crimes were committed and punishment meted out or withheld. For example, as Dina's brothers avenge her rape and Tamar prostitutes herself to continue her late husband's lineage, the Bible illustrates the effects of vigilante justice, false trials and moral relativism.

To Dershowitz, the Torah was a natural choice to examine issues of justice, morality and fairness. "I studied Bereshit (Genesis) as a kid and I loved the stories," he stated, "but I never thought about them too much beyond the usual adolescent questions. Once I was at Harvard, I found myself using the Old Testament stories as metaphors and analogies for the legal principles we were discussing. I decided to teach a course on the biblical sources of justice, using the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran--all different types of literature. I wanted to dissect these books from the lawyer's point of view. While other books in the Old Testament are considered law books, I was drawn to the stories of injustice in Genesis and how they led to a common law of justice."

Well documented with commentary from noted Biblical scholars as well as anecdotes from Dershowitz's legal experiences, research and classroom discussion, The Genesis of Justice does not offer blanket explanations or concrete rules about morality. "There is not a one-to-one implication for the principles in Genesis and the laws that govern society today," Dershowitz said. "There is not one specific law that is right or wrong. I am opposed to people who cite Biblical passages to prove that the Bible supports the death penalty or forbids abortion. The Bible raises questions."

With years of Biblical study in yeshiva followed by continued study with his father through college, Dershowitz developed, as he put it, "a love of the Bible, but one that is critical. You can teach everything from the Book of Genesis, except the science of evolution. In the Bible, God is a great teacher. He teaches by his example of fallibility, showing He can be wrong. He can be argued with and can learn from His mistakes. It is man's role to interact with God. Noah creates the first covenant with God. It is a mutually binding contract that requires interaction. The message of Genesis is that God alone cannot achieve justice because it is interactive; justice requires argumentation."

Judging from the e-mail correspondence that Dershowitz has received, the response to The Genesis of Justice has been varied and numerous. "Everyone has an interpretation;" he commented, "it is like a Rorschach test. Mostly, religious leaders love that I am introducing a wide range of people to Torah study."

"I had a wonderful comment from President Clinton regarding the difference between Abraham arguing with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The President said that, as a Commander in Chief, he makes a distinction between when he asks someone's opinion about something, like when God discussed his plan to destroy the sinful cities. There, God wanted an argument. But when God told Abraham what to do, that is like a Commander in Chief giving an order to a soldier. The soldier cannot say no. Everyone sees these stories from where they sit."

Each chapter includes a readable translation of the original text followed by a provocative deconstruction of the story. Dershowitz includes relevant midrashim--interpretive stories--as well as commentary and explanations from biblical sages and modern scholars. Throughout the book, he acknowledges the ambiguities and complexities of the stories which, coupled with the historical and cultural contexts, inspire challenging, humorous and insightful discussions.

As we approach the festival of Shavuot and celebrate the giving of the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel, Dershowitz encourages his readers to participate in an age-old tradition: "Stay up all night and study Torah," he suggests. And for a fresh perspective, start the study session with a conversation about The Genesis of Justice.

A Summer holiday commemorating the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, it is also known as the Feast of Weeks, as it comes seven weeks after Passover begins. Hebrew, literally, for "sitting," refers to a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts (including Torah and Talmud study). A yeshiva can be a day school for elementary or high school students, or a place of study for adults. Traditionally, a yeshiva was attended by boys/men only; more recently, yeshivas have opened for girls/women and even co-ed yeshivas now exist. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Rebecca E. Kotkin

Rebecca E. Kotkin is an attorney and the mother of twin daughters and a son.

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