15 November 2013
12 Kislev 5774
President Obama, Maimonides, the death penalty, Iran, high school, the Jewish future, Bibi Netanyahu, O.J. Simpson, WikiLeaks, Abraham and Sodom, DNA and forensic science . . . these are just a few of the topics that came up during a memorable Limud Clali (community learning) yesterday with guest speaker Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz.
Professor Dershowitz regaled our students with stories and opinions about all of these topics and more, and our students peppered him with questions that sounded more as if they were coming from Harvard Law School students than from high schoolers. With his astounding brilliance and breadth of knowledge, Professor Dershowitz certainly modeled for our students the importance of being a voracious learner. However, what was most powerful to me about his talk was how he organically integrated his Jewish roots and Jewish lens on the world with his identity as a lawyer and his personal values and world views.
“I once defended a person who was accused of attempted murder for shooting someone who was already dead,” Professor Dershowitz shared. “Is it attempted murder if the person was already dead?” he asked. “Well, the first thing I did to prepare for this case was go back to the Talmud, and, indeed, I found the exact same case, the exact same question!” He then explained the Talmud’s position on the case and why he does not agree with it, illustrating what it looks like to live in dialogue with our tradition, even if the halachah (Jewish law) does not govern your life in a traditional sense.
During the Q&A, a student asked him how he decides which cases to take and whether morality comes into play for him when considering whether to defend someone. In response, Professor Dershowitz quoted the story of Abraham arguing with God about not sweeping away the innocent of Sodom along with the guilty. “Most of the people I defend are guilty,” Professor Dershowitz said, “which makes me very happy. Who would want to live in a country where most of the people who were accused of crimes are innocent?” To paraphrase the rest of his response, he explained, “My job is to help ensure that our system maximally protects those people who are innocent from being swept away with those who are not.”
Professor Dershowitz described some of the details of the O.J. Simpson case and explained that, even though it seemed as if Simpson was guilty, it also became clear to the jury that the police had tried to frame him. In a beautiful pedagogical move that made me feel as if I were sitting in a law school class, the professor paused and said, “Let me ask you. If you were convinced of two things, one, that O.J. had done it, and two, that the police had tried to frame him, which way would you have voted if you were sitting on that jury?” Some of us raised our hands for guilty, some of us raised our hands for innocent, and many in the room abstained. “And there you have it,” he concluded, “a hung jury.”
Drawing inspiration from our forefather Abraham, whom he described as the “first Jewish lawyer,” Professor Dershowitz showed us his passion for the law and the pursuit of justice. At the same time, he highlighted the extraordinary nuance and complexity of living out human, rather than divine, justice.
In the real world, sometimes there are conflicts between law and morality, between a just process and a just outcome. During these moments, it is most challenging, yet, perhaps, most important for us to clarify our values, to fight for what we believe is right and good, to stand on the shoulders of the giants who have come before us, and, as Professor Dershowitz modeled so beautifully, to draw strength, wisdom, and inspiration from our extraordinarily rich Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Marc Baker