A decade ago, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz wrote a book entitled "Chutzpah." Dershowitz was then best known for his defense of alleged wife-killer Claus von Bulow, but "Chutzpah," a paean to Jewish self-assertiveness, won him a new reputation, the one he enjoys now: public nudnick. The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier summed up Dershowitz's attitude, deliciously if unfairly, with a paraphrase of the "Merchant of Venice": "If you bleed us, are we not pricks?"

Dershowitz's latest book, "The Genesis of Justice" (Warner Books, 320 pages), is in its own way a celebration of chutzpah. It is Dershowitz's attempt at midrash, the form of Biblical interpretation that the rabbis began to develop during the Second Temple period in Jerusalem (520 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.) and that remains a cornerstone of Jewish scholarship today. While many conservative Christians demand a literal reading of the Bible, even the most orthodox Jews consider the human interpretation of Scripture a sacred project. History, philosophy, etymology, and even numerology may be used to wring new drops of meaning from Scripture. The most sophisticated midrashim, or interpretations, require knowledge of Hebrew or Aramaic, as well as considerable erudition; but Dershowitz believes that the general feel of Jewish Biblical criticism can be made accessible to all.

And Dershowitz believes that he is the man to bring midrash to the masses. "One of my uncles has traced our family name," he writes, "and believes that it derives from the Hebrew word doresh or drash, which means 'to seek interpretations,' and is the [etymological] root of 'midrash.'"

The pleasant surprise is that this neophyte midrashist succeeds. After discussing his heredity, Dershowitz sets a better course, treating the Genesis stories, from Cain's murder of Abel to Joseph's deception of his brothers, in 10 brisk, savvy, and entertaining chapters. His technique is deferential, drawing on Louis Ginzberg's 1909 omnibus "The Legends of the Jews," modern scholars like James Kugel and Isadore Twersky, noted sages like Maimonides and Kook, and occasional forays into the original midrashic commentaries of the early diasporic rabbis (post-68 C.E. or thereabouts). Like the gifted teacher that he surely is, Dershowitz leads his lectors on a tour of the most common and storied arguments

God brings Abraham to the brink of murdering Isaac--"What kind of God would ask such a thing of a father?" Dershowitz demands in chapter 6. None of his answers is new, but his synthesis of viewpoints from Talmudic sages, Kierkegaard, and the contemporary scholar Jon Levenson provides a rich, textured map of how Jewish thought is born, grown, and wrought. When Dershowitz does chime in with his own voice, his question is poignant, and pertinent: "Where did Abraham get the right to sacrifice Sarah's only and last child....?" We can debate the akedah, the binding of Isaac, for eons before ever awakening to the other crime that Abraham is committing-- the one against his wife. Dershowitz is keen in such matters.

He is generally content to let the experts speak, and to intrude gently and occasionally. When he oversteps, it is often as not in the cause of far-flung allusions. Dershowitz is a whore of intertextuality, hawking his pop-culture references cheaply and promiscuously. The quotations from Philip Roth and Kafka, the lyrics from Bob Dylan, the history lesson in the Rosenberg execution: Sometimes these analogies and comparisons make the point, and sometimes they distract from it.

There are other problems, notable the lax proofreading. The book is pockmarked with lapses in spelling, style errors, and plain silly typos. But Dershowitz deftly moves from the small, academic questions to broader legal theorizing, taking us for a fascinating ride. His relation of Dina's rape to the question of collective guilt--why must all the rapist's kinsmen die?--is deft, and in this case Dershowitz's parallels to recent court decisions and modern feminism work.

The chapter of Tamar's prostitution is both survey of midrash and primer on situational ethics. "The traditional commentators," Dershowitz writes, "justify [her selling herself to Yehuda] as necessary to fulfill the woman's imperative of motherhood, especially when" she is destined to be a matriarch of God's chosen people. In the ensuing discussion, Dershowitz's book does its job, teaching about the old midrashim and making them speak clearly today.

After discussing 10 Genesis episodes, Dershowitz concludes with three chapters that set forth a theory of legal etiology. "Viewing Genesis as a book about the development of justice before the existence of a formalized legal system," he writes, "helps to explain why the narrative is so much about crime, sin, deception, revenge, punishment, and other bad actions."

Genesis is the story of a people and God beset by injustice, struggling together toward a fair legal code. Early on, God is a poor jurist, threatening consequences without carrying through (Adam is not killed for eating of the fruit, as had been promised), letting the wicked go free (Cain), and blessing the wayward (Lot's incestuous daughters). Over time and several covenants, He and his people learn their lessons and begin codifying laws, balancing justice with mercy, certainty with fallibility. And so we get the Ten Commandments.

It is never clear if Dershowitz means this coda to be historical or hermeneutic: Was the Bible written for this purpose, or is it just usefully read through this lens? At the very end, Dershowitz leaps ahead of himself, boldly claiming that "[t]he genesis of justice is in the narratives of injustice found in the Book of Genesis." But that still begs the question of whether the "genesis of justice" was in the events themselves or in their redaction as narratives. Were the Jews learning justice by living out these stories, or was it the writing and canonization of the books of the Tanakh, or Jewish Bible, that taught them their modern, monotheistic ethics of justice? That is, had the Jews figured out justice before or after they read their own Bible?

The grandiosity and complexity of such questions no doubt please Alan Dershowitz the amateur exegete. But the book succeeds because Professor Dershowitz the teacher has, despite his own bluster, made the Jewish project of Biblical midrash accessible, relevant, and downright fun.

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