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Genesis and Justice
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Alan Dershowitz

      . . . lawyer and scholar. Mr. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University. Known for defending the accused in high profile cases, Mr. Dershowitz is also a litigator, columnist, lecturer, book reviewer and prolific author. His most recent book is The Genesis of Justice, in which he suggests Biblical roots for Western justice.

3:36

Justice is not a natural act for humans, according to Alan Dershowitz, litigator, Harvard law professor and author. We're like other animals, he believes -- hard wired to acquire, to kill, to eat, to reproduce. We have to struggle for justice. That's why justice will always be a work in progress, always a quest, a reaction to injustice.

Mr. Dershowitz found this insight in the Old Testament Book of Genesis. He says it‚s full of stories of injustice. Mr. Dershowitz also finds the seeds of democracy there -- the willingness to question authority and to require authority to justify its actions. He explores these themes in his latest book, The Genesis of Justice.

The book of Genesis, according to Mr. Dershowitz, can be read as a metaphor for the progress of human civilization. Genesis, he contends, provides the predicates for making experience the life of the law. It starts with rules without reason and moves through human experience toward common law and, finally, the codified laws exemplified by the Ten Commandments.

Quite a burden for stories that have traveled with us for millennia. In fact, Mr. Dershowitz believes, the Bible itself is so enduring precisely because those stories are so compelling. The Bible has remained vibrant through the ages, Mr. Dershowitz suggests, because it is a lively, divinely inspired metaphor whose stories require us to get involved, to experience the essential struggle of humans toward justice. The need to participate was especially keen before the advent of laws but continues to this day because laws must change as times change.

Mr. Dershowitz continues to be fascinated by and drawn to the Bible because its stories never give answers, forever raise questions, and are always in need of reinterpretation. He believes, in fact, that Genesis instructs us to argue with God. Mr. Dershowitz goes further. He believes the God he finds in Genesis is, like justice, a work in progress. Throughout Genesis, God and the Hebrew people learn from each other.

Injustice has certainly not gone away, Mr. Dershowitz assures us. Today, economic disparities are returning us to a condition of brute force, where status all too often overwhelms justice. We have two systems for justice -- one for the poor, one for the rich; one for Western democracies, one for others. To Mr. Dershowitz' practiced eye, "Justice, justice shalt thou pursue," turns out to be as fresh today as it was in Biblical times.

 

[This Program was recorded April 7, 2000, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Alan Dershowitz tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell why the Old Testament is about Justice and human beings' quest for it in the absence of law. He suggests that the struggle for justice is never won and tells why. He describes the process of justice, with examples.

6:37

Conversation 2

Using examples, Mr. Dershowitz contends the Bible is a book for the ages. He points to a surprising range of people who invite us to argue with the Bible. Mr. Dershowitz tells why he believes we all have an obligation to argue with God. Mr. Dershowitz suggests that the God of Genesis is an imperfect god. He points to the process by which God changes and where He ends up over time, in a variety of religious traditions. Mr. Dershowitz enumerates grave injustices in our own time which triggered his questions. He suggests the limitations of a "personal" God.

   9:02


Conversation 3

Mr. Dershowitz distinguishes among different interpretations of the God of Genesis. He suggests Judaism is less theological than other systems, encouraging skepticism, leaning toward practice and away from theology. Mr. Dershowitz explores the implication of this perspective, drawing on many definitions of „religion.š  He describes the „midrashš -- stories which fill gaps in the Bible, noting that Jesus and Paul were masters of this form. Mr. Dershowitz declares Jesus the first reform Jewish rabbi. Narration is compared to theology. Genesis, we are reminded, contains no laws. Mr. Dershowitz connects key ideas in the Bible to ideas about democracy. He contrasts Genesis‚ two Creation stories. He proposes that the Dead Sea Scrolls unite Christians and Jews.

  11:08

Conversation 4

Violence and guile are the alternatives when a society has no laws, according to Mr. Dershowitz, who uses ancient stories from several traditions to make his point. ÊHe explains by example why he believes Genesis is a metaphor for the progress of human civilization. Agreeing with the Catholic Church, Mr. Dershowitz asserts that the Bible is a divinely inspired metaphor. He considers the meaning of life and death. He wonders about human (and non-human) life before Genesis, tracing the beginnings of law/s to that time. He recalls his Jewish parochial school (Yeshiva).

12:19


Conversation 5

Mr. Dershowitz tells a story about where he finds the seeds of democracy in Genesis, cautious of democracy's newness and fragility. He explains the importance of laws that must be justified. He explains why he thinks the book of Genesis is the predicate for making experience the life of the law. He tells a story to describe the radical shift in theories of law. He describes the swing of the pendulum between too many and too few laws as a process begun in Genesis and continuing in human history. In the continuing quest for justice Mr. Dershowitz sees a progression of the acceptance of responsibility. He expands on his idea that we can‚t find justice without first seeing injustice.

  10:42

Conversation 6

Mr. Dershowitz tells a story about where he finds the seeds of democracy in Genesis, cautious of democracyâs newness and fragility. He explains the importance of laws that must be justified. He explains why he thinks the book of Genesis is the predicate for making experience the life of the law. He tells a story to describe the radical shift in theories of law. He describes the swing of the pendulum between too many and too few laws as a process begun in Genesis and continuing in human history. In the continuing quest for justice Mr. Dershowitz sees a progression of the acceptance of responsibility. He expands on his idea that we canât find justice without first seeing injustice.

5:45


Acknowledgements

Esther Levine, literary escort extraordinaire, brought Mr. Dershowitz to our attention and to our studio. We appreciate Esther's on-going enthusiastic support and her abiding sense of how to take very good care of people of all kinds, under all circumstances.

Related Links:
Alan Dershowitz's book, The Genesis of Justice, is published by Warner Books. In it, he urges us to:
"... read (this) book in the questioning, argumentative spirit in which it was written" and invites us "to continue the dialogue by e-mailing your own interpretations to alder@law.harvard.edu."

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