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THE GENESIS OF JUSTICE By Alan M. Dershowitz (Warner Books; 273 pages; $25.95) Alan M. Dershowitz, the prolific Harvard law professor, has brought together in this book two of his long-standing interests — the legal system and the Jewish tradition. Based on a course Dershowitz has taught at the law school and on his own informal Bible study and teaching, “The Genesis of Justice” concludes that the familiar narratives of the book of Genesis should be viewed not as an account of human beings’ efforts to connect with God, nor as a mere hodgepodge of musty legends, but as the story of mankind’s early struggles to discover principles of justice in a lawless world. As is often the case with overarching literary theories, the paradigm doesn’t fit perfectly. Not all the Genesis stories benefit from being interpreted along these lines. For example, the complicated narrative of Jacob, who is constantly deceiving others and being deceived in return, has more to do with family matters, invoking ancient concepts of primogeniture and polygamy, than with a formal justice system located in the public sphere. But there are places in which Dershowitz’s insights suit the biblical text quite well. Here is a direct quote from Genesis (in the translation chosen by Dershowitz): Abraham, arguing with God about God’s planned destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, asks, “The judge of the earth — will he not do what is just?” Abraham later says to God that by wiping out everyone in the sinful cities, God would be punishing the innocent with the guilty, as long as a handful of innocent people could indeed be found living in the cities. He tells God that it is unthinkable to do so, since justice does not allow it. But what is “justice” in this context? No binding set of laws has been set forth yet by the biblical author; how is “justice” to be defined? Can a man question God’s concept of justice? As Dershowitz recognizes, God wins this argument — but not in the way that God wins a similar argument in the Book of Job. In the latter book, God simply “pulls rank on his human challenger,” in Dershowitz’s words, declaring that no matter how vehemently Job questions the sufferings that have been inflicted on him, God holds the trump card because his decree cannot be questioned by a human being. In the Genesis story, on the other hand, God engages Abraham in a lively dialogue about justice, finally agreeing that even if as few as 10 righteous people are found in Sodom and Gomorrah, God will hold off. (As it happens, there are not even 10, and the cities are soon destroyed by the proverbial fire and brimstone.) So, as Dershowitz points out, Abraham acts as a classic advocate, taking up the cause of the innocent — and, by implication, that of the guilty as well, since the presence of only a handful of innocent people will in effect preserve the lives of the thousands of guilty ones. And this is not that different from the role of Alan Dershowitz, who as a criminal defense attorney has represented some innocent people accused of heinous crimes, and quite a few who are guilty as charged. Abraham, Dershowitz writes, “has taught generations of human rights advocates never to remain silent in the face of a perceived injustice — even if it means standing up for the guilty.” This is hardly the traditional interpretation of the story, but it stands up to scrutiny and fits the context. Dershowitz consistently writes in the classical Jewish interpretive tradition known as midrash, which allows plenty of room for human creativity in finding new meanings for the text. For another example in which viewing the stories through the legal prism adds depth and focus, look at Judah’s statement to Joseph toward the end of Genesis, after Judah and his brothers have been unjustly accused by Joseph of theft: “How can we speak? How can we clear ourselves?” For Dershowitz, this is no mere rhetorical question. Judah, the fourth son of Jacob, is raising the issue of how procedural justice is to be achieved in a world in which arbitrary accusations and arbitrary punishment are the norm and courts do not exist. Dershowitz’s basic point in this book is that Genesis depicts a period before the formalization of law, one in which both man and God struggled with moral issues and tried to reach consistent conclusions. It was only after the Ten Commandments are given, in the book of Exodus, that a detailed legal system began to hold sway. As Dershowitz concludes, “The process of evolution from ad hoc rules and disproportionate sanctions to codified rules and proportionate sanctions has characterized most legal systems.” Where Dershowitz goes wrong is in his final chapter, in which he unconvincingly attempts to prove that each of the Ten Commandments has a specific origin in a story in Genesis. But one hardly needs to be convinced by this particular effort; Dershowitz has successfully shown that these old biblical stories can yield a whole set of new meanings.

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