You Shall Pursue:
Why There Are So Many Jewish Lawyers
One of the most famous Jewish lawyers of our time, Alan Dershowitz, wrote a book called Abraham: The World’s First (But Certainly Not the Last) Jewish Lawyer, in which he said:
“[Abraham], the patriarch of the legal profession: a defense lawyer for the damned, who is willing to risk everything, even the wrath of God, in defense of his clients.”
In his book, Dershowitz hails Abraham as the founder not just of monotheism but of a long line of Jewish lawyers, and he gives a vivid description of Abraham’s prayer on behalf of the people of Sodom as a courtroom drama, with Abraham acting as lawyer for the citizens of the town, and God, as it were, as the accused.
“Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Beraishit 18:25)
These words of Abraham on behalf of the people of Sodom were the forerunner of a great many such episodes in Tanach in which the prophets argued the cause of justice with God for the people.
Indeed, throughout the generations, justice seemingly lies at the beating heart of Jewish faith. Albert Einstein memorably said:
“[The] pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence – these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my lucky stars that I belong to it.”
In modern times, Jews reached prominence as judges in America – among them Brandeis, Cardozo, and Felix Frankfurter. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the first Jewish woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court. In Germany in the early 1930s, though Jews were 0.7 percent of the population, they represented 16.6 percent of lawyers and judges. In Britain between 1996 and 2008, two of Britain’s three Lord Chief Justices were Jewish: Harry Woolf and Peter Taylor.
The late Lord Chief Justice Peter Taylor was a remarkable person. Everyone knew he was not only Britain’s leading judge, but a very special and outstanding leading judge.
When I first met him, Peter said to me, “Chief Rabbi, what will you do with a wicked old sinner like me?” And I said, “The Sages said that every judge who delivers a true verdict becomes a partner with the Holy One, Blessed be He in the work of creation.” And Peter blushed and said, that was the nicest thing anyone ever said of him. He was a wonderful man who simply wouldn’t allow himself to see himself as a wonderful man.
In the course of a television program I made for the BBC, I asked Hazel Cosgrove, the first woman to be appointed as a judge in Scotland, and an active member of the Edinburgh Jewish community, what led her to choose law as a career, she replied as if it was self-evident:
“Because Judaism teaches: Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Devarim 16:20)
Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel explains what it means to pursue justice:
“For the one who pursues justice and righteousness and gives charity and is quick with his compassion – in words and deeds – will find life and justice and honor. Do not fail to give the half Shekel once a year. Each week and month donate as much as you can to charity. Each day, before Prayers, give at least something, however small, to charity. When you can, tithe your assets and profits. Make sure you always are stocked with food and other provisions and resources at home with which you can readily help the needy, whether they are dead or alive, poor or rich.” (Orchot Chayim L’HaRosh 4:16)
Indeed, the Torah tells us that one who is careful to live his life this way is emulating God Himself. As it says:
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty and awe-inspiring God, who shows no favoritism and accepts no bribe. He upholds the cause of the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.” (Devarim 10:17-18)
This idea – counter-intuitive, unexpected, life-changing – is one of the great contributions of the Torah to Western civilization and it is set out in the words of Moses when he told the people about the “God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty and awe-inspiring God,” whose greatness lay not just in the fact that He was Creator of the universe and shaper of history, but that “He upholds the cause of the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.”
As Jews, we are summoned to be role models, exemplars, living embodiments of Torah, and conduct ourselves as God does, championing the cause of those in need. We are also called on to be a unifying, not a divisive, presence in Jewish life.
Judaism – a central project of which is the construction of a gracious society built on justice, compassion, mutual responsibility and trust – tells us to not harbor suspicions about others, but to judge people generously, giving them the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, it also bids each of us to act in a way that is above suspicion, keeping “far from unseemly conduct, from whatever resembles it, and from what may merely appear to resemble it.” Therefore, we must do our best to be charitable in our judgment of others, scrupulous in the way we conduct ourselves, and lift everyone around us up with generosity and grace.