Edith's Reviews > Letters to a Young Lawyer

Letters to a Young Lawyer by Alan M. Dershowitz
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's review
Jun 22, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: law
Read from June 22 to 24, 2010

Provocative ideas: defending the criminal defense law career, among some of Dershowitz's other notions such as the freedom of speech etc.

"For those of you who would censor in the name of political correctness, I urge you to look back to the history of the 1950s, when political correctness prevailed on campuses. But the people with the power to define what was correct in those days came from the right rather than from the left. McCarthyism was the 1950s version of today's political correctness, but far more dangerous because it carried with it the sanction of the state. We must trust neither the right nor the left with our liberties. We must have faith in the marketplace of ideas." (191)

And anecdotes asking us to ask the hard questions despite consequences:
"Let me end by telling a story that comes from my own particular tradition, my favorite story from the Talmud. It involves a class about the law of property. The teacher explained that if somebody finds a valuable bird more than fifty feet from someone's house, the bird belongs to the person who found it. But if someone finds a valuable bird within fifty feet of someone's house, it belongs to the person whose house it was found near. Young Jeremiah, a student, raised his hand and asked the following question: "But rabbi, what if one foot of the bird is within fifty feet and one foot of the bird is outside of fifty feet? What is the rule?" And the Talmud says, "For asking that question Jeremiah was thrown out of the yeshiva." (192)

A quick read despite the subject matter; the most interesting chapter is the last one on "Why Be a Good Person" at all, when the way of law is paved with all sorts of crookery? And it seems inevitable that the book should examine the relationship between law and morality. (If there is any?) Is it considered 'moral' to obey a [divine?:] command out of concern for the consequences?

"I have wondered why Jews praise Abraham for his willingness to murder his son when God commanded it. A true hero who believed in a God who rewards and punishes would have resisted that unjust command and risked God's wrath, just as a true hero would have refused God's order to murder 'heathen' women and children during the barbaric Crusades." (195)

"This is not to argue that believing persons cannot be truly moral. They certainly can. Perhaps they would have acted morally without the promise of reward or the threat of punishment. This is to suggest, however, that to the extent conduct is determined by such promises and rewards, it is difficult to measure its inherent moral quality as distinguished from its tactical component." (197)


"There is a wonderful Hasidic story about a rabbit who was asked whether it is ever proper to act as if God did not exist. He responded, 'Yes, when you are asked to give to charity, you should give as if there were no God to help the object of the charity.' I think the same is true of morality and character: In deciding what course of action is moral, you should act as if there were no God. You should also act as if there were no threat of earthly punishment or reward. You should be a person of good character because it is right to be such a person." (199)

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Reading Progress

06/23/2010 page 59
29.0% "'A Sanhedrin that was unanimous in condemning a man to death could not order his execution, since unanimity meant that the defendant lacked a zealous advocate within the tribunal. The Torah and the Talmud understood advocacy.'"
06/24/2010 page 184
89.0% "So it's okay to fudge/mislead the jury if it's for the sake of defending others? As if the lawyer has no personal interest in the outcome!"

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