The Test of the Binding of Isaac
Uncommon Decency
The Vulnerability of the Middle Class
A Better World for Fans

Faculty Bookshelf

The Test of the
Binding of Isaac

Professor Alan DershowitzIn his new book The Genesis of Justice (Warner Books, 2000), Professor Alan Dershowitz reflects on how stories in the first book of the Bible - replete with unpunished wrongdoing by flawed heroes and the actions and commands of an inscrutable God - set down the groundwork for later laws. Drawing on his own observations and Biblical commentary, Dershowitz explores questions raised by these narratives, such as, in the following excerpt, what sense can we make of a God who asks a father to kill his son?

"My own favorite interpretation is that by commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God was telling Abraham that in accepting the covenant, he was not receiving any assurances that life would be perfect. Far from it. Through that terrible test, God was demonstrating - in a manner more powerful than words could ever convey - that being a Jew often requires sacrificing that which is most precious to you - even children. The history of the Jewish people has certainly borne that out. During the Crusades, the Inquisition, and especially the Holocaust, many "Abrahams" made the decision to kill their own "Isaacs," sometimes to prevent their forced conversion, other times to prevent their torture, rape, and eventual murder. The traditional view of the akeidah influenced the willingness of Jews "to turn the Biblical prohibition against murder into an act that became recognized as a legitimate form of kiddush ha-shem [honoring of God], The Genesis of Justicewhen fathers killed their children and wives and then committed suicide rather than face forced Baptism during the crusades." Perhaps this took religious zealotry too far, but during the Holocaust even baptism could not save "genetic" Jews. Parents had to kill or abandon crying babies in order to prevent Nazis from finding Jews in hiding. In one poignant episode during the Holocaust, ninety-three teenage girls - students of a Jewish seminary in Cracow-reportedly took their own lives after learning that they were going to be forced to serve as prostitutes for German soldiers. Before taking poison, they collaborated on a poem, which included the following lines: "Death does not terrify us; we go out to meet him. We served our God while we were alive; We shall know how to sanctify Him by our death. . . . We stood the test, the test of the binding of Isaac." These have been the tragic realities of Jewish life, and God was warning Abraham that the covenant offered no assurances that such sacrifices would not be required. Sometimes God would intervene. Sometimes He would not. That is the nature of a covenant. So if a Jew witnesses tragedy-even the worst of tragedies, as did Job and those who saw their children die in the Crusades and Holocaust-do not think that God has broken the covenant. Religion is not a panacea for all of life's tragedies. "

From The Genesis of Justice: Ten Stories of Biblical Injustice that Led to the Ten Commandments and Modern Law. Copyright 2000 by Alan M. Dershowitz. Reprinted by permission of Warner Books, Inc.


Uncommon Decency

Professor Joseph Singer

In his new book, The Edges of the Field: Lessons on the Obligations of Ownership (Beacon Press, 2000), Professor Joseph Singer '81 explores the cultural, moral, religious, and legal traditions that define our understanding of property. Singer, an expert on property law, draws on sources as wide-ranging as the Torah, the musical Rent, and the example of Malden Mills owner, Aaron Feuerstein, who, after a devastating fire, rebuilt his factories and eventually rehired most of his former employees. In the following excerpt, Singer considers the implications of the public response to Feuerstein's compassionate treatment of his workers.

"Why, indeed, were Feuerstein's actions both so unusual and so widely heralded? Here is the paradox: On one hand, Feuerstein did not see his actions as extraordinary; he did what anyone would have done if they could. He felt he had acted with common decency. On the other hand, he was acclaimed because, even though most people agreed that he had done the right thing, his actions were perceived to be unusual. The public felt he had acted with uncommon decency, and lauded him as a hero and a saint. If everyone agrees that he did the right thing, why was it so unusual an action?

Other companies have not followed Feuerstein's example even though his actions garnered good publicity and may have even helped the company. Why don't others do the same? The answer is that most large companies are not privately owned by individuals like Feuerstein, but are publicly owned by shareholders. One might think that a publicly held company might have public obligations. The reality is that such companies are managed by professionals who are obligated under existing law to maximize returns to shareholders, whether or not this is in the greater public interest. Existing law not only does not encourage most employers to act as Feuerstein did, but may actually prohibit them from responding as he did. If the president of a publicly owned company had followed Feuerstein's example, he might have faced a lawsuit by disgruntled shareholders claiming that he was not maximizing the value of their shares and thus was acting in contradiction to his fiduciary duties to them as owners of the corporation. . . .

The Edges of the FieldIf what Feuerstein did was so admirable, why is it illegal for most business managers to do what he did? Let us put the question more broadly: Can a religious or moral person be successful in business? Is it possible to be good and to do well at the same time? Does morality require us to look out for each other? If so, why does the law get in the way?

The Feuerstein story is a symbol of the contradictions of our age. We are a nation seemingly committed to deregulation, the protection of private property, and the end of "welfare as we know it." At the same time, we are morally committed to the notions of equality, human dignity, compassion, and responsibility. These political and moral commitments are in some tension, if not outright contradiction. . . . On one side are claims to rights; on the other side are acknowledgments of responsibilities. On one side are the values of liberty and autonomy; on the other side are the values associated with security, social stability, and solidarity.

The Feuerstein story is fascinating because it demonstrates a deep ambivalence about our brave new world of relentless individualism. While many of us are attracted to the images of liberty embedded in the vision of limited government, we are also worried about the insecurity this entails. After all, liberty seems to mean freedom from obligation. The promotion of liberty is an invitation to act in a self-interested manner. Self-interest has a pleasant face; it means that we can live our lives on our own terms. But it also has a dark side; it promotes indifference to the effects of one's actions on others. Indifference to others is not a virtue.

From The Edges of the Field: Lessons on the Obligations of Ownership. Copyright 2000 by Joseph William Singer. By permission of Beacon Press,


The Vulnerability of the Middle Class

Professor Elizabeth Warren

Despite today's booming economy, the number of middle-class families filing for bankruptcy in America is soaring, according to Professor Elizabeth Warren, Teresa Sullivan, and Jay Westbrook, coauthors of a new study, The Fragile Middle Class: Americans in Debt(Yale University Press, 2000). Based on analysis of court records as well as debtors' own accounts, their book identifies problems leading to financial insecurity, including increasing job instability, divorce, medical debt, the allure and burden of home ownership, and, perhaps most important, exploding consumer debt. The following passage from the book's conclusion puts the middle class and its current economic fragility in historical context.

"One of the redeeming paradoxes of this country is that a people so individualistic and so competitive nonetheless overwhelmingly identify themselves as members of a single class, the middle class. Some see it as glorious and some as boring, but it is within the perceived reach of nearly all citizens. A clerk and a secretary sharing a one-room apartment in Newark will give the same response to a question about class identification on a survey questionnaire as a hard-charging executive and a management consultant spouse in a fourteen-room manse in Grosse Pointe. The social reality may be considerably more complex, but the perception has a profound importance of its own.

The Fragile Middle ClassOne consequence of the Great Depression was a federal commitment to protect and extend this great, amorphous middle class. Literally hundreds of government programs, from housing subsidies and tax breaks to small business loans, were designed to further that end. Indeed, one way to describe the New Deal as a reaction to the Great Depression is that the federal government became committed to maintaining middle-class stability in the face of economic change and to expanding the ranks of the middle class to include as many Americans as possible. One way to describe the political direction of the country since the Reagan Revolution is the dismantling of that government structure in favor of one with more flexibility, more inequality, more opportunity, and more risk. On that basis, one inevitable cost can be seen to be the increased vulnerability of the American middle class to financial catastrophe. "

From The Fragile Middle Class: Americans in Debt. Copyright 2000 by Yale University Press. By permission of the publisher.


A Better World for Fans

Professor Paul Weiler

Professor Paul Weiler LL.M. '65 scores one for sports fans in his new bookLeveling the Playing Field: How the Law Can Make Sports Better for Fans(Harvard University Press, 2000). Airing his views on the appropriate penalties for sports gambling, drug use, and domestic abuse, Weiler tackles the moral issues surrounding the many athletes who run afoul of the law. He also looks at the legal and economic factors that drive the professional leagues, from free agency to revenue sharing to salary caps. And, in the following excerpt, Weiler proposes a different kind of cap to serve sports fans, calling on Congress to "pass a law that bars the use of any tax funds to build new facilities for professional sports."

"The economic mistake does not consist in a team's moving from one city to another where the owner and the league believe there is greater untapped fan interest. The overall level of sports welfare was enhanced when, after the Browns began playing in Cleveland in 1946 (in the AAFC), that city's NFL Rams moved out to Los Angeles and took major league sports to the West Coast for the first time. It was likewise good for sports in America when the Brooklyn Dodgers left three-team New York City to introduce major league baseball to California especially since Los Angeles (unlike New York) was prepared to allow Walter O'Malley to build and pay for a new Dodgers Stadium himself. And even I, born and brought up in Canada, admit that it was good for the NHL to allow Winnipeg's Jets to move south to the Phoenix area, where there are far more people available including Canadians on winter holidays to pay to watch the games.

The true economic problem is that so many of our scarce taxpayer dollars are being spent to facilitate consumption in the sports branch of our leisure life, rather than on more productive investments such as the effective education of our children. It is time that both politicians and voters start listening to independent economists rather than to team consultants, and realize that the presence of a professional team in a stadium has no more economic impact on an area than the presence of a movie theater megaplex.

Leveling the Playing FieldOne important element of the social problem is that it is ordinary Americans who are putting up the money (via regressive sales taxes) to build the luxurious new ballparks, and yet in these ballparks, by contrast with movie theaters, the vast majority of attractive seats are reserved for the affluent Americans who can afford the steep ticket prices. Another element is that, by contrast with any revenue that public authorities may collect from publicly owned parks (or concert halls or art museums), the revenue flowing into professional sports ends up in the pockets of highly paid players and extremely wealthy owners. And we should all have learned from the steep rise in the overall revenues generated by our more and more appealing sports that more than enough private money is now available to build any needed professional sports facility.

Understanding the nature of this problem is, admittedly, a rather difficult challenge. But once we grasp these key features of the present-day sports world, the solution is clear. America needs to establish a stadium cap that will replace the current spiral in stadium taxes."

From Leveling the Playing Field: How the Law Can Make Sports Better for Fans. Copyright 2000 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted by permission of Harvard University Press.


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