Alan Dershowitz On Hachnosas Sefer Torah In His Honor: I Will Never Forget The Experience

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Alan Dershowitz
I am a pragmatic rationalist. I calculate the costs and benefits of most of my actions, especially when I am representing a client. For the 50 years I was a professor at Harvard Law School, my goal was never to teach the students what to think, but to teach them how to think. I employed the Socratic method in my classes, demanding rational responses from my students. I have never thought of myself as a spiritual person, because for me spiritual was the antithesis of rational.
But recently a Torah – a parchment scroll containing the five books of Moses – was dedicated to me for my pro bono work in defending indigent and other prisoners. The ceremony was held at Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn, with hundreds of people dancing in the streets to honor a new Torah. I accepted the honor because I wanted to help the group – Aleph – that I worked with on many of these cases to raise needed funds to continue its work. I fully expected to enjoy the dedication, because members of my family, old friends and colleagues would be there. I did not expect to feel a spiritual connection with the Torah that was being dedicated.
A TORAH is completely handwritten by a trained scribe – a profession going back to the beginnings of Jewish history. Every letter must be perfect. It takes months to write the hundreds of thousands of letters that compose the Torah. If one letter is wrong or smudged, the entire Torah is invalid.
When a Torah is near completion, the tradition is for the scribe to allow the person to whom it is dedicated to fill in the last few letters (what pressure!). The last word in the Torah is “Yisrael” – the Hebrew for Israel. As the scribe and I filled in these final letters, with the scribe guiding my hand, I felt a deep connection to my heritage. Part of it was rational – after all, I did grow up in Brooklyn as a Modern Orthodox Jew, and this event took place just a few blocks from the high school I had attended. Nostalgia is a natural, indeed rational feeling. But there was something else. Something deeper. Something unexpected.
My hyper-rationalism requires me to be skeptical about everything, including the divine origins of sacred texts, but for a few moments my rationality was suspended in favor of spirituality.
I looked at the familiar words of the Torah, words I had chanted many times during my adolescence, both in preparation for my bar mitzvah and for the dozen of years thereafter that I remained strictly observant, regularly reading from the Torah. Even in recent years I have been called to read from the Torah during my periodic visits to my local synagogue. While getting an aliyah – a blessing over the reading of the Torah – I once again viewed the beautiful calligraphy of the Torah’s words. I admired the beauty and the craftsmanship that had obviously gone into creating these letters. But I didn’t feel the deep connection to them that I felt during the dedication of my Torah.
I held the quill in my hand. The scribe dipped it in special organic ink. Then together we filled in the last letters, each of which I dedicated to the memory of departed family members or the refuah shleima (full recovery) of sick friends. I felt a sense of overwhelming connection, not only to my past, which goes back only 80 years, but to the thousands of years since the first Torahs were written by the first scribes. One does not have to be particularly religious or naturally spiritual to feel this connection.
Participating in the writing of an ancient Torah – on parchment, which will endure physically beyond my life, the lives of my children and grandchildren, even the lives of my great grandchildren – gave me a strong connection to the arc of Jewish history. I imagined all the Dershowitz’s and Ringels (my mother’s family) who had read from Torah scrolls over the centuries. I had a harder time imagining future generations of Dershowitz’s being as connected to the Torah as past generations had been. Rationally, I understand that things change. Spiritually, I felt sadness about change. At that moment, spirituality trumped rationality.
When I looked around me and saw hundreds of young children in baby carriages and strollers walking with their parents, joining in the festivities and kissing the Torah as it passed by, I realized then – both rationally and spiritually – that the tradition would endure, though my descendants might not be part of it, at least not in the same way that these hassidic children would be part of it.
Soon the dedication was over and I traveled from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The trip took me from a visit to a world of spirituality, in which I was temporarily immersed, back into my world of rationality, where I will spend the remainder of my life. But I will never forget that spiritual moment.

20 COMMENTS

  1. Come on Allan. You can do it! Come back. Come back to Shul. Come back to the Bais Medrash. Make a small commitment. If you come back, others will follow you. If not now, when? You learnt in Yeshiva. You have a tremendous head. You will quickly become a Talmud Chachum. Please.

  2. The article builds up to a hopeful climatic punchline and then goes up in flames with the last sentence. Obviously not even a tinuk shenishbo as some have claimed. Nebach.

  3. What he dosent realize is that Judaism is also rational.
    You just need to be honest with yourself, and open your eyes and mind, and eventually you will see it.

  4. It does not take much for the truth to hit home.
    All the years of rational debating did nothing for Mr Dershowitzs spirituality but a moment of spirituality opened up the window to truth and everything else just falls away.
    The connection is so strong and so real that it overrides all the logical questions a person might have on Judaism.
    May all our dear brothers and sisters, however far they might be, also be given this gift of connection to the source and then all the barriers will fall away, Amen.

  5. i am confused by the remarks written above. does this sound like hihurei teshuva? to me it sounds that he has dismissed torah for a second time just as he did when he graduated from yeshiva. what am i missing?

  6. 50 yrs at Harvard did the job. 50 yrs of excellence in denying the emes. Ivy league excellence.

    BUT, even 1 minute is enough to lead to another minute, and another.. I am sure that no matter how much he learned to hide the emes, he will never be the same after this…

    AND, it’s never too late…

  7. i hope he didnt really write letters in the torah that would make it pasul hes a meshumed and has halacha of a goy

    • I am not his biggest fan, but where do you get meshumad from? He didn’t convert to another faith AFIK. Perhaps mumar or apikoros, but meheicha teisei meshsumad? Please choose your words more carefully.

  8. An impressive piece of writing. It seems that the event made a big impression on him.

    However, the event was marred by the messianism involved in it. It took place at 770 Eastern Parkway, where large banners promote a man who passed away over twenty years ago to be the Messiah. Even Lubavitcher leaders like R. Yudel Krinsky were not there, since that space is controlled by open Lubavitcher messianists. At one point, people there started chanting loudly yechi…as a previously posted Matzav video of the event included (https://matzav.com/watch-professor-alan-dershowitz-recites-ana-hashem-at-hachnosas-sefer-torah-held-in-his-honor-in-crown-heights/). Some of the sifrei Torah involved in the event (at least two of them) had messianic messages on their covers (for example, one green one had the words ‘yechi hamelech’ on it. This can be seen in photos in extensive coverage of the event at Lubavitcher websites). A famous guest lawyer at the event (B.B.) was seen during it wearing a Lubavitcher Moshiach pin, a symbol of the messianists. Presumably he didn’t know what it was, but it made a leitzonous out of the event, as they took advantage of it to promote the late Rebbe as moshiach.

    It can be very reasonably concluded that such craziness diminished the occasion and its impression on participants.

  9. This ruins it!
    The trip took me from a visit to a world of spirituality, in which I was temporarily immersed, back into my world of rationality, where I will spend the remainder of my life.

    Oh well

  10. The whole event at Chabad was one big chilul Hashem. Everyone knows that Dershowitz has written many times that while he believes there is a G-d he does not believe that G-d is central to everything that happens and everything we do and that while he doesn’t like intermarriage he is proud of his son that marries a non-Jew and his non-Jewish children. To have an apikoras and kofer the opportunity to write letters in a Sefer Torah and dance with it is a disgrace and a sin.

  11. Mr. Dershowitz is a brilliant, persuasive writer and speaker who has been a clear, eloquent and unabashed voice defending Israel and his fellow Jews for many years. Chaval that he went OTD so many years ago and never looked back. Can you even imagine what a Rosh Yeshiva, Rebbi or posek with his kishronos would be capable of accomplishing?
    I am personally grateful to Mr. Dershowitz for all the good he has done. Still, chaval.

  12. Trump has done a lot of good for Israel and the Jews. Like Dershowitz, he had much if not more to do with Rubashkin’s release. Does that mean they are going to write a Sefer Torah for him, too?

  13. I’m in my mid forties; I’m in the beis hamedrash since I’m 15 years old. This is the first time I ever heard that spirituality doesn’t go hand in hand with rationality. Is it rational to say that some gases exploded billions of years ago and created a universe, stars, humans, animals, fish, ecosystems, food, medicine, humor, light, eyes, photosynthesis, digestion, excretion, reproduction, plant kingdom, etc.etc. etc. all by chance without divine design? That’s rational Mr. Dershowitz? That if there’s a creation there’s a Creator is something that contradicts cool rational logic? Obviously, no rational person can be that stupid. It’s only people who are looking for an excuse, to do as they please, that they’ll say the absolute craziest things to excuse their evil wants and behavior. I don’t believe you fit into that category.
    So you’ll say, of course there’s intelligent design, but a Torah? Clearly it is a G-d with infinite wisdom and power, to create such a universe. But yetzias mitzrayim, a maamad har sinai? So you say that it’s rational that G-d created a world without purpose, without reason, there’s no real right or wrong, he wants nothing of His creation – that is what seems logical and rational to you, Mr. Dershowitz? That this whole thing called the world is a free for all, with no real purpose, with G-d not being an integral part of it? Is that what you see as reasonable? A creation brilliant beyond description, that’s there just because…. That makes sense to you? Did you ever see a mansion someone built with no purpose?
    That G-d created a world with a purpose, that he cares for those that follow Him, that the human is more than meat and bones – that there’s a soul, that there’s true right and wrong, true reward and punishment, that doesn’t work in tandem with logic?
    On the contrary, authentic Judaism is the most, and actually the only logical answer to the question of “why” to any real question. I strongly suggest you spend a little time learning the sefer Chovos Halvavos, something written about a thousand years ago, that will teach you exactly why logic is defined by Torah Judaism. Why spirtuality is the only logical conclusion to reach.
    Mr. Dershowitz, I truly appreciate what you do for klal Yisroel; you’ve done wonderful things for the klal. My heart just goes out to you, about how wrong you are about the most important piece of knowledge a human can have during his time here on earth. I wish that in the zechus of those fantastic things you’ve done in your life that you learn to see why living with Hashem is the most logical, reasonable, rational thing one can do.

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