16 January 2009

'Jury' weighs the actions of a Jewish patriarch

A mock trial at Irvine's University Synagogue poses questions of biblical proportions.


IRVINE – Even 4,000 years of separation couldn't keep heady questions of life and death out of the courtroom on Sunday.

By a slim majority, a "jury" of 600-plus people voted to convict Abraham, religious patriarch, for the attempted murder of his son, Isaac. Judge Joseph A. Wapner, the quick-witted adjudicator and original star of television's "The People's Court," listened to the evidence at University Synagogue's mock trial intended to get participants to think about the ancient story's meaning.

Three people abstained from the vote and one called for an appeal, while another Jewish juror expressed reluctance in rendering a guilty verdict for his ancient ancestor.

Of course, all this is essentially moot. The repeat value of the biblical narrative from which the facts of the case were drawn has long been settled outside court in synagogues worldwide.

As the story goes, God instructed Abraham to take Isaac to the heights of far-flung land, to bind the boy to a plank of wood and to slay him. As Abraham raised a blade to his son's body, an angel interceded to stop the sacrifice.

While the details could be considered old news, the People v. Abraham proved a mind-binder for many of the 700-plus people in attendance at University Synagogue, who clung to the words of two prominent attorneys.

Erwin Chemerinsky, constitutional lawyer and founding dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, spoke in Abraham's defense. During his introduction, he broke down the fourth wall of the trial.

"I was thinking of coming here today asking that the charges be dropped based on the statute of limitations," he said, as a ripple of laugher moved through the jury box. "Then, I thought about raising concerns of pretrial publicity. This is the one defendant for whom there's been more publicity than O.J. Simpson."

Prosecutor Jonathan Shapiro, who's written for and produced law-focused television dramas such as "The Practice" and "Boston Legal," strode in with a joke of his own.

"Take judicial notice," he said, pointing to the front row of the audience, "of the defendant as distinct from my son Abraham, who is here and has looked nervous all day."

After opening statements, Chemerinsky argued, in part, that the case lacked physical evidence to demonstrate Abraham's criminal intent.

"Where's the knife?" he asked. "Where's the DNA? The only evidence (Shapiro) has is one page of text."

God, Chemerinsky added, was testing Abraham's obedience, while Abraham was testing God's benevolence.

But Shapiro, who ultimately won over the lion's share of jury support, argued that the facts spoke for themselves: Commanded by a higher power to sacrifice his son or not, Abraham intended to slice the cleaver through Isaac.

"Following orders is not a defense," he said. "Not in California, not in Germany, not here."

"Murder in the name of fanaticism is murder," he soon added.

Juror Myrna Smith, a member of University Synagogue, disagreed with Shapiro's characterization of defendant Abraham as bloodthirsty.

"I think he was a wuss," she said. "He did not have a mind of his own."

Abraham isn't alone. Helmed by Los Angeles-based American Jewish University, several other famous and infamous Bible figures have been wrung through this sort of posthumous jeopardy for the past couple years.

The point, said one of three rabbinical panelists after the trial, is not just to tease the brains of us moderns; wrestling with the meaning of age-old actions is part and parcel of the human experience, especially in a world where martyrs and murderers argue that God told them to do it.

"We gather together and learn the lesson that says, 'We gave that up 4,000 years ago,'" said Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue. "That was the paganism we moved beyond and we ought not move back."

Wrote Florence Dann in an article in Orange County Jewish Life: "Regardless of whether you believe Abraham's actions were holy, abusive, delusional or inspired, it remains an uncomfortable story."

So, as for determining the one true interpretation of the tale, the jury is still out.