Noted author to speak for Jewish Bar Association on book about SCOTUS


by Linda Laderman
Legal News

Noted author and historian Rabbi David Dalin will be in West Bloomfield March 18 at the Jewish Community Center to discuss the history of Jews in the legal profession and his most recent book, Jewish Justices of the Supreme Court.

Dalin’s talk is scheduled for 7:00 p.m., and is co-sponsored by the Jewish Bar Association of Michigan (JBAM). The mission of the Jewish Bar Association is “to promote and unify Jewish and other like-minded attorneys, judges, law students and paralegals in Michigan by providing social, educational and charitable activities.”

Jonathan Schwartz, a partner at Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss, and the president of JBAM, called Dalin “the leading authority on the diverse lives and legacies of eight Jewish United States Supreme Court justices whose decisions have and continue to impact millions every day.”

Beginning with Louis Brandeis, the first of eight Jewish Supreme Court justices, Dalin’s book traces the influence Judaism has had on the Jewish justices’ lives and jurisprudence.  They are, in chronological order: Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, Felix Frankfurter, Arthur Goldberg, Abe Fortas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan.

Dalin writes, “Before President Woodrow Wilson appointed Louis D. Brandeis as the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, other U.S. presidents had been laying the groundwork by naming Jews to other positions.”

Appointed to the Supreme Court in 1916, Brandeis was born in Louisville, the son of Eastern European immigrants, who never denied their Jewish heritage, but did not belong to a synagogue or observe Jewish holidays.

“The fact that Brandeis is the first Jewish justice is somewhat ironic. ...[H]e revered his uncle, who was a very prominent attorney and an Orthodox Jew, [and] his Jewishness did affect his time on the Supreme Court. [But] he really wasn’t learned, Jewishly,” Dalin said in a phone interview.

Notwithstanding Brandeis’ distance from religiosity, he embraced the social justice aspects of Judaism, becoming well known in Jewish circles as a leader in the Zionist movement and in 1917, helped to convince Woodrow Wilson to move the Balfour Declaration forward, Dalin noted.

“Brandeis became a very prominent Zionist leader, and helped persuade Wilson to support the Balfour Declaration. But interestingly, he didn’t observe the Jewish holidays. Instead, he celebrated Christmas; yet during his tenure he was one of the best known Jews in the United States, along with Albert Einstein, George Gershwin and the Detroit baseball player, Hank Greenberg,” Dalin said.

With an abundance of antidotes about the personal and political lives about the Jewish justices, Dalin also talked about the irony of Felix Frankfurter’s approach to Judaism. The third Jewish justice, Frankfurter eschewed any religious leanings during his life. Still, before his impending death he requested that an ancient Jewish ritual, the Mourners Kaddish, be recited at his funeral.

“It was one of the great ironies. Frankfurter didn’t want a Rabbi officiating at his funeral but he wanted the Kaddish recited, by one of his law clerks who was an Orthodox Jew,” Dalin said. “Shortly before his death he confessed to a friend, ‘I came into this world as a Jew, and although I did not live my life entirely as a Jew, I think it’s fitting that I should leave this life as a Jew.’”

Among the eight Jewish Supreme Court justices, Dalin said he found Elena Kagan to be among the most well versed in Jewish history.

“Except for (Benjamin) Cardozo, Kagan is probably the most religiously knowledgeable of all the Jewish justices, and she is the only Jewish justice to quote any kind of Jewish historical sources in one of her opinions,” Dalin said.

A non-lawyer, Dalin said writing Jewish Justices brought him back to the days when he considered getting a law degree.

“To be honest after writing this book I wished I had gone to law school. At one point, when I started at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I applied to and was accepted at Cardozo Law School,” Dalin said. “My father was a rabbi who had a law degree, but never practiced and my son is an attorney. So in many ways becoming a lawyer was a natural choice if you decided not to become a rabbi.”

Educated at the University of California at Berkeley, at Brandeis University for his M.A. and Ph.D., and the Jewish Theological Seminary of American for a second M.A. and rabbinic ordination, Dalin is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Bernard G. and Rhoda G. Center at Brandeis University. He has taught Jewish Studies at several universities, has been a visiting professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and George Washington University, and has been the Taube Research Fellow in American History at Stanford University.

Some of Dalin’s other books include The Presidents of the United States and the Jews (2000) with Alfred J. Kolatch, and The Myth of Hitler's Pope: How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis.

Jewish Justices has received high praise from Alan Dershowitz, the former Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Said Dershowitz, “I thought I knew a lot about the Supreme Court’s eight Jewish justices, since I have known six of them personally. But I learned so much more from David Dalin's brilliant and readable account of their very different lives and connections to their Jewish heritage.”

Dalin’s talk at the community center is free and open to the public. For more, visit