The Bintel Brief

Bintel Brief: Alan Dershowitz Helps Out With a High Holiday Dilemma

By Alan Dershowitz

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Alan Dershowitz

Dear Prof. Dershowitz,

Like you, I am a law professor. I teach at a private law school that does not cancel classes on Rosh Hashanah.

While the school is closed in observance of select holidays, such as Good Friday, Martin Luther King Day and Yom Kippur, classes are not canceled for many federal holidays. Individual professors may, of course, cancel classes for other reasons, but they must usually schedule a makeup class.

I’m Jewish, but not at all religious, and I hold classes on Rosh Hashanah. My son thinks I should reschedule my class when it falls on Rosh Hashanah for the benefit of my Jewish students (perhaps 10% to 15% of the enrollment) and because he feels that I should observe the day by not teaching. Since I would not attend religious services if I canceled classes, I would feel hypocritical canceling. Jewish students can miss the class without penalty, though they would lose the opportunity to attend that class session. Canceling the class, however, would inconvenience the majority of my students, since there would be a makeup session.

What do you think I should do?


Alan Dershowitz replies:

I feel very strongly that you should not teach your classes on Rosh Hashanah, despite the fact that you are not at all religious. A teacher is a role model, and a Jewish teacher is a role model to Jewish students. On the issue of teaching classes on Rosh Hashanah, you cannot be neutral. If you teach, you send a message, and if you do not teach, you send a message. I suspect that some of your students, who would prefer to miss classes on the Jewish holidays, show up just because you are teaching.

When I first started teaching at Harvard, there were Saturday classes. I refused to teach them, despite the fact that I was not generally going to the synagogue on Saturday. I did not feel at all hypocritical. I felt that I was standing up for a principle, that principle being that universities should not be asking Jewish teachers to teach on important Jewish holidays. It’s none of their business how we spend those holidays. I strongly believe that principle is more important than convenience. You will be respected for standing up for a principle, without regard to how you spend the day.

Alan Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He is the author of numerous books, including “Chutzpah,” “The Vanishing American Jew,” “The Genesis of Justice,” “The Case for Israel,” “The Case for Peace” and, most recently, “Blasphemy: How the Religious Right is Hijacking the Declaration of Independence.”

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Sephardiman Wed. Jul 11, 2007

Does Professor Dershowitz' sense of Jewish integrity include not depriving his fellow of his livlihood as he recently did to Norm Finkelstein. Clearly he(Dershowitz) will have much to account for during the Yamim Noraim!

George Strickland Thu. Jul 12, 2007

Mr. Dershowitz once again demonstrates great sensibility in addressing the problems of religious observance. Too bad liberals and conservatives cannot construct their arguments along the lines of Professor Dershowitz

Lee Jaffe Thu. Jul 12, 2007

Many years ago, my workplace (which was decidedly ignorant of Jewish considerations) scheduled an important management retreat during Yom Kippur. I'd decided not to attend the retreat, even though I hadn't been to services in many years, on principal. (When asked, I suggested Dec. 25th as an alternate date.) Then I learned that a small group within the management team had gone to the brink to get me included at the retreat in order to support their position on crucial planning issues. The possibility that I might not come after all was a bad blow to their situation. I vacillated and eventually based on the fact that I wouldn't be attending temple anyway, I decided to attend the conference in order that my principles wouldn't create problems for someone else. When I told my step-father this story he was appalled. He told me how when he was in the Merchant Marine he'd had to trade watches with the other sailors in order to observe the high holidays. He said, "If those guys, some of them the scum of the earth, could respect my religious observance, then you should be able to ask the same of your co-workers." I've never missed the holidays since.

Howard Marks Thu. Jul 12, 2007

Kudos to Professor Dershowitz. Although I attend shabbat services and Torah study on a regular basis, I am not Shomer Shabbat. However, out of principle, many years ago, I stopped attending Saturday morning events sponsored by civic and environmental organizations. The head of one liberal leaning civic organization in the community I used to live once scolded me for even suggesting they consider holding one of their meetings on a Sunday morning, instead of a Saturday morning, by saying "don't you know that's when people go to church."

der Alte Fri. Jul 13, 2007

I still recall vividly from a few years back a professor friend working at a college different from my own. He most casually told me that he was going down to Cuba to help the workers cut sugar cane. Mid-semester. I assume there was no penalty for this. Incidentally, I taught at a college (I am now emeritus) where I canceled a class for observance, I provided FIVE different times for meeting with any individual students and tutoring them on any questions.

Mark Katz Thu. Jul 12, 2007

It's more than just a personal issue to the teacher who is being required to teach on Shabbat or Rosh Hashana. This issue is one that has implications for the whole of the Jewish community. A law professor presumably has the respect of the community. When a Jewish law professor openly works on the High Holy Days, he or she makes it more difficult for others to take the days off to observe. When his or her Jewish colleagues take the days off, this professor's actions leave them open to criticism. People who are not familiar with Judaism are left to wonder whether it is really necessary for Jews to take these days off -- are the High Holy Days really that important. This is not a matter of personal hypocracy, it is a matter of k'lal Yisrael. This professor owes more to our community.

Mark Katz Thu. Jul 12, 2007

It's more than just a personal issue to the teacher who is being required to teach on Shabbat or Rosh Hashana. This issue is one that has implications for the whole of the Jewish community. A law professor presumably has the respect of the community. When a Jewish law professor openly works on the High Holy Days, he or she makes it more difficult for others to take the days off to observe. When his or her Jewish colleagues take the days off, this professor's actions leave them open to criticism. People who are not familiar with Judaism are left to wonder whether it is really necessary for Jews to take these days off -- are the High Holy Days really that important. This is not a matter of personal hypocracy, it is a matter of k'lal Yisrael. This professor owes more to our community.

harry nash Thu. Jul 12, 2007

Dear Prof. School over Shul In my view Prof. Dershowitz is right on this question, You should not teach on Rosh Hashanah. So if I agree with Prof. Dershowitz and agree with his stand on this principal, why am I uncomfortable in his corner? Permit me to say that I admire your stand because I believe it is principled and indeed courageous, but I do not agree with it and would also feel uncomfortable in your corner. Which brings me to the views expressed by your son- You should listen to your son. Sincerely, Harry Nash

Joe Buchwald Gelles Thu. Jul 12, 2007

A slightly different angle . . . A good friend of mine, Michael Charney, recently retired after 30 years of teaching in Cleveland Public Schools. He is not an observant Jew, never was. But he took off every year is solidarity with Jewish teachers who were observant, and in solidarity with the union that fought this battle on principle.

Robert M. Miller Thu. Jul 12, 2007

I agree with you. I would add a Jewish teacher is also a Jewish role model for non Jewish students.

P.L.Cohen Fri. Jul 13, 2007

Hooray for you on the matter of not teaching on Rosh Hashanah and Shabbos. It doesn't matter if you are observant or religious or not. You are JEWISH. I would like all Jewish high school students to take the SAT on Sunday, because the SAT gives Jews the opportunity not take the test on Shabbos. Most Jewish students are not religious or Shabbos observant. It is the principle that matters. Thanks again. P.L. Cohen

Matt Zusel Fri. Jul 13, 2007

Alan, Did you go to Shul when you defended OJ Simpson? Did you pray for forgiveness at Yom Kippur?

Henry Rytterband Sat. Jul 14, 2007

Alan Dershowitz is telling us that you can't consider yourself a Jew if you seperate from the jewish faith. I disagree and that's why I left "the holy land"

Lois Steinberg Sat. Jul 14, 2007

The reality of life is that things are different for a minority. No one checks how many people who get Christmas off as a Federal Holiday actually believe in Jesus as the Messiah or attend Church. But Jews have to fight to get off from work for our holidays... We have to take vacation time while Christians often get not only Christmas but also New Years and half a day for each of the "eves". I believe all Jews should support each other in being able to observe... one never knows where you might be spiritually or Jewishly in the years to come. Even if you don't attend services now you might want to in the future and we can't know if that right or ability will be there if so many Jews show up for work or school.

Avi Sloan Sun. Jul 15, 2007

Dear Professor Dershowitz, I feel you miss the need for teachers to teach! Not to be teachers by faith, gender or race… “On the issue of teaching classes on Rosh Hashanah, you cannot be neutral” That very comment is what gets the zealots going…[Jews only care how things affect them and Israel], “they” want America to protect Israel….. We live in American, our loyalty isn’t to Israel it is to AMERICA…On this we can not waiver or be neutral, would you not agree? “A Case for Israel” was a very interesting read, but as for this issue….Teachers should just teach not Jewish, African-American or Gentile...Your response seems to play into the hands of the people who question the loyal motives of "Americans". Any Holiday that defines a person's faith is important, but it is only important to them, not the masses, therefore, if only a few people choose to observe the holiday, then more power to them...But as a Bi-Racial Jewish Male…It is more important that I observe my good standing, what I stand for and for whom my faith leads me to be not any "role-model" of another. Simply put you like many African-Americans used a certain “Card" this one isn’t race but more a faith one… in your reply, instead of being more honest in understanding even Jews aren't all in as far as the faith would like, or the position of Israel in world affairs....But using any High Holiday of any faith as a means not to observe, but to make a "statement" ...Well leads many away from the goals of the Jewish Faith…When in reality the faith is to marshal the goodness and ever present understanding that we are chosen to must set an example to other's by being honest…If one is not going to observe within the walls of Shul then be in the walls of your employer or educator. Idle hands and hearts are the Devils workshop….smile.. Tov Shalom, Avi Sloan PS...I enjoy your writings, thank you for caring so much about Us…

Leann Sherman Sun. Jul 15, 2007

Great piece; I hope the professor will stand proud and follow Mr. Dershowitz's advice. I think we Jews are still afraid of "making waves." It feels much "safer" to simply blend into the non Jewish American fabric. By the way, this fall, the professor should consider treating himself to a Sukkot/Simchat Torah experience. I'm sure that any congregation would be happy to host him. They are my favorite holidays. I always look forward to the almost mystical experience of dining in a sukkah with the scents of autumn and wonderful holiday foods all around me. The eve of Simchat Torah is another near mystical - experience - especially in the Orthodox community. (NOTE: I'm not Orthodox, but find the experience of watching the Simchat Torah dancing near mesmerizing. It is a most joyous time - for young, old, and in between.) I hope the prof. will be a shining example to his Jewish - and non-Jewish students.

Norman H. Green Mon. Jul 16, 2007

This was the first time that I ever agreed 100% with anything written by Professor Dershowitz and that I read.

monte landis Sun. Jul 15, 2007

When it comes to blind-siding hipocrisy Alan Dershowitz never lets me down. Thank you Dr. Dershowitz, bis 120.

Jess Lawrence Mon. Jul 16, 2007

When I came back to the UK from the USA I was told by my manager that I had to ask "permission" to have Yom Kippur off. I said that I was not asking for consent, just as she took for granted she would have 25th December off, I was taking it for granted that I had Yom Kippur off. This caused friction in the beginning of a new job but I made an important point in a work environment where Jewish religious holidays are not regarded as a right.

John Cowan Wed. Jul 18, 2007

The original poster knew, when he accepted the contract to teach (or, at the very latest, by the time when the class was scheduled) that it would meet on Rosh haShanah. Whether or not he should have accepted that agreement is now irrelevant. He owes it to his students to fulfill his contract and teach them at the time and on the day mutually and freely agreed upon. The same is true of his Jewish students who wish to observe the holiday. They too could have taken a differently scheduled class, but freely chose not to. As it is, they suffer no penalty for missing the class except missing out on the instruction. And note that we hear nothing of a demand from them to have a makeup class!

Sylvia Tue. Jul 17, 2007

Years ago when I was a high school student, I wanted to go to school on the Jewish Holy days because the teachers resented "having to teach a lesson twice" my father told me that I should go to support those children who were religious. He knew that I believed in equal rights for all and he requested that I should apply that to fellow Jews as well as to other races and religions. I realized he was right and have followe that advice when bringing up my own children. Therefore I agree with Alan Dershowitz on this issue.

Stephanie Brussell Wed. Jul 18, 2007

Interesting to note that Harvard held classes on Saturdays. Just shows what a WASP country this really is even though concessions have been made. There is no dilemma here. Required classes should not be held on Saturdays, nor on the Jewish High Holidays, in a supposedly Judeo-Christian society. Surely, an institution like Harvard would be aware of this and schedule classes accordingly. If we did have complete separation of church and state, which we don't if you take a look at the motto on our money, then classes would be held seven days a week. In institutions where consideration of the Judeo-Christian duality is not observed, it is up to the Jewish teacher to turn social activist and get people thinking. The Jewish teacher should teach by not teaching. Good job Professor Dershowitz!

Richard Gordon Fri. Oct 26, 2007

I respect Mr. Dershowitz's decision not to teach on Saturdays or High Holidays but I am uncomfortable with his insisting that a non-religious Jew should follow Mr. Dershowitz's example because he or she is a Jewish “role model.” Why stop at not teaching on Shabbat or Rosh Hashanah? What about wearing a kippah or growing payis? What about the Massachusetts Jew who is married to someone of the same sex? Or who wears shirts that are only 100% cotton? Or maybe the Jew who refuses to put to death a fellow Jew who DOES work on Shabbat? As long as you can be Jewish without keeping all of the law found in Torah then I’m not comfortable with anyone telling an individual Jew which ones he has to keep in order still to be a good Jew or a good Jewish “role model.” There is a strong argument for universities providing for no religious holidays, but rather giving faculty and students a choice of some number of days, say 5, when they need not show up for class. After all, there are teachersd and students who are atheists and agnostics, and many who are religious but are neither Jewish nor Christian.

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