The defendant: Moses

Add another feather to Erwin Chemerinsky’s cap. On Nov. 18, the great legal mind — founding dean of the University of California, Irvine, School of Law and former commentator for the O.J. Simpson trial — got Moses off on two counts: murder and flight to avoid prosecution.

Yes, that Moses.

“The People vs. Moses,” an American Jewish University (AJU) luncheon event held at its Bel Air campus, proved to be a blend of entertainment and education for some 500 attendees, selling out the (appropriately named) Moses E. Gindi Auditorium. Sponsored by Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary, the 10th mock trial featuring biblical personalities served as the culmination of this year’s Celebration of Jewish Books.

With Judge Burt Pines presiding, the event cast Laurie Levenson, professor of law at Loyola Law School, as prosecuting attorney, and Chemerinsky as the defender of the Jewish prophet. The two engaged in a friendly dissection of the ethics implied by one of the Torah’s key turning points. 

Gady Levy, dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education and vice president of AJU, is the event’s creator and served as moderator. He cast the trial of the Israelites’ emancipator in the company of some of the high-profile trials of the last two decades: Michael Jackson’s doctor, Winona Ryder, Martha Stewart and, of course, Simpson.

In this case, Moses was charged with murder and flight based on the events related in the book of Exodus:

“…[Moses] saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, ‘Why did you strike your fellow?’ He retorted, ‘Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’ Moses was frightened, and thought: Then the matter is known! When Pharaoh learned of the matter, he sought to kill Moses; but Moses fled from Pharaoh.”

Everyone knows what happened next: Moses followed his destiny toward helping to free the Israelites from Egypt and leading them to Mount Sinai, where they received the Ten Commandments from God.

Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who also is on the faculty of AJU’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, opened the program with a study session, entertaining the crowd as he quipped his way through an examination of the section of Exodus chronicling the birth and adoption of Moses as well as his adult skirmish with the Hebrew slave’s oppressor. 

He compared Egypt’s treatment of its Jews to Nazi Germany in the ramp-up to the Shoah, when propagandist Joseph Goebbels used identification and isolation to create dissension within the German republic between Anglo- and Jewish-Germans. In both cases, the Jews were compartmentalized as “the aliens, the other.” They were a threat, an enemy and the scapegoat for economic failures.

In pressing the case against Moses, Levenson, aided by props and a PowerPoint presentation, challenged the legality of the prophet’s actions, despite the role he would later have in Jewish history.

“No one is above the law,” she opened. “Not you, not me and not Moses. Everyone is subject to the law. Each life, even an Egyptian’s life, is worth something.

“The truth is,” she continued, “he’s not always a goody two-shoes, and from day one when he was born, he was a fugitive.” 

Planting a basket on Chemerinsky’s table, she exclaimed. “And this was his getaway vehicle!”

She continued with a mix of serious and tongue-in-cheek analysis.

“Moses was violent when he didn’t need to be,” Levenson said. “He was the prince of Egypt. But he was a man who was perpetually farbissen. He was a little meshugge as well. Here was a man who would talk to the fire. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it was a burning bush!”

A Photoshopped image of George W. Bush — flames sprouting from him — appeared on-screen, eliciting laughs from the audience.

Dismissing the common vigilante, Levenson observed how Moses took matters into his own hands instead of going to the authorities.

“What part of ‘Thou shalt not kill’ did he not understand?”

She pulled out a butcher knife to make her point. “Moses crossed the line,” she said as the slogan “Two wrongs do not equal a right” flashed across a screen.

Chemerinsky, on the other hand, defended Moses based on two main ideas: Justifiable homicide, as defined by California Penal Code, is not a crime; and the vagueness of the parashat’s language makes it impossible to prove Moses’ actions beyond the shadow of a doubt. There was no indication as to what specifically transpired or who witnessed it, for example. And Chemerinsky deemed Levenson’s knife misleading to the jury, as the text had no references to weapons.

In ancient Egyptian society, where Hebrews were slaves and not entitled to due process of law, Moses was not wrong in applying violence in defense of his fellow Jew, Chemerinsky said. His decision to run away was defensible as well, he said.

“Moses fleeing is not a crime,” he said, explaining that Moses did not flee prosecution but execution without a fair trial. “Did he flee out of a guilty conscience? No! Pharaoh was not going to have Moses tried but killed! In a society where there is no respect for Jewish life … isn’t the action taken necessary?”

Chemerinsky argued how, in subsequent stories, the incident is never mentioned again.

“If God didn’t judge Moses as guilty, you shouldn’t either,” he told the audience. Levenson responded that God did not smite Moses because the prophet would be needed down the line.

Chemerinsky evidently convinced the “jury.” Moses was acquitted of each count — an overwhelming 70 percent of the audience found him not guilty — before the program resumed with a Q-and-A featuring the attorneys.

This hypothetical trial was just the latest in an annual tradition at AJU. Past trials concerned King David, Rebecca and Jacob, Pinchas, King Saul, Eve, Yael, and Joseph’s brothers. Abraham, tried for alleged child abuse and attempted murder, kicked off the series in 2002, with Judge Joseph Wapner presiding from 2002 through 2008.

Levy first developed the lesson while teaching sixth grade at Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue in Valley Village, then adapted it to adult audiences when he came to AJU.

“We felt that adult audiences would greatly benefit from a fresh, creative way to study Torah, just as younger audiences did,” he said.

It helped that he was able to attract three renowned legal personalities in Levenson, Chemerinsky and Wapner. It was the latter, who had been involved with AJU for a number of years, who helped secure the others, Levy said.

The 2012 trial, however, marked a turning point as Levenson and Chemerinsky litigated their last case in the series. AJU’s biblical mock trials will continue with yet-to-be-chosen attorneys.

Levy acknowledged the Levenson-and-Chemerinsky show will be tough to follow; they attracted 500 people each year, many of whom might not ordinarily attend synagogue.

“If you ask anyone in the audience,” Levy said, smiling, “no one will say they came here for Bible study.”