Berman (1918-2007) was Pioneer of Law and Religion

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Harold J. Berman
Berman over the years

By Tim Hussey

Emory University School of Law Professor Harold J. Berman, honored and respected for his scholarship and passion for the law, passed away in New York City today, Tuesday, November 13, 2007. He was 89.

Berman, who recently celebrated his 60th anniversary as a law professor, referred to teaching as his “calling.” He served the Emory University community as its first Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law – the highest honor Emory can bestow upon a faculty member – for more than 20 years.  He was James Barr Ames Professor of Law Emeritus of Harvard Law School, where he taught from 1948 to 1985.

“Hal’s contributions to Emory and to legal scholarship were impressive and far-reaching,” said Emory Law Dean David F. Partlett. “He was a humble giant in his field.”

A prolific scholar, Berman wrote 25 books and more than 400 articles on the topics of law and religion, comparative legal history, Russian law and culture, legal philosophy and private international law.  His prize-winning book, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (1983), has been published in German, French, Chinese, Russian, Polish, Spanish, Italian, and Lithuanian translations.  His other writings have appeared in more than 20 languages.  

James T. Laney, President Emeritus of Emory University who hired him in 1985, called Berman “one of the great polymaths of American legal education.... The critical acuity and catholic influence of his legal thought have earned him a place alongside such 20th-century legal giants as Roscoe Pound, Karl Llewellyn, and Lon Fuller.”

Berman was one of the pioneers of the study of law and religion.  He played an integral role in the development of Emory’s Law and Religion Program, now the Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR), where he served as Senior Fellow.  “He was my mentor, but far more important than that, he was one of the few legal scholars in the country willing to write about both law and religion,” said Professor Frank S. Alexander, CSLR founding director, who persuaded Berman to join the faculty at Emory Law after being one of his students at Harvard in the early 1970s.

Like Alexander, John Witte, Jr., Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law and CSLR Director, had the privilege of studying under Berman. “Out of the blue in 1982, I wrote to ask him whether I should come to Harvard Law School,” said Witte. “Happily, Hal Berman wrote me a wonderful personal letter and invited me to come study with him and to be his research assistant.  That was my start in this field, and that in many ways is emblematic of the start that Hal Berman has given to so many others in this and other fields of legal study.  He has taught more than 10,000 students over the past 60 years, and more than 250 of them are now teaching in law schools around the world.”

In recent years, Berman developed a strong interest in world law, particularly in using the power of law to help correct global societal inequities and to establish systems of trust, peace and cooperation. Through his role as founder and co-director of Emory’s World Law Institute, Berman promoted research and international education programs in world law, and sought to facilitate discussion and change in areas such as women’s health in developing countries.

One of the world’s most distinguished scholars of Soviet and post-Soviet law, Berman was a Fellow of The Carter Center, with a special focus in U.S.-Russian relations. He visited Russia more than 40 times since 1955 as a guest scholar and lecturer on the topic of American law, and he was the founder and co-director of the American Law Center in Moscow, a joint venture of Emory Law and the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation.   He also took his expertise on Communist and post-Communist law to Eastern Europe and China in recent years, where his writings are well known and widely used.

Born in 1918 in Hartford, Conn., Berman received a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College in 1938 and his M.A. in history and LL.B. from Yale University in 1942 and 1947, respectively.  He also studied at the London School of Economics before being called into military service.  He served in the U.S. Army in the European Theatre of Operations from 1942 to 1945 as a cryptographer and received the Bronze Star Medal.

In 1991, Berman was awarded the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, by the Catholic University of America; in 1995, the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, by the Virginia Theological Seminary; and in 2000, the degree of Doctor, honoris causa, by the Russian Academy of Sciences Law University. He also was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He is survived by his wife Ruth Harlow Berman; their four children, Stephen, Jean, Susanna, and John; seven grandchildren; and two great grandchildren.  A public celebration and memorial of Berman’s life and work will be held at Emory University early in the spring semester.

In lieu of flowers, the family would prefer that donations are made to one of the following organizations:

World Law Institute of Emory University
Emory Law School
1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322

The Open Door Community
910 Ponce de Leon Ave, NE
Atlanta, GA 30306

International Senior Lawyers Project
31 West 52nd Street
3rd Floor
New York, NY 10019-6131

Heifer Project International
1 World Avenue
Little Rock, AR 72202

The work of Harold J. Berman was celebrated during the Oct. 24-26 silver anniversary conference of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion. An interview of him shown during that event is available in video and text.

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