January 26, 2006
Sympathy for the Devil?
The strange case of sinner-mensch Jack Abramoff and the Jewish community that abandoned him.
A rule in Jewish law holds that when all the judges on the Jewish high court unanimously condemned an accused criminal, he must be set free. The very unanimity was suspicious and called into question the justice of the proceedings.
Talk about unanimity. By now thousands of published articles, ranging from critical to hateful, have appeared about the famous Jack Abramoff -- Orthodox Jew, former Washington super-lobbyist, product of an affluent Beverly Hills upbringing and future inmate of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He has pleaded guilty to mail fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy.
As Abramoff told The Jewish Journal in a series of phone interviews earlier this month, "I had lost a sense of proportion and judgment. God sent me 1,000 hints that He didn't want me to keep doing what I was doing. But I didn't listen, so He set off a nuclear bomb."
In such a case, can there be room for giving the universally condemned man the benefit of the doubt?
"What hurts the most is the way my co-religionists want to cut my head off," Abramoff says.
Predictably, he has been excoriated by some Jews who seem transparently thrilled to point to an Orthodox Jew with failings. The response from the Orthodox community is more aptly described as shock and frequently expressions of shame at the thought that Abramoff, a Jew, did what he did.
But the story has another side.
In presenting this alternate view, I don't pretend to be disinterested. I have met Abramoff twice, and 10 years ago I enjoyed spending the first two festival days of Sukkot in his home. His fundraising efforts, related in his plea agreement, supported many Republican and Jewish causes including an organization I admire and once worked for -- Toward Tradition.
But those who so entirely condemn Abramoff are not all disinterested either. Many are eager to see the humiliation of Republican congressmen who received gifts and favors from the lobbyist. Others find in him confirmation of dearly held but more idiosyncratic beliefs, biases and bugbears.
So having admitted biases all around, let's try to understand Jack Abramoff and his Jewish journey.
From an early age he was a religious rebel and an ardent idealist. His story is in many ways that of many other ba'alei teshuvah, Jews who returned to tradition. I, too, am in that group.
Now age 46, he was born in Atlantic City, N.J. His father, Frank Abramoff, a Diners Club executive, moved the family to Beverly Hills in 1969. The family's home was in the tree-lined flats north of Santa Monica Boulevard on Elm Drive. His early religious education was at Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation in Beverly Hills. However by the time of his bar mitzvah he was fed up with what he felt was a Judaism devoid of meaning.
"I quickly came to the conclusion that what they were saying was gibberish," Jack Abramoff says.
Frank Abramoff remembers, "He said 'That's the last time I'll be involved with that sort of tradition.' I said, 'That's your decision.'"
His only exposure to traditional Judaism was from watching "Fiddler on the Roof," a movie he found inspiring. Abramoff had no idea there was an Orthodox community in Los Angeles and was stunned in 1972 when he met a boy his own age wearing a kippah in La Cienega Park.
Jack started attending a Conservative synagogue, Sinai Temple, on his own. He taught himself Hebrew and read Judaica, notably Hayim Halevy Donin's "To Be a Jew," first published in 1972.
"I read that book cover to cover several times over and decided that if I was going to be a Jew, that's the kind of Jew I was going to be."
Many ba'alei teshuvah (including myself) have been strongly influenced by Donin's powerful and dignified-yet-simple summary of Jewish practice, which has no equal even today among the new books for Jewish beginners.
Donin wrote of the Jewish idea of holiness, which he defined as "Developing one's sense of discernment as to be able to distinguish and choose the right from the wrong, the true from the false, the good from the bad, the sacred from the profane, the pure from the impure, and the clean from the unclean. The greater the sense of ethical-moral-religious discrimination, the greater the holiness of the individual."
For all his study of Donin, the young Abramoff remained remarkably innocent about the realities of a traditional Jewish life. When he decided to observe Tisha B'Av for the first time at age 13, he became confused about the rule against wearing leather shoes on that holy day. He thought all shoes were forbidden on Tisha B'Av, and he assumed too that it was a rest day, like the Sabbath, and thus riding in a car was forbidden.
"So I walked to Temple Sinai, 5 miles down Wilshire Boulevard, night and day, in my socks. Somebody at the temple asked me if I wanted a ride. I thought, 'Hey, what's wrong with these guys?'"
For college in 1977, Abramoff chose Brandeis University in Massachusetts because he'd read it had a kosher kitchen. There he first came into personal contact with Orthodox Rabbi Rod Glogower.
"We learned Gemara [Talmud] together. There was a Mishnah shiur [class]," Abramoff recalls. "He bore himself in such a dignified way, an elegant way. Just seeing him inspired me."
Rabbi Glogower, now spiritual leader of the Ann Arbor Orthodox Minyan, remembers the college-age Jack fondly.
"My wife and I lived in a tough neighborhood, and when we would walk to and from the campus, I often got anti-Semitic comments from passing cars. Windows would roll down," he said. "When Jack heard about it he was extremely upset and protective of me. I have never forgotten the sense that he was a guy who would be in the trenches with me."
After graduating in 1981, Abramoff got into the political trenches as chairman of College Republicans, later as a producer of admittedly cheesy anti-Communist action movies. Work on one of those took him to South Africa, where he met the man who became his "rav," or rabbi: David Lapin, now a business consultant and rabbi emeritus at the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice.
That was in 1983. Again what impressed Abramoff immediately was a certain regal bearing in Lapin, not so different from Glogower. After listening to thousands of hours of taped lectures over the years by Rabbi Lapin, Abramoff said, "His is the voice in my ear, the voice of Torah, that I hear the most. He is so erudite, such a mensch. His teaching is outside the box, it's in the box, it's all around the box."
So one turns to Rabbi Lapin himself for an insight about Abramoff -- especially since Lapin, along with his brother Daniel in Seattle, president of Toward Tradition, the nonprofit, conservative, Judeo-Christian foundation, were both initially drawn into the Abramoff affair in different business-related ways, which by now have blown over.
Daniel Lapin was interviewed by the FBI which, he said, found that Toward Tradition had innocently accepted money from an Abramoff client. David Lapin was negatively and misleadingly portrayed in The New York Times -- and by The Jewish Journal, which carried a JTA article drawing from the Times story -- on the topic of consulting his company did for the Northern Mariana Islands. The Times subsequently printed a correction of a key detail, which it said was "erroneously omitted."
What, I asked David Lapin, does religious observance do if it doesn't keep a man out of prison?
"Studying Torah refines the character," he said, "It doesn't artificially transform it. So I usually assume that when one who has studied Torah does wrong, he or she would have done much worse without the refining and restraining influence of Torah knowledge and practice." And now that his student is in trouble, Lapin said, "I think the Torah he has learned helps him to internalize the tragic events of the past two years in his life and use them for personal transformation."
What leads a religiously committed Jew to go down a wrong path? Liberal Jews and some Christians point to what they see as Orthodoxy's over-emphasis on minutiae which, so goes this line of analysis, may result in a Jew who is fervent about what is picayune (for example, the details of Sabbath observance) but lax about greater matters (like bribing congressmen). There are two problems with this strategy for maligning traditional Judaism.
First, taking seriously the Torah's commandments inherently necessitates a care for details. God cares to see that we care.
Second, while the mitzvot are not magic, if done right they create a heightened mindfulness about matters great and small, including moral matters. But the key phrase is "done right." In our conversations, Abramoff repeatedly berated himself for allowing his Jewish observance to become mechanized, an afterthought.
"How many times did I take 60 seconds to say Birkat Ha'Mazon [the grace after meals]?" he asked. "How many times did I say the Shemoneh Esrei [Judaism's central prayer] without thinking about what I was saying?"
Obviously, if you are not mindful about the so-called "ritual" commandments, they will produce few beneficial effects in other areas of your life.
Alternatively, could Abramoff's problem be classic compartmentalization: cares about mitzvahs, doesn't care about mail fraud?
In the end, to ask such a question, thinking you can imagine the mind of another person, is to mislead yourself.
"God created us as infinitely complex creatures," Daniel Lapin said in a public statement released after Abramoff's plea. "We are capable of both evil actions and good ones -- very often on the same day."
Jack Abramoff is undoubtedly a complex creature. The same man who wrote crudely insulting e-mails about Indian gambling moguls plowed the money he made not into a second home, a yacht or mistresses, but into expensive Jewish enterprises of benefit to others: two idealistic religious schools in the Washington, D.C., suburbs; two money-losing kosher restaurants, intended both as a lobbying venue and as a boon to kosher diners and other Jewish businessmen; and private gifts to needy Jews who came to him with broken hearts and empty wallets. In the early 1990s, he put his work on pause to oversee the creation of the Torah School of Greater Washington, now 12 years in operation and thriving. The high school he started, Eshkol Academy, failed amid acrimony over unpaid salaries as Abramoff's legal troubles deepened. Abramoff himself told The Journal he saved nothing and supported himself, his wife and five children from check to check.
Although Jewish law asks us to give between 10 percent and 20 percent of net income to charity, Abramoff says, "I incorrectly didn't follow the mitzvah of giving away at most 20 percent. I gave away everything. I was the softest touch in town."
Or are we soft to believe him about this? The Jewish newspaper in Abramoff's area, the Washington Jewish Week, deserves credit for bothering to look beyond the negatives. A Jan. 11 article quoted a range of community members who personally witnessed the effects of Abramoff's generosity, testifying with comments like: "Hundreds of kids in this area owe their Jewish day school education to Jack," "We remain indebted to him," and "How many Jews make millions of dollars in this town and don't give ... anything" back?
The Abramoff family lives in the same house in mostly drab Silver Spring, Md., that Abramoff bought in 1999 for $1.03 million. While far from a shack, such a house is equally far from a mansion by today's standards. Clearly, his crimes weren't committed to fund some ridiculously lavish lifestyle.
"He has always been a good child," says his father, Frank Abramoff, who sounded a heartbreakingly plaintive note, describing Jack Abramoff's moral qualities as if his son were still that boy walking 5 miles down Wilshire Boulevard in the dark, in his socks.
Now that Abramoff's personal fate for the next decade or so has been sealed with the plea agreement, the Jewish community must decide whether to give him the benefit of the doubt about his charitable works and contrition, or persist in thinking we've got him figured out, and in announcing to the world how embarrassed of him we are.
Some apparently believe it's almost a mitzvah to say you're embarrassed. When Abramoff famously appeared in public wearing what looked like a "religious"-style black hat, of the kind favored by some Orthodox Jews, the story caught the attention of Los Angeles' Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein. In his online journal, Cross-Currents, Rabbi Adlerstein speculated that Abramoff meant to conceal a yarmulke and thus avoid making his chilul Hashem (a public "desecration" of God's Name) worse.
The rabbi, who is Orthodox himself and directs Project Next Step at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, then chided me for, as I'd written elsewhere, not being embarrassed of Abramoff: "I am embarrassed that he [Klinghoffer] is not embarrassed."
Rabbi Adlerstein also discovered in Abramoff an occasion for some patronizing thoughts about ba'alei teshuvah. He was pretty sure that Abramoff is a ba'al teshuvah, or BT. Thus the rabbi compared the character of "BTs" with Orthodox Jews who are religious or "frum"-from-birth: "FFBs," who because of their superior schooling would know better about ethical matters than a BT like Abramoff.
Adlerstein, an incisive thinker and a caring person, nonetheless typifies a certain Jewish response to Abramoff, speculating from a position of ignorance about the man. As it happens, his interpretation of the hat was flat wrong.
"That was between me and God," said Abramoff of the hat, "not between me and anyone else. I was sick and tired of not wearing a head-covering in business. I no longer care what others think of me. I care what God thinks of me." Contrary to press reports, it wasn't a "frum" Borsalino, either. "You know what it was?" he said. "It was a crushable rain hat."
Other reactions to Abramoff have been more hurtful than Adlerstein's. One thinks of Orthodox Jewish columnist Jeff Jacoby in The Boston Globe defining the term chilul Hashem for his readers: "Within the Jewish community whose values he so dishonored, there is little sympathy for Abramoff, who is likely to receive a prison sentence of 10 or 11 years."
The column was posted by the Aish HaTorah Web site, which led with these harsh conclusions: "Instead of upholding the Torah's ethical standards, Jack Abramoff trampled on them, desecrating God's name." (For whatever reason, it's since been taken down.)
Other Jews, too, rushed to decry Abramoff without grasping the facts or the character of the man.
In an op-ed distributed by the liberal Orthodox group Edah and picked up by The Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Eliyahu Stern, of New York tony's Park East Synagogue, castigates me for preferring not to denounce Abramoff: "I am sorry Mr. Klinghoffer, if using an Orthodox yeshiva to launder ill-begotten [sic] money does not embarrass you, then what does?"
Abramoff did not use the Orthodox high school he supported to launder funds, although the school was the recipient of money he raised, reportedly without telling lobbying clients where it was going.
He did set up an entity purportedly to help inner-city youths, The Capital Athletic Foundation -- which did serve as a conduit for other causes.
Again, Abramoff has admitted that his business was shot through with illegalities.
But in light of his plea agreement, what purpose is served by his fellow Jews, including rabbis, continuing to flog him so publicly?
While not making oneself into a chilul Hashem is an undoubted Jewish value, I'm still searching for the Torah source obligating us to publicly denounce the chilul Hashem of others where the offender has already admitted his offense, even if under the pressure of potentially decades in prison, abased himself in public and faces heavy secular penalties.
Please, give me sources to match in clarity and authority those that advise us, as the Talmud does: "He who judges his fellow man favorably is himself judged favorably [by God]" (Shabbat 127b); "In the measure with which a man measures, so is he measured" (Sotah 8b).
Or this: "With righteousness shall you judge your fellow" (Leviticus 19:15), by which the classical interpreter Rashi says we're meant to understand that when there is a doubt about our fellow's good intentions, we must be "dan l'kaf zechut": Judge on the side of merit.
We circle back to the question of motivation. What was Abramoff's motivation? To be a player? To prove himself? To be a macher? Personally, I would not dismiss out of hand his assertion that he acted to help others -- even though it probably strikes most as self-serving. Someday, I will want God to measure my misdeeds in a forgiving fashion, and judge me on the side of merit.
In this context one must also open up the possibility that what is in his plea agreement represents not a stark and true representation of crimes committed, but rather a confession "squeezed" (in Time magazine's word) out of him by the threat of harsher punishments.
The day he wore the notorious black hat to appear in federal court, he said, "Your Honor, words will not be able to ever express how sorry I am for this, and I have profound regret and sorrow for the multitude of mistakes and harm I have caused. All of my remaining days, I will feel tremendous sadness and regret for my conduct and for what I have done. I only hope that I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and from those I have wronged or caused to suffer."
These are only two logical possibilities. Either a) Abramoff was squeezed into giving false testimony about himself, or b) he is a repentant sinner. Since a) can't be supported from any known evidence, we're left with b). Which, then, is the greater chilul Hashem? A Jew who admittedly committed crimes and will be performing teshuvah (repentance) for years to come? Or Jews lining up to kick such a person now that he's been defeated and humiliated?
O n Cross Currents, Rabbi Adlerstein is posting a three-part exploration of Jewish law as it pertains to hurtful speech and judging charitably. As of this writing, he had reached the conclusion that "there is no ... legal obligation -- only a praiseworthy character trait -- in judging a stranger favorably." I am waiting to see what he'll do with the clear and unambiguous halachah in the most authoritative of law codes, the Shulchan Aruch, which forbids reminding a penitent of his now-repented sins (Choshen Mishpat 228:4) -- much less publicly putting such a person in the category of "evildoers." (Abramoff said he happens to be a regular reader of Rabbi Adlerstein's journal.)
Abramoff told me, "What astonishes me is the unqualified support and outpouring of love I've received from the religious Christian world." Now that should embarrass us.
In recounting the lives of the Hebrew patriarchs, the Torah suggests some relevant models of behavior toward the erring Jew.
One of these models is our forefather Jacob and how he handled the transgression of Reuben, his first-born, who grieved him by seducing Jacob's concubine Bilhah. When Jacob was preparing to die, he blessed his sons, and reminded Reuben of his "impetuosity" and the "desecration" (Genesis 49:4) he committed. But at the time of Reuben's deed, decades earlier, the Torah writes only that Jacob "heard" (35:22). He said not even a word about it. The classical commentator Nachmanides credits this to Jacob's "humility."
Abramoff attributes his downfall, in part, to "zealousness for finding funds for the charities I supported." Like Reuben, he was certainly impetuous -- impetuous enough to believe that the causes he supported merited committing fraud against others.
After Jacob died, Joseph forgave his brothers for selling him as a slave. He told them: "Fear not, for am I instead of God?" And "Thus he comforted them and spoke to their heart" (50:19, 21). As Egypt's viceroy, he could do to them what will soon be done to Jack Abramoff, or worse. He chose to follow the humble path of his father Jacob. Granted Abarmoff deserves a prison sentence, the question for us is what our attitude toward him should be as a fellow Jews.
What will be done to Abramoff? I asked Chaplain Gary Friedman, chairman of Jewish Prisoner Services International. If Abramoff is sent to a minimum-security prison, at least personal safety won't be a major concern.
"He'll have nothing to worry about," Friedman says. "He'll be a high-profile case. Still, my recommendation to him would be: don't bring attention to yourself."
Kosher food won't be a problem either: "Everything is hekshered" -- that is, there's kosher-certified food available.
"Everything that's heated is pre-packaged. That helps insure the kosher integrity," says Chaplain Friedman, who incidentally puts to rest Rabbi's Adlerstein's idealization of FFBs at the expense of BTs. The BT and FFB prison populations are, in relative numbers, "perfectly consistent with community demographics," he said.
Consistency and inconsistency are the principal themes of this story. One may say in the final analysis that Jack Abramoff, Orthodox Jew and admitted sinner, is consistent with the norms of humanity. Sincerely repentant yet amazed at the "lack of proportionality" of his crimes to his punishment, he remains infinitely complex. I wouldn't pretend to know what criminal punishment he deserves or doesn't. However the injustice of continuing to condemn him, now that it's been resolved that he will take his licks, seems obvious.
Undoubtedly there are others in prison who are like him; that is, better than society has judged them to be. Meanwhile there are many walking the street who have not aspired to deeds of charity or been called to account for their missteps. When Jack Abramoff gets out, I suspect he'll continue to repair his life by pursuing the good acts that he never, in fact, abandoned. Without calling attention to himself, he may well put to shame others who now sit in judgment of him.
David Klinghoffer (www.davidklinghoffer.com) is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author most recently of "Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History" (Doubleday). He also writes a column for The Forward.