December 24, 2008
If you're an active member of the Jewish community -- and perhaps even if you're not -- there's almost no way to properly digest the Bernie Madoff scandal. It's
like a quadruple shot of cheap vodka that you drink quickly on an empty stomach. You feel disgusted and drunk at the same time.
First, of course, there's the alleged scale of the swindle. Fifty billion? You can cut that by 80 percent and it would still be an obscene number.
More than dry numbers, though, there's the sadness we all feel for the tens of thousands of disadvantaged people -- Jews and non-Jews -- who will now suffer because the organizations that usually help them have been ruined, not to mention the many individuals and families who have lost their life's savings overnight.
Then there's the fear of the uncertain -- what all this will mean for the future of fundraising and Jewish philanthropy in an already depressed economy, and to what extent the scandal will fuel the fires of anti-Semitism, as well as turn off many Jews to their faith.
Finally, just to add a touch of the surreal, we have a suspect who apparently immediately confessed to his crime. How often does a white-collar criminal who can afford the best legal advice tell the authorities who have come to arrest him that his financial empire is all "one big lie" -- and that he has been engaged for years in a fraudulent Ponzi scheme to the tune of $50 billion?
Put all this nasty brew together, and you have a Jewish community that's reeling with anger, shock, sadness and shame. We can't speak fast enough to catch up with our emotions. We almost wish the guy would have kept his mouth shut and had his $900-an-hour lawyer give us the usual "my client will vigorously defend himself from these outrageous charges" response -- so that at least we would have been broken in gently.
Instead, we got mugged with a sledgehammer.
One of the dangers of being overwhelmed with so much criminal havoc is that we will lose all perspective when trying to draw conclusions. We may feel, for example, that because the crime is so big, our conclusions must also be big.
But let's remember that there are many things in this story that are not so big.
Bernie Madoff, for one. Here is a gonif who preyed on the weaknesses of his own people and stole money not just from the wealthy, but from charitable organizations. How much smaller can you get?
How many Bernie Madoffs are there in the Jewish community? The truth is, for every Madoff we hear about, there are probably a million honest Jews we never hear about. Madoff may be a disease, but he's not an epidemic.
Every day, thousands of deals are made in our community, one Jew trusting another Jew and no one getting ripped off. We don't hear about these, precisely because no one gets ripped off. There's no doubt we ought to do more due diligence at all levels of Jewish philanthropy, and I'm sure that as a result of this scandal, we will. But let's not kid ourselves: For as long as there are human beings, trust will play a central role in the affairs of men.
Trust serves as a convenient shortcut for making decisions, but it also serves a deeper human purpose -- it strengthens our emotional bonds. It gives us a chance to show loyalty and faith in other people, and when it is reciprocated, we feel a deeper connection.
Frankly, what worries me most is not that we will see more Madoff-level crimes of betrayal in our community, but that we so easily ignore the millions of little offenses we regularly inflict on each other. Those little offenses may not rise to the level of illegal behavior, but they have the cumulative power to corrode the human bonds that tie our families and communities together.
I'm talking about the little lies, the hurtful gossip, the verbal abuse, the arrogant looks, the inconsiderate gestures. How many thousands of instances are there every day when one of us will hurt someone -- maybe by using hurtful language or breaking a promise or giving a family member the silent treatment? How many numerous opportunities are missed every day to help another person -- maybe by bringing soup to a sick neighbor or simply saying something nice to our mothers?
Madoff's "swindle of the century" is a tragic ethical breakdown for our community, and we should all help to pick up the pieces. At the same time, the scandal can also serve as a wake-up call to remind us of the myriad ethical obligations we have in our own lives and within our own communities.
Our rabbis and educators can lead the way in answering this call. They can start by making it clear to their congregants and students -- many of whom will become our future leaders and financiers -- that nothing is more important in Judaism than the way we treat one another. Yes, God loves it when we go to shul or study the Talmud or have a "spiritual experience" or contribute to the shul's building fund. But God loves it even more when we make it our priority to follow the Jewish laws and principles of how we should properly interact with other people.
This is the Judaism of ethics -- the only Judaism that every Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Conservative, Humanist, Chasidic, Renewal, Egalitarian, Ultra-Orthodox and gay rabbi on the planet will unite behind.
It's the Judaism that Bernie Madoff shunned, but that the aftermath of his scandal may reawaken.
Imagine that. Instead of the Messiah coming down to redeem us, a sleazy villain shows up on Chanukah and shocks us into reasserting that great Jewish ideal of learning how to live an ethical life.
If you ask me, that sounds a lot easier to digest.