The Bernard Madoff scandal is provoking spasms of angst and introspection in the American Jewish community (not that we don’t do angst and introspection normally) and I thought I would ask David Wolpe, one of the greatest American rabbis (as well as Christopher Hitchens’ sparring partner), a few questions about this drama and its cultural and theological implications:
Jeffrey Goldberg: Should Bernard Madoff be excommunicated for his sins against his people?
David Wolpe: We do not practice formal excommunication. I would not prevent him from entering a synagogue to pray. We are in the atonement business. However, he should be barred from any honor or recognition. To the extent permitted by his sentence he should do something of service to the community to make small reparations for the incalculable harm he caused. Short of formal excommunication, however, informal ‘shunning’ has a nice, solid ring to it.
JG: “Shunning,” huh? Does that imply that you believe his crimes might be irredeemable? At what point do you give up on a sinner?
DW: Maimonides lists sins—following the laws of the Mishna—that cannot be fully forgiven. Common to most is an inability to make restitution (another example is one who coldly assumes “I’ll sin, be forgiven, sin, be forgiven” etc.). Madoff cannot conceivably make restitution to the unnumbered he has hurt—from lost personal savings to people dependent on the bone marrow registry whose holdings he squandered. Perhaps someone of purer soul might be persuaded to find redemption possible for him. I confess I cannot.
JG: Do Jews wring their hands too much? I didn’t notice a great deal of Christian angst over Ken Lay.
DW: I wonder if the people in Ken Lay’s church wrung their hands. Since Judaism is not a religion, but more like a religious family, bound by strong communal ties, Jews are more likely than Christians to feel pride or shame in the actions of other Jews. You don’t get strong bonds without a degree of identification. That is why the foolishness in other people’s families doesn’t embarrass us.
JG: Should we be embarrassed because we’re supposed to be so smart (especially with, you know, money) and yet we got fleeced by Bernie Barnum, or should we be embarrassed because there are evildoers among us? And what does this mean for tribal trust?
DW: We should be grateful that trust still exists. Cunning is an unlovely stereotype; I can’t read a balance sheet to save my soul (perhaps not the best metaphor in this instance) and I am hardly alone. It may hurt that trust, which is sad; for years the fact that the diamond business all over the world, among Jews and non-Jews, is conducted with a handshake because Jews set it up that way is a tribute to decency and probity. One man’s venality and cruelty can’t set the standard.
Vast amounts of money call not only for trust but for a solid sense of genuine value in this world. Rabbi Akiba says in the Talmud that the central commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). May I propose that these days, “Guard your soul carefully” (Deut. 4:9) deserves pride of place.