December 17, 2008
Madoff: Jewish, yes, but Orthodox too?
Talk about bad PR. Since Bernard Madoff was charged with running a $50 billion Ponzi scheme, Jews have been taking a lot of blame for this bad apple. Anti-Semities are usually looking for any opportunity to malign Jews, and Madoff made it easy.
Madoff’s co-religionists have distanced Jewish values from the avarice that sunk Bernard Madoff Investment Securities. Rob Eshman’s column this week, online later tonight, is wistful for a Jewish concept of hell: “Because then I could take comfort that Bernard Madoff will go there. And Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple wrote for On Faith that Jewish ethics can’t just be present in the home but must also underlie business practices:
The Rabbis of the Talmud declare: “If one is honest in business, and earns the esteem of others, it is as if one has fulfilled the whole Torah (Mechilta, Vayassa).” Religion may begin at home, but it should never end there. If it does not move us to decency and goodness, it matters not at all what pieties we profess.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff told me something similar yesterday:
“As a religious Jew, how do you see it being OK to daven three times and day and then defraud the Jewish communities of many cities of their funds?“ Dorff asked. “If anything, this shows you can’t be a religious Jew simply by observing the laws. Being a religious Jew must entail being moral as well. Beside the fact that it both illegal and immoral to do this to individual investors—to do it to Jewish federations representing the Jewish community is just unconscionable. What happened to Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh BaZe—all Jews are responsible for each other?“
“Piety,“ he added, “is not an excuse, let alone a justification, for immorality.“
It was Dorff’s comments that led Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein to pick up the phone.
Adlerstein, the Irmas Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School and one of the Cross-Currents collaborators, wanted to know where I got information that Madoff was Orthodox. I told him I hadn’t actually looked into it, but had heard that he was a member of an Orthodox shul and was treasurer of the Yeshiva University board of trustees and had been involved with a number of other Orthodox causes. When Dorff told me Madoff was Orthodox, I had no reason to doubt him. Maybe I should have.
“If he isn’t Orthodox, please clear that up,” Adlerstein said. “We don’t need the attention.”
Adlerstein called back two hours later, saying he had spoken with a “highly placed Manhattan source,” which I understood to mean a friend.
“He ain’t Orthodox. He isn’t a Sabbath observer. He is a Sabbath desecrator. By no means can he be considered Orthodox.”
I called Dorff back and he said he made the same presumptions I think most people have. I’m still not certain what the answer is. I can find no information online about whether Madoff kept kosher or Shabbat.
But does that even matter? I have plenty of friends who don’t neatly fall into the categories of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist who practice mitzvot and keep the Sabbath holy. If Madoff was involved in Orthodox life, how can anyone but the rabbis say, outside the most legalistic judgment, that he isn’t Orthodox?
The interesting thing to me is the way Madoff’s sins are being passed around. Everybody wants to distance their community from a guy who moved seamlessly through the upper echelons of the Jewish and financial worlds for years and allegedly stole straight from the tzedakah box.
Many Jewish leaders have been quick to express what a shande Madoff’s alleged transgressions were. (And they were.) Non-Orthodox Jews, specifically, have demonstrated a bit of schadenfreude when observing Madoff’s fall.
The reality, though, is we’re all responsible for Madoff. Muslims, Christians and Jews, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, secular and sectarian. It doesn’t matter what strain Madoff came from or belongs too.
Religious values don’t inspire and prop up Ponzi schemes. Getting financial returns that are too good to be true do.