Can a punishment fit this crime?

800px-talmud_setMy great Aunt-Jennie was Jewish.As a child, I recall my parents teasing her, when a Jew became the focus of media attention: Aunt Jennie, is this good for the Jews?

Recent coverage of the seismic consequences of Madoff's alleged fraud has focused on Jewish institutions and individuals as they grapple with that question -- and with the religious implications of the scandal.

Within the past week, the New York Times has covered the story from the perspective of some prominent Jews across the United States, including scholars and rabbis.

On the West Coast, the Los Angeles Times highlighted the distress and anger of local leaders.

Back in New York, the New York Times examined the aftermath of Madoff's alleged swindling on the city's famed Yeshiva University, and the reflection it has prompted among students and faculty.

Clearly, some of the conversation is theological, as students and leaders reflect on whether Madoff was a sinner, whether he can atone, and how he is alleged to have broken the commandment against stealing.

But what's striking about all three of these articles in how few people are quoted talking about the "I-Thou" of a "vertical" relationship. Instead, the focus of the articles is on how to interpret the Madoff affair in practical, ethical, and narrative terms.

Is there really a failure in these stories to 'get religion' because Godtalk seldom takes center stage?

Or is it possible that because of viral nature of Madoffs alleged crimes, the conversations in Jewish community are focused on the very "this-worldly" impact of his alleged violations of trust, honesty and tzedakah, (righteousness or charity)?

The fact that this is not clarified in any of the articles is likely to leave some readers, particularly those not immersed in Judaism, confused about the points where the vertical and the horizontal relationships intersect.

Here's one example from the lede of the first New York Times story:

There is a teaching in the Talmud that says an individual who comes before God after death will be asked a series of questions, the first one of which is, "Were you honest in your business dealings?" But it is the Ten Commandments that have weighed most heavily on the mind of Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles in light of the sins for which Bernard L. Madoff stands accused.

"You shouldn't steal," Rabbi Wolpe said. "And this is theft on a global scale."

The full scope of the misdeeds to which Mr. Madoff has confessed in swindling individuals and charitable groups has yet to be calculated, and he is far from being convicted. But Jews all over the country are already sending up something of a communal cry over a cost they say goes beyond the financial to the theological and the personal.

Here is a Jew accused of cheating Jewish organizations trying to help other Jews, they say, and of betraying the trust of Jews and violating the basic tenets of Jewish law. A Jew, they say, who seemed to exemplify the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes of the thieving Jewish banker.

Great story from the Talmud, one of the main "go-to" texts of Judaism and a record of rabbinic discussions on ethics, theology and the law.

What are the theological "costs" of the alleged betrayal? Although the article refers to the Torah, the Biblical character of Esau and to Madoff as the "antithesis of piety" we never really find out.

However, there is a marvelous quote which captures the essence of anger felt by many, and of the blow that has been dealt to the Jewish community:

In addition to theft, the Torah discusses another kind of stealing, geneivat da'at, the Hebrew term for deception or stealing someone's mind. "In the rabbinic mind-set, he's guilty of two sins: one is theft, and the other is deception," said Burton L. Visotzky, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

"The fact that he stole from Jewish charities puts him in a special circle of hell," Rabbi Visotzky added. "He really undermined the fabric of the Jewish community, because it's built on trust. There is a wonderful rabbinic saying -- often misapplied -- that all Jews are sureties for one another, which means, for instance, that if a Jew takes a loan out, in some ways the whole Jewish community guarantees it."

So according to the rabbis, what Madoff is alleged to have done is a sin.

I don't have any idea whether the Rabbi meant "special circle of hell" as a metaphor or not. That being said, it's a powerful image.

If that story takes a panoramic perspective, the article about Yeshiva University zooms in on a school that has had a personal relationship with Madoff that goes back more than a decade. Thus it seems natural to examine how that relationship affected students, faculty members and finances.

The lede suggests that Madoff's actions will be analysed and contrasted with the fundamentals of Jewish law, theology and praxis.

The Jewish social philosophy class at Yeshiva University was supposed to focus on repentance, but there seemed to be too much to atone for. In the eyes of the students, Bernard L. Madoff had deceived scores of people, turned billions of dollars into dust and ruined many lives. So instead, the graduate seminar of 15 began by debating whether Mr. Madoff's actions were sins, and whether it mattered that he was Jewish.

The writer does a nice job of quoting faculty and students who discuss how the scandal has caused some to reflect on their own, and the school's values. But no one in this particular article circles back to the question raised in the social philosophy class--were Madoff's actions sins?

As in the other two articles, the focus is on the aftermath of Madoff's alleged Ponzi scheme for the ethical decisions of everyday life.

The article concludes:

Rabbi Shalom Carmy, chairman of the Bible and Jewish Philosophy Department, flipped through Genesis the other day looking for a passage, a sliver of spiritual truth, to guide students in a time of introspection. He stopped on the story of Jacob and his willingness to risk his life to ensure the integrity of his earnings.

"The righteous guard their money more than their body," he said in explaining the lesson he extracted. "If you make money honestly and if you're holding it in a trust for people, you have to be very careful."

Rabbi Blech, for his part, turned to the Ten Commandments, noting that some focus on a person's relationship with God, others on relationships with fellow human beings. He said that "both tablets are equally important."

"Just because you eat kosher and observe the Sabbath does not make you good," he explained. "If you cheat and steal, you cannot claim you are a good Jew."

Therein may lie an answer -- if an implicit one. As a community struggles to cope with the idea that someone who shares their faith could have allegedly cheated not only individuals, but violated the core of Jewish values in so many ways, the initial round of questions may be very, very practical.

To return to the question directed at my Aunt Jennie -- in several respects, it's already true that the fact that Madoff is Jewish was not "good for the Jews." Not only did Jewish organizations and charities lose millions of dollars in his alleged investment fraud, but the story may have incited more anti-Jewish Internet propaganda.

The Los Angeles Times reported:

Among the victims were well-known Jewish philanthropists and organizations -- including the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity and Yeshiva University. Madoff had served as a trustee of the university, which lost an estimated $110 million.

"The irony here is that the biggest losers were the Jews," said Jay Sanderson, chief executive of Jewish Television Network Productions, which is suffering losses because two of its key charitable supporters have gone belly up. "I'm speechless."

Sanderson and others worry about the Madoff allegations providing fodder for extremist rants about Jews being greedy. In fact, the Anti-Defamation League has reported an uptick in anti-Semitic material on the Internet since the Madoff story broke last week.

"When people grab onto a story like this, and in the age of Internet it happens with lightning speed, the haters and extremists among us [are] quick to use it as a headline for outreach," said Amanda Susskind, the ADL's regional director in Los Angeles. "You have the potential for this to be the basis of fostering more hatred toward Jews and minorities and others who are different from the white supremacists."

The Madoff story will continue to play out in the months to come as charities and other groups assess the damage and continue to reflect on Jewish traditions and values. This sad story is nowhere near over.

Picture of the books of the Talmud is from Wikimedia Commons

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