Sunday, December 21, 2008

More on Madoff: The "E" Word

My prior entry on the Madoff scandal has elicited some comments that are worth posting and discussing, with the permission of the authors, who are Beth El congregants, people whom I've known and respected for years.

The first is from Hal Trencher, and it comes as a direct challenge to me:

Hello Rabbi...David , my son sent along your blog regarding Madoff...I have read it and reread it, and upon that I am e-mailing you. I think I get your message, but, I am deeply disappointed in your words, including Shylock and Shanda seems paltry in describing this low life human being...and I am quite certain his wife and probably sons, though, they have judicially not spoken to their parents since they turned their father in....think about all the hurt this man has done to people, trusted friends, children in need, synagogues, Jewish philanthropy's, everyday people, and scores no doubt, when you describe this as a Shanda , I imagine you mean, a sin...well, Madoff is more than a sin!! He is vile , and used misguided and false caring, relationships, business dealings and most of all, his Jewishness to bilk them all....I feel so passionate, that upon hearing of this , before it would grow in severity, I wondered how this would re enforce our Jewish image, world wide and it the most poorest, here is where you can come...not as much personally, but of a man of religion, values, principles, ethics, and perhaps most of all, a leader of a congregation, and taking a position of disgust and unacceptability....that is what people want, I know I want someone who sees right from wrong, evil from good and represents what we should / or at the very least they stand for....Madoff gives you that opportunity, I hope you see that too, and express that to the many, that find him an absolutely disgusting human being and gets his just can start with you....thank you for listening...think about, Ht

I take Hal's words very seriously. And he's right. Being mad at Madoff is not enough. As Jews and as moral human beings we all need to express disgust, not merely for the man, though, but for the culture that enabled him to thrive and gain respect, a culture populated by many of the leaders of the organizations he has harmed. And now people will suffer greatly because of his crimes: some may be denied crucial medical care, others a chance at an education. The more we learn about the extent of this Ponzi scheme, as well as the extent of the damage, the more shocking it becomes.

How do we translate our disgust into action, aside from merely dissociating ourselves from it?

It’s not sufficient to say merely that the man only happened to be Jewish (see David Harris of the AJC’s letter in the New York Times– “Yes, he is Jewish. We get it. But was this relevant to his being arrested for cheating investors, or so key to his evolution as a businessman that it needed to be hammered home again and again?”

Well yes, David it DOES matter that he is Jewish, because as one who has been given a place of honor at the table of the Jewish establishment, whose cronies have been equally honored, it means there is something rotten that we need to recognize and exorcise from our culture and from our midst.

Heschel said that in a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible. If we do not raise our voices louder than anyone else, not simply because we are moral but because we are Jews, with ethical principles that abhor such action, we are giving credence to all the false images being perpetrated by the anti-Semites.

Speaking of which, here is what my second congregant, Beth Boyer, sent me.

Hi Josh,

WRT your blog entry on Madoff and the similarities to the Joseph selling, you end by saying, "Madoff is not the first to have sold out his brothers for a couple of shekels."Of course, Joseph was sold at the suggestion of his brother Judah, which brought to my mind that other story of someone being sold, not for a couple of skekels, but for 30 pieces of silver, also by someone named Judah (spelled a tiny bit different when translated from Greek).

It is not unheard of for those who betray people to be compared to Judas, to wit:

Of course, Madoff's betrayal is much more likely to give anti-Semites reason to gloat. After all, it is thought that "Judas" comes from "Jew," see below from wikipedia. Madoff will be in the news for a long time to come, and the news will not be pretty, not within our community, and not towards it.

[edit] Anti-Semitism
Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby suggests that in the New Testament, the name "Judas" was intended as an attack on the Judaeans or on the Judaean religious establishment held responsible for executing Christ.[29] The English word "Jew" is derived from the Latin Iudaeus, which, like the Greek Ιουδαίος (Ioudaios), could also mean "Judaean". In the Gospel of John, the original writer or a later editor may have tried to draw a parallel between Judas, Judaea, and the Judaeans (or Jews) in verses 6:70-7:1, which run like this in the King James Bible:6:70

Jesus answered them, Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil? 6:71 He spoke of Judas Iscariot the son of Simon: for he it was that should betray him, being one of the twelve. 7:1 After these things Jesus walked in Galilee: for he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him. In Greek, the earliest extant language of the Gospels, the words Judas — Jewry — Jews run like this: Ιούδας (Ioudas) — Ιουδαία (Ioudaia) — Ιουδαίοι (Ioudaioi). Whatever the original intentions of the original writers or editors of the Gospel of John, however, some argue that the similarity between the name "Judas" and the words for "Jew" in various European languages has helped facilitate anti-Semitism. He has also been seen as parallel to Judah, son of Jacob, by such writers as Charles Fillmore and John Shelby Spong

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a supreme challenge before us. We need a prophet's words right now; nothing less can help us. I thank Hal Trencher for his faith in me, but I'm not sure that even Jeremiah would be up to this task. But we've all got to try.

We need words like those recited by Elie Wiesel before President Reagan when he was going to visit that S.S. cemetery in Bitburg. He said, "That place, Mr. President, is not your place."

With the same passion, we need to say that any place where Bernard Madoff resides in security and honor is not a place for Jews. No, by employing this analogy, I am not saying that he is a Nazi. I am saying that we are Reagan. Any association with Madoff sullies the person, institution and yes, even the religion of that person. His life has been far worse than a "shanda," it's been a complete hillul hashem (see a defamation even of God's name.

It has been a long time since the entire Jewish world united on much of anything, but maybe it can unite around this. It has also been a long time since Jewish communities utilized the last resort sanction of excommunication in a constructive manner, save for the humiliation of some recalcitrant husbands.

I propose that the American Jewish community excommunicate Madoff.

There. I've brought up the "E" word for the first time in my professional career, and I bring it up as a representative of the Jewish people and the Torah that we hold so dear. This situation is every bit as dire from a moral perspective as the economy has been from a fiscal one. We need a moral bailout, or everything we cherish will corrode.

I challenge the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations to take up the question of excommunication (known in Hebrew as "Cherem") for Bernard Madoff.

If you have a better idea, I'd love to hear it.

Maybe David Harris could write up the resolution.

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