by Joshua Hammerman
‘We are all in this together,” said Denzel Washington from the podium at the beginning of the Obama Inaugural Celebration, adding, “which is why the name of the ceremony is just three simple words: We are One.”
Just behind the actor, Abe Lincoln’s marble replica seemed to be smiling at the idea that, a century and a half after he railed against a “house divided against itself,” true unity might at last be achieved on American soil.
But the expression “We are One” goes beyond mere unity, and President Obama seemed to be hinting at that when, in his Inauguration address, he spoke of our “patchwork heritage.” A unified nation can consist of individuals who align with one another temporarily for pragmatic reasons; but with a quilt, if one patch is stained every other patch feels the pain; the whole quilt has been sullied.
There was once a time when American Jews proudly proclaimed, “We are One.” The popular UJA slogan of the late 20th century may have been more a wish than reality, but it resonated fervently in our ears, as if handed down from Sinai as an amendment to the Sh’ma.
As a teenager in the mid ‘70s, I recall attending a mass rally of my local federation, the CJP of Boston. At the conclusion, the general chairman of the campaign stood before the masses gathered at the Hynes Auditorium and reverently recited the following passage:
If I am a Jew I am commitment
To ideas transcending time,
To values spanning centuries,
To faith surviving tragedy.
I am Maccabee and Minuteman.
Rabbinic scholar and founding father,
Jew and American.
I am pain in a Syrian prison,
I am tears on a cheek in Siberia
I am sweat on a Negev brow
I am loneliness in a bare room in Brighton
They are me, I am they.
I care, I give.
The assembled throng listened in a hushed silence and for a moment, I wondered whether this was what it must have been like during Second Temple times, when scribes would read scriptural passages to the people.
The rebellious teen cynic in me doubted that very many of them actually felt the pain of Soviet Jews or the elderly in Brighton. But I never doubted that for many of them, this passage expressed the essence of their Judaism: vicarious, tragic and joyless, not-too Jewish but all-American, guilt-ridden and philanthropy driven. I still believe that my critique was spot-on, but now, looking back, I may have underestimated the power of One.
For in fact, when everything else has fallen away – Sabbath observance, Hebrew language, when even the Yahrzeit candles remain unlit, that sense of utter interdependence remains. “We are One” lives on. When a plane crashes in the Hudson, we still look for Jewish names. When Bill Moyers lambastes Israel, we react as if he is coming after our mother with a machete. The kind of interdependence Obama seeks is a Oneness that we Jews have enjoyed for centuries.
Which is why it matters that Bernie Madoff is Jewish.
Some have complained that Madoff should not be lumped together with Jews, just as Rod Blagojevich is not considered a Serb or Kenneth Lay a Protestant. But the analogy doesn’t hold. Like it or not, if “We are One,” Madoff is One with us. His filthy patch stains our quilt.
When the Talmud states, “All Jews are responsible for one another,” it speaks in the language of “We are One.” The proof text from Genesis involves Judah’s willingness to become Joseph’s prisoner in Benjamin’s stead. One patch for another, each part serving a greater whole.
Over the centuries, it has become clear that this responsibility extends to both the safety and behavior of our fellow Jews. We pay a huge bounty to ransom our captives, and every Yom Kippur, we ask forgiveness for everyone’s sins. The sins of one are the sins of all, and the destiny of one is the destiny of all. Do Serbs repent in the first person plural? Do Protestants routinely return hundreds of potential terrorists for the body of one dead soldier?
For the Jew, immortality and identity are measured primarily in collective terms. If the Jewish people and ideals survive, part of me lives forever. That is why Jews are so concerned that their grandkids be Jewish, even if they themselves are not religiously observant.
The Talmud states (Shabbat 54b): “Whoever can stop the people of his city from sinning but does not is responsible for the sins of the people of that city.” The rabbis felt that each of us, with each deed, can tip the scales one way or another, for himself and for the world. We are utterly and hopelessly interdependent. There’s no escaping it.
For this, and for many other reasons, it is vital that the organized Jewish world respond to Madoff with a formal separation. My proposal for excommunication has been making the rounds, but really, the details aren’t what’s important here. We can model it after the traditional ban or we can create something entirely new. It has been my hope that leaders bridging the Jewish spectrum would unite to figure it out. Until that happens, it is everyone for himself, and a thousand resolutions from a thousand thumb-twiddling boards or brimstone-flinging rabbis will not have the power of one simple statement, uttered and accepted by all.
Until that happens, we’ll continue read the lovely headline, “Jews Ruminate.” We can ruminate until the ruminants come home, but until we do something, our fabulous mosaic of a quilt just gets dirtier and dirtier.
A joint declaration of why Madoff’s heinous crimes are so anathema to our value system would go a long way to restoring trust in our leaders, in our agencies and in the purity of philanthropy itself. A symbolic gesture, perhaps, but a little symbolism can go a long way — to make us whole.
We Are One...
Except for you, Bernie!