Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Madoff, Haman and a Demoralized Jewry

I received this correspondence over the past two days that, with permission, I am sharing. As All-Things Madoff continues to dominate the news, the astounding silence of Jewish institutions continues to boggle the mind. Now, as I indicate below, even Elie Wiesel has spoken out, (here, here and again here) - the moral conscience of this generation - in utterances more bitter than we've heard from him in decades. He suggests that Madoff should be made to sit in a cell by himself for years on end and see photos of his victims flicker at him from a screen. Sounds fair to me, but right now he's sitting in his penthouse and ordering room service.

The good news is that it is not too late to generate a response commensurate to the crime. That is also the bad news...because this thing will not end. It will never be too late. The pain will just continue to linger as the extent of the bleeding becomes more and more evident.

In that sense, Madoff is a fitting Haman for our time, one of the rare Hamans who happens to be Jewish (although Haman comes from Amalekite stock, and Amalek was a descendent of Esau - born of a rejected concubine with a rejected grandfather, and therefore, black sheep that he was, Amalek was part of the extended mishpocha).

The JPS commentary notes that Haman's lineage, from Agag, king of Amalek, is listed differently in Greek versions of the book of Esther. He is called, instead, "the Bougaean" or "the Macedonian," rather than the Agagite, ethnic identities that were pejorative in the Greek period. In other words, Haman being called the Agagite does not so much denote lineage as infamy. He so connotes evil that his very name comes to mean Evil itself. No one knows Haman's full name (the text says "ben Hammedatha," but that's like repeating the same name twice. When someone is that bad, all you need is the first name, and that's enough. You look up evil in the dictionary, and you see Haman. Same is now becoming true with Madoff (which sounds a lot like Hammedatha, come to think of it). The NY Magazine cover depicted his face with Joker paint. He is quickly becoming synonymous with evil.

And like Haman, Madoff was completely absorbed in ego and honor, able to cultivate the trust of the powerful through the manipulation of truth and half truth until, ultimately, the end result is a lie. In Esther Chapter 3 (see the new JPS commentary), Haman tells the King three facts about the people, the first two of which are at least partly true (that they are scattered and have their own customs), leading the king to trust what he said. The third claim was the whopper - that the Jews were disloyal. And that is the one that led to the decree that they be exterminated. Madoff also built his case for monetary expertise on some legitimate achievements, but then, once people were sucked in by his buttoned down image, he sprang the trap.

Madoff, like Haman, was all too proud of himself for co opting the powerful - note his behavior, as recorded in New York Magazine when his niece married an official from the S.E.C.:

He tossed an arm around the neck of one young guest and directed the young man’s attention across the dance floor, toward a clean-cut group sipping cocktails. “See them,” Madoff said, pale-blue eyes flashing incongruously in his kindly face. "That's the enemy."

But the gallows he built for his victims will now become a symbol of his own ruin.

Happy Purim!

So now, read this correspondence:

From: Winitzer, Ori [mailto:Ori.Winitzer@us.rothschild.com]
Sent: Mon 3/9/2009 3:46 PM
To: Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Subject: cherem for Bernie Madoff

Rabbi Hammerman,

I don't know that we've had the pleasure of meeting though I wouldn't be surprised if our paths have previously crossed. I am a Boston native (though Israeli born), Ramah alumnus, and currently live in NY with my wife and twin boys. Though not terribly religious I'd certainly characterize myself as traditional, or at least having a very strong sense of Jewish identity. It's the latter that compels me to write today.

In brief, the Madoff affair is a disaster. I believe it has weakened and perhaps even imperiled the single most important Jewish institution, the community itself. Comparisons to other frauds, those perpetrated by non-Jews, are purely incongruous for this reason - they were not targeted at a specific group nor enabled by its very sense of community.

I can tell you that the Jewish world in NY is a demoralized and seemingly aimless place, and this in an already dire period. In this sense, Bernie Madoff has succeeded where so many have failed, only his effort to destroy the Jewish people has been inadvertent, semi-successful and worst of all, came from within.

Almost as troubling as the crime itself is the lack of institutional response to it. How are we, the Jews, not collectively and visibly outraged by this? How do we not realize that our silence only feeds the latent anti-semitism that surrounds this episode? I can only assume that the lack of response is owed to the lack of available options. We cannot unwind time nor will there be any funds to recover. The only thing we can do is remove the evil-doer from our midst, much like a cancer is removed from a healthy organism. From what I understand, various calls for cherem have been rejected along the lines that theft is not an applicable crime (even when stealing from yeshivas and holocaust survivors). Perhaps theft is not what the Beth Din should focus on then.

I am writing because I would like to hear more about the response you received as well as the legitimate possibility of pursuing this. I am quite serious about it, and quite sincere in my belief that as a people we must do something.


Ori Winitzer


From: Rabbi Joshua Hammerman [mailto:rabbi@tbe.org]
Sent: Monday, March 09, 2009 4:36 PM
To: Winitzer, Ori
Subject: RE: cherem for Bernie Madoff

Thank you, Ori. My initiative was never fleshed out to the degree that it became a specific proposal, but I agree with you wholeheartedly that something needs to be done. This is one wound that continues to fester and will not heal. It will not go away. Elie Wiesel's recent reaction
in the New York Times revealed more bitterness than I suspected he would show - more anger than he's shown toward anything in recent years. And he's one of the lucky ones who has had backers raise some money to help recover the losses.

My proposal for Cherem was qualified by the disclaimer that the proper forum for this kind of Cherem would need to be invented. Most prior excommunications have arisen for ideological reasons (e.g. Spinoza, Kaplan and the Karaites) and not because of a crime, unless it was for a
husband who had abandoned his wife without a Jewish divorce. We don't generally excommunicate for theft, but this goes far beyond theft. I found it astounding that some people shrugged off excommunication as something "beneath us" or "medieval" in one breath and then in the next breath they went bananas when the Pope revoked the excommunication of a Holocaust denier. So everyone now seems to recognize that, at least for the Pope, excommunication is a valid and powerful tool.

I agree that Jews are looking for a much stronger response and seem paralyzed while Madoff works on his plea bargain. There are the occasional op-eds expressing outrage, including my own, but that's it. I've been asked what I plan to do next, and while I am relatively well
connected in the New York Jewish world, I'm not sure where to turn. I've already approached major lay leaders and heads of seminaries. Short of my gathering a couple of rabbinic colleagues, to formulate a bet din and placing him into Cherem myself, I'm not sure what else I can do.

Except that I will keep speaking out.

I wondered whether you would consider publishing this, if you have not already. I would be happy to include it on my blog. What you have to say about the state of New York Jewry is important for people to hear. If it's OK for me to include this, feel free to edit as you wish and let
me know how you wish to be identified (or not).

Thanks for sharing your wisdom and your frustrations.


From: Winitzer, Ori
Sent: Monday, March 09, 2009 10:49 PM
To: Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Subject: RE: cherem for Bernie Madoff

First off, Happy Purim. It was the holiday that actually led me to write, as I imagined people replacing Haman with Madoff. There was something oddly joyful and therapeutic in imagining a jeering crowd, a satisfaction which subsequently gave rise to grander fantasies.

While excommunication may seem primitive, perhaps even laughable, I am quite confident that people would find comfort in the end result. A man who steals from charity should not be welcome in a synagogue. All the more so given the deliberate, and repeated effort to rob Jewish institutions. Such a person should not be buried in a Jewish cemetery nor should he be welcome among us while living. He is not a member of the community.

As for a response, I am not long on op-ed pieces. I find them reactive and insufficient. I learned this during the second intifadah, my anger over which prompted my greatest professional accomplishment to date:
http://www.soccerforpeace.com/. That also seemed idealistic and yet, we have now received hundreds of Jewish and Muslim participants, most of which are still with the program.

From what you write, I gather that it is possible to formulate a Bet Din. I have no idea how, nor what the proceedings might entail (a violation of lifnei iver (stumbling block before the blind), perhaps?) but I think we'd both be pleased by the end result. I suspect that the process would generate significant publicity, which I would encourage. The ADF isn't shy about taking out a full-page ad in the Times; why can't a consortium of influential Jews and Jewish institutions do the same? Far-fetched though it may all seem, I cannot imagine a rekindling of Jewish pride without a collective and proactive response.

Finally, I am perfectly fine with you posting my email in your blog or any other forum. I'm big on communication, if you couldn't tell. I hope this is the beginning of a longer dialogue in fact, one that will not be measured in word but deed.

Chag Purim, Chag Purim, chag gadol la'Yehudim...


No comments: