Sunday, June 28, 2009

In the Matter of our Co-Religionist, Bernard Madoff

Yesterday, Bernard Madoff pled guilty to all the charges leveled against him and was immediately jailed. Although sentencing did not take place yesterday, and will not take place for several weeks, it seems reasonable to suppose that the defendant will never leave prison and that he will probably spend every single day of the rest of his life in a maximum security prison. Like most of you I’m sure, my first response was one of relief founded on the sense, or rather on the hope, that we may finally be moving forward towards the end of this horrific tale of greed, deception, and fiduciary treachery. That so many of the victims were either individual Jewish people or Jewish charities or schools only makes the story more personally upsetting for members of our community, but not any more bleak in terms of what it says about human nature. Indeed, had the perpetrator not been Jewish our outrage would be equally intense, just pitched slightly differently.

A few weeks ago, I provoked a bit of a controversy in our community by saying, possibly naively, that I found the rush to judgment in the press troubling, that I thought that it was especially crucial for Americans to presume the innocence of all accused parties until they are either convicted in court or plead guilty to the charges leveled against them. In passing, I noted that this is not really much of a challenge when we really do think that the accused individual in question might actually be innocent or when we simply have no basis to develop an informed opinion regarding the matter. Indeed, I wrote, it is precisely when the evidence is so apparently damning, when the authorities refer openly to a confession they claim successfully to have elicited from the accused individual (but which no one has actually seen and which no judge has accepted into evidence), when the money reported stolen or embezzled actually does seem to be missing (but only because that is how the story has been reported to us in the press)—that is precisely when Americans must find the moral stamina to presume the innocence of the accused always and without exception. The glory of our justice system, I wrote, lies precisely in the right of everybody, with no exceptions of any kind at all, to have his or her day in court, to confront his or her accusers, and, yes, to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. I meant it when I wrote that a few weeks ago and I stand by those words today.

But now we have moved on. U.S. District Judge Denny Chin has accepted Bernard Madoff’s guilty plea. The presumption of innocence has lifted and been replaced by the supposition of guilt. The burden of determining the correct sentence under the law is Judge Chin’s, not mine or any of ours. But a different burden now settles uneasily on our shoulders: the obligation of asking ourselves how this could have happened in the first place, how we could possibly have created a culture in which a monster—and the word does seem to fit someone who could perpetrate fraud on this scale without regard to the individuals, institutions, or charities that he was risking to ruin—could flourish for as long as he did with no one noticing or, apparently, caring to notice.

The rush to blame that now ensues will be breathtaking in both its speed and its ferocity. The SEC will bear the brunt of the blame, I think, but other parts of our government will also get their share of the opprobrium. I have even heard some attempt to blame the victims themselves by wondering aloud how investors could possibly not have smelled a rat when offered such steady, unwavering profits in a volatile market that seems unable to guarantee anything to anyone at all. Others will blame the banking system or Congress or the overseers of Wall Street. But within the confines of our Jewish world, there is a different question to ask, one painful to formulate and even more painful honestly to answer. This was, after all, a man involved in dozens of ways with synagogues, rabbis, Jewish schools, Jewish charities, and with Israel. In other words, Bernard Madoff was a man exposed throughout all the years of his adult life to the best we have to offer, to the sage counsel of the leadership of Yeshiva University, to the admonitory presence of an Elie Wiesel, to the sermons of a lifetime’s worth of rabbis. So where did we go wrong? How did we create a Jewish world in which a man such as this, a man with no regard at all for the incalculable suffering he was almost guaranteed eventually to bring to people who put their trust in him, could feel good enough about himself to continue constructing his elaborate scheme until the pyramid finally collapsed and there was nothing to do but say the truth? Have we embraced the ritual requirements of the law so excessively that the moral precepts that serve as the true understructure of our faith are barely noticed, let alone embraced as truly obligatory?

A little bit, we all fall into this pattern. We use the word “religious” to refer to people punctilious about kashrut, but not to people whose commitment to integrity in business is unwavering. We define commitment to Judaism in terms of ritual objects—in terms of how regularly someone puts on tefillin or shows up in shul to shake the lulav—but not in terms of an individual’s commitment to decency and righteous behavior. Indeed, we would all think twice about offering an aliyah on Yom Kippur to someone who were clearly and openly not to be fasting, but not even briefly about offering that same august honor to someone whose life is given over to gossip and innuendo, or who is publicly disrespectful of parents or teachers, or who annually gives the barest minimum, not the affordable maximum, to charity. I don’t write here to exclude myself, incidentally: I also fall prey to those errors of judgment, and more constantly than I like to admit. When I myself refer to someone as being observant, I rarely mean that they are scrupulously honest with their employees. But I should. We all should.

It’s easy to unload any sense of even tangential responsibility. So what if Madoff is Jewish—every barrel of apples has a few rotten pieces of fruit at the bottom! When we read in the paper about a Greek-American or an Armenian-American who committed a crime, we don’t suppose that all Greeks or all Armenians are criminal, so why should anyone think less of the Jewish community because of Bernard Madoff’s religion?

I suppose you could argue in that vein. What, after all, does any of this have to do with me personally? Or with any of us, unless we ourselves were among the defrauded victims? In the larger picture, I can embrace that line of reasoning. In fact, I would surely bristle if anyone outside our Jewish world were to suggest that we bear any sort of guilt by association merely because of our shared ethnicity with this or any embezzler? But that’s for outside consumption…and within the bosom of our congregation I wish to propose that a noble, useful response to Bernard Madoff’s downfall would be for us to devote time to considering the ideas put forward in the previous paragraph. We claim to be ethical people possessed of the finest moral values. But if that is the case, then why do we use the word “religious” almost always to refer to people who are punctilious about ritual, but not to describe people wholly devoted to the finest moral principles? I’m not quite sure what that answer is, but I plan to devote at least some ruminative time to pondering just that issue in the weeks and months to come. (March 13, 2009)

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