Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Feedback on Madoff and More From the Jerusalem Post Interview

I received this feedback from congregant (and active Hadassah member) Rhonna Rogol:

Having recently returned from out of town and immersed in dealing with the repercussions of the Madoff scandal for our Hadassah chapter and Region, I'm just now starting to reflect on your proposal, which I think might be exactly the way to go. It is a courageous and ingenious proposition.

So far only one concern, which is the risk of future misuse. How to we prevent the re-insitiution of the cherem mechanism from potentially being unleashed inappropriately in the future for all sorts of moral outrages and by those who would not be as discriminating as you in how and on whom to impose it? For example, I could easily see from recent community hostility and pre-judgment vis a vis a formerly respected community member recently arrested, that some would be only too ready to advocate total rejection and isolation for him---and this is even before any finding of guilt. What about the Herman Rosenblat who just admitted to fabricating a story about the Shoah (so very damaging in giving would be Holocaust deniers fuel for their ugly fire)? Is he a candidate for a similar punishment? Would that be justifiable in the eyes of some? What about the risk of overzealousness kidnapping the process--is it possible that in Israel (or even here) narrow-minded religious authorities could attempt to hijack the process to impose cherem on more liberal religious leaders? You see where I am going with this. Am I anticipating things that are not realistic? (Pls feel free to post this on the blog).


It so happens that this concern about setting a dangerous precedent was addressed in my responses to other questions posed by the Jerusalem Post's Shmuel Rosner, which for purpose of length did not make it into the blog. Here are those additional questions:

3. The organizations of the Jewish community have no moral authority that rabbis used to have in the past. Don't you think that mixing political leadership with action once taken by religious leadership can be problematic?

Here is a chance to build a new lay-rabbinic partnership, a magnificent opportunity to clean up our communal act. For decades, there has been a power struggle based on an artificial separation of “synagogue” and “state.” Where does true leadership reside? Are the criteria based on education, charisma or the size of one’s portfolio? As our society has become increasingly materialistic, all too often equating net worth with self worth, we’ve begun to see an unraveling of moral leadership. Madoff was honored by institutions both secular and religious. In order to create a new standard for leadership, we need to bring together those two arenas and reaffirm the purity of giving and the mitzvah of tzedakkah. It’s important to add that this is not just a Jewish problem. All Americans are guilty, to some degree, of worshiping at the altar of wealth and celebrity. This is not a particularly Jewish problem, but I am hoping that we Jews can now take the lead in forging a solution.

I think this is something that the wealthy desire as much as anyone. Those who have been honest and good, as well as successful – and there are so many – have had their reputations sullied most of all by Madoff.

4. Aren't you afraid that by acting in such way you will be opening the way for future, maybe more controversial, similar actions against people with which the community-leadership have differences?

No question that with the centralization of power comes the real potential for the abuse of power. That’s why I’m glad we don’t have a chief rabbinate here in America. We’ve seen how that’s worked out in Israel. I do not see this as a precedent-setting measure; rather it should be portrayed as something akin to a “nuclear option,” meant to be employed on a one-time basis. The uniqueness of this action would help people recognize the severity and unprecedented nature of Madoff’s crime. This action will also involve painful soul-searching, a process that I don’t think people will be too quick want to replicate.

5. How practical do you think is this offer - and do you believe it will really happen?

Grass roots initiatives have done pretty well this year (see: Obama, Barack). In fact, I see a new philanthropic model possibly emerging from the kind of giving that fueled the Presidential campaign: Less reliance on the centralized financial muscle of the few and a greater sense of buy-in by the masses. I’ve already gotten positive signals from Hoenlein and other leaders that my ideas are being taken seriously. I know they are groping for the right response. People are still in shock. Many organizations are still at the stage where they are counting their losses. Many are afraid that by pointing the finger at Madoff we’ll just give fodder to the anti-Semites. But they underestimate just how much damage he has caused, not merely to Jews but to Judaism itself.

All Jews are representatives of God and Torah. The Talmud has a story of Shimon ben Shetach, a sage of modest means who lived in the 1st century BCE. One day his students bought him a donkey from an Arab in the market. When they presented the donkey to their teacher, suddenly a precious jewel fell from its fur. The students were overjoyed. Their teacher would be financially secure for the rest of his life. But the sage insisted on bringing the jewel back to its rightful owner, the Arab in the shuk. Upon receiving the gem, the Arab said, “Praised be the God of Shimon ben Shetach.”

What Shimon did was a sanctification of God’s name (a Kiddush ha-Shem). Bernie Madoff, on the other hand, performed the greatest act of “Hillul ha-shem” (desecration of the divine Name) that we’ve seen, perhaps ever. In the rogue’s gallery of Jews who have done such a disservice to the Jewish faith, it would be hard to find one who was so honored by the very people he was betraying.

So, do I believe it will really happen? If not cherem, then something must happen. In this case, we can’t just simply round up the usual suspects. If we just let it ride and pretend it will go away, the ones who will go away will be our own people, our own children. They are watching.

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