Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Jerusalem Post Interview

Transcript of my interview with Shmuel Rosner of the Jerusalem Post:

Rosner's Domain: Rabbi Joshua Hammerman on "excommunicating" Bernard Madoff

A couple of days ago, rabbi Joshua Hammerman have sent an open letter to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. He had an idea: to initiate action leading to the excommunication of Bernard Madoff. Since then, he got many reactions, and was on TV to explain. I'm going to ask him a couple of tough and inquisitive questions.
Here we go:

You called upon Jewish leaders to "excommunicate" Barnard Madoff. Why?

The term "excommunicate" really is insufficient here and, as I indicate in the letter, there is a need to create an entirely new category of response. I used the term because in the past, "excommunication" (or, more precisely, cherem) was that ultimate manner for a Jewish community to express its outrage. We have no such tool today and thus far, the response of the organized Jewish community has been tepid, lacking the sense of moral outrage and betrayal that most Jews need to hear.

Ancient and medieval excommunication was both a political and religious response by the community, recognizing not only a moral failing on the part of an individual but also a communal distancing from God. For example, the book of Joshua speaks of a situation when proscribed booty (cherem) was taken illegally following the destruction of a Canaanite city. The entire community was stained by that single act of greed and they suffered for it.

I feel a need for purification here. We have all been sullied. I feel personally violated. My synagogue's teens received free Israel trips three years ago because of the generosity of the Lappin Foundation in Boston, but because that money had all been "invested" in Madoff's fund, that gift that we received was in essence stolen money. It was no fault of the Lappin foundation, of course - and now that foundation has ceased to exist. But think of all the funds that have been tainted, as well as those individuals who have suffered greatly. The simple act of giving tzedakkah has lost its integrity, its purity. Think of all the organizations impacted: Hadassah (lost $90 million), Spielberg, Wiesel. Even should their causes survive, they are tainted. Even those organizations not directly impacted may have profited in some manner from this money that was stolen from innocent people. Every penny that Madoff ever donated is dirty money. While this disaster can never be equated with those episodes in Jewish history where people were murdered, we've lost our innocence here in another, very profound way. It's a moral catastrophe.

What does "excommunicating" him means in practice - is it just symbolic or do you also envision some real actions that should be taken?

It could well end up being primarily symbolic, but it would nonetheless be very powerful. This is a horrible situation, but it presents us with an unprecedented teaching moment. Jews and non Jews alike can now learn that Jewish tradition states that when we enter Paradise, the first question that will be asked of us is whether we were honest in business. The consequences to Madoff should have meaning, but what would be most meaningful would be a constructive effort to address the pain of those who have suffered most - in particular, the work that was done by many of those foundations (both Jewish and non-Jewish). Perhaps a Superfund of sorts could be created to do just that (yes, a moral bailout). A joint statement affirming the prime Jewish values of honesty and integrity in business, along with the primacy of tzedakkah, would be especially powerful if it cuts across all the denominational and organizational fault lines that have for too long divided Jews.

The idea is not to tar-and-feather Madoff; however, I would personally welcome neither him nor his money in my synagogue at present -and a statement to that effect made by the major denominations would have a powerful impact, especially among those who might be inclined to abuse trust in the manner that he did.

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