Sunday, December 28, 2008

More on Madoff: Reactions to My Letter

Since my open letter calling for Bernard Madoff's excommunication was picked up by the JTA and went viral on Friday, I've received a number of interesting e-mails from all over the world, from Jews and non-Jews. I've also seen the letter pop up in various blogs, including one that used it for anti-Semitic purposes. Overall, the response has been very positive, as I believe I've touched an important nerve in promoting this conversation. Most seem to have understood that my call was not to implement an outmoded medieval punishment, but rather to devise something completely new, based on the principles of forming a community wide response to a particular outrage or heresy, one that expresses the unprecedented nature and severity of the offense.

I've heard even more of the pain that has been felt, both by Jews and non-Jews. One person wrote:

Your reasoning in the letter outlines persuasively the horrible damage Mr. Madoff has done to so many people and organizations. One of my Jewish friends has lost her entire inheritance - $14,000,000. She has cancer and her husband suffers from the last stages of senility. Another Christian friend of mine who also has debilitating cancer lost 40% of his liquid assets. He's selling his house.

I am sure you are aware of all the nightmares now afflicting our People and others. Bernie Madoff not only has destroyed the dreams and hopes of thousands, he has decimated the Jewish soul.

On Monday, I'll be appearing in studio on Fox Business News, and I hope to impress upon their audience that the goal of my plea is not to tar and feather a crook, not to designate a scapegoat and be done with it. No, I am hoping to help people recognize the depth of pain and the hurt, the confusion and the mistrust, and then find ways to seize on this teaching moment to help everyone understand what values Judaism stands for. And then we need to seize this nearly unprecedented opportunity to generate a collective response that cuts across all the former fault lines of Jewish communal life. I hope that response can be a positive one, one that promotes compassion and healing - perhaps even including the creation of a Superfund of sorts for those humanitarian causes, Jewish and non-Jewish, so damaged by the scandal.

Madoff is a Jew, which matters to other Jews not merely because he betrayed his "family," but because every Jew is a representative of the Torah's values - we are all exemplars. This story from the Talmud illustrates it best, describing the great early sage (1st century BCE), Simeon ben Shetach:

Simeon's fairness toward gentiles is illustrated by the following narrative: Simeon lived in humble circumstances, supporting himself and his family by conducting a small business in linen goods. Once his pupils presented him with a donkey which they had purchased from an Arab. On the neck of the animal they found a costly jewel, whereupon they joyously told their master that he might now cease toiling since the proceeds from the jewel would make him wealthy. Simeon, however, replied that the Arab had sold them the ass only, and not the jewel; and he returned the gem to the Arab, who exclaimed, "Praised be the God of Simeon ben Shetach!"

There is one other Talmudic story that I've been seeing quoted often lately. It is from tractate Shabbat 31a, and it states that the first question each of us will be asked when we reach the gates of paradise will be: "Did you conduct your business transactions in good faith?"

The other questions have to do with setting aside time for Torah study, with procreation, hoping for redemption and seeking wisdom. But honesty and trustworthiness in business come first. Even before studying Torah. And honoring parents isn't anywhere to be found.

We also read in a collection of midrash: "Whoever conducts his business dealings honestly is liked by humankind and it is considered as though he observed the entire Torah." (Mechilta Exodus 15:26).

It is becoming clearer by the day the degree to which Madoff's actions were a betrayal of Torah itself. We all stumble from time to time, especially in the murky world of business ethics. But this was an all-time stumble (A friend of mine is convinced that he actually slid into this, because, unlike most Ponzi schemers, he had no exit strategy. Possible, but tell that to the person with the cancer who lost 40 percent of his liquid assets.)

Yes, excommunication has been misused in the past (Maimonides and Spinoza, for example) and the English term connotes something considered un-Jewish (communion). But the concept of "cherem" is very Jewish. The idea of removing impurity from the community is also Jewish. So is responsibility to help repair an aching world. So we need to act.

The question is how?

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