Tuesday, December 23, 2008

An Open Letter to Malcolm Hoenlein Regarding Bernard Madoff

I have sent this open letter to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Malcolm I. Hoenlein
Executive Vice Chairman
Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations

Dec. 23, 2008

Dear Mr. Hoenlein,

I call upon the leadership of the American Jewish community, specifically the Council of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations - which includes both lay and rabbinic groups – to initiate action leading to the excommunication of Bernard Madoff.

Such a move would be unprecedented in the annals of American Jewry, and by its scope and power, perhaps in all of Jewish history. But never before has one man done such damage to individual Jews, Jewish organizations and Judaism itself. His actions were a betrayal of trust of an unprecedented degree. An overwhelming and overpowering statement of condemnation is essential. A clear message needs to be sent to others who might also be involved in similar schemes, to the Jewish public seeking moral leadership and to the public at large.

There have been many who have done more harm to Jews. To my knowledge, Madoff has not killed anyone (update: Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet committed suicide on Tuesday, after the hedge fund he operated lost $1.4 billion because of Madoff). But the foundations and charities he has harmed irreparably will prevent people from getting needed health care or educational assistance, will likely keep Jewish youth from rediscovering their identities and aged Holocaust survivors from recording their stories. Mark Charendoff of the Jewish Funders Network described it to “The Forward” in near apocalyptic terms, as "an atomic bomb in the world of Jewish philanthropy.” An apocalyptic crime calls for an unprecedented response.

But the greatest damage done by Madoff has been to Judaism itself.

David Harris of the American Jewish Committee wrote in a letter to the New York Times of his concern that the Times’ coverage of Madoff had placed a “striking emphasis on his being Jewish.” But the Times is hardly alone in drawing that connection: Google “Madoff” and “Jewish” and 295,000 Web links already appear. The ADL called this a spike in online anti-Semitism. So we have a situation where Jews are being blamed for a crime that has disproportionately harmed Jews. I can understand why Jewish organizations are jittery about anti-Semites having a field day on this matter, but the most effective way to address it is through a clear repudiation not only of Madoff himself, but of the anti-Judaic nature of his acts.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said that in a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible. On so many levels, beginning with that commandment about not stealing, Jewish tradition abhors what Madoff has done. Unless we Jews raise our voices louder than anyone else in condemnation of these acts , we are not only giving credence to all the false images being perpetrated by the anti-Semites, but we are perpetuating what the ancient sages dubbed a “hillul ha-shem,” a desecration of God’s name.

Rabbis have employed excommunication often over the centuries, particularly in chasing down husbands who refuse to grant religious divorces to their wives; but usually the impact has been localized. In medieval times, it was used as a political weapon against alleged heretics, like Spinoza and some Karaites. In our time this tool has lost its clout, simply because the Jewish community lacks unity, and because rabbinic sanction has little impact outside the ultra-Orthodox world.

But Madoff’s crimes cut across the Jewish spectrum - like a hatchet, not a scalpel. Hadassah reportedly lost $90 million; the Robert E. Lappin Foundation of Boston, which sent twenty of my community’s teens to Israel for free two years ago, was forced to shut down. Imagine if all the organizations represented by the Council of Presidents were to come together and say, flat out, that Madoff has done irreparable harm to Jews and Judaism and that he is not welcome in any synagogue, JCC or Federation event anywhere. No rabbi will marry him or bury him. No organization will make excuses for him. He is to be cut off. Period.

The mechanism for excommunication would need to be devised from scratch, along with the precise consequences. There would need to be a degree of rabbinic and lay cooperation that we’ve rarely if ever seen among Jews in this country. We are in uncharted territory. But to this point, the response of the organized Jewish community to this scandal has been tepid at best, likely because many fear the anti-Semitic backlash that, ironically, will only be exacerbated by continued tentativeness. Most of those directly impacted by the scandal were blameless save for their blind faith, but too many traveled in the same social circles that honored this man for all the wrong reasons; too many proclaimed his genius. Those images are what will remain unless American Jewry recognizes that there is something rotten that must be exorcised from our culture and from our midst. Some have said that what we need is the equivalent of a moral bailout. What we certainly need is resolute action.

Ultimately, it’s not because of the anti-Semites that this needs to be tackled head-on. Our own children are watching us. If the communal response to Madoff is concerted, unified and reasonable, this could be American Jewry’s finest hour. If not, it will be the continuation of our worst nightmare.


Rabbi Joshua Hammerman


EpsilonAurigae said...

Dear Rabbi Hammerman

I certainly share your outrage at the monstrous deeds perpetrated by Bernard Madoff. I can understand why you would want to excommunicate him. The eloquence of your statement on this subject speaks for itself. I feel much the way you do. And I am sure that you speak for many others in the Jewish community.

I want to make two points, however, with respect to the Madoff affair and the issues it raises, however.

First, there is a tendency in Jewish culture -- especially American Jewish culture -- to value material things and material success highly and to judge individuals on the basis of how wealthy they are. That is a fact, and a disturbing one.

I encountered this personally growing up in a poor Jewish household in Phoenix, Arizona. With very few exceptions, the prosperous members of the Jewish community, including the synagogue hierarchy, did not give my family the time of day. We rarely went to synagogue, in fact, because we not only had difficulty with the cost of the High Holiday tickets, but also because we could not compete in the wardrobe comparison contest that seemed to be the focus of every Saturday service.

This pervasive and pernicious emphasis on money is key to understanding anti-Semitism in this country and around the world.

It is of course unfair to characterize Jews as concerned only with accumulating wealth, but there is an emphasis on this in many Jewish families I know.

We as Jews need to acknowledge this and do something about it. It is a terrible problem, and the fact that so many knowledgeable Jews in the investment community nodded and winked at what many suspected was illicit activity on the part of Mr. Madoff (most probably thought he was front-running trades and probably did not think it was a Ponzi scheme), is troubling. They seemed to think that if Madoff was doing something wrong, it was OK as long as they got those amazing returns.

Second, under Jewish law, there is no mechanism for "excommunication". Rabbis have no more power than ordinary Jews in speaking for G-d Almightly. And, respectfully, I think it is presumptuous and entirely out of line for anyone to pretend to do so.

Forgiveness for Mr. Madoff requires he redress the damage he has done directly with the individuals and organizations he has harmed, and then he needs to ask G-d's forgiveness.

Given the depth of his crimes, I doubt that this is possible. And his complete social ostracism from the Jewish community is, I believe, already a reality.

With best regards,

Robert Rubin

Michael Schneider said...

Robert Rubin, your personal experiences are your own, but on excommunication, you're fullacrap.

Leaving aside the chutzpah it takes to lecture a Rabbi on what is and is not possible under Jewish law... you're just wrong. There certainly is a way to excommunicate a Jew.

What's more, it's been used, and recently (for a people whose history spans thousands of years), too:

"[Baruch] Spinoza became known in the Jewish community for positions contrary to normative Jewish belief, with critical positions towards the Talmud and other religious texts. In the summer of 1656, he was issued the writ of cherem (Hebrew: חרם, a kind of excommunication) from the Jewish community [..]. Righteous indignation on the part of the synagogue elders at Spinoza's heresies was probably not the sole cause for the excommunication; there was also the practical concern that his ideas, which disagree equally well with the orthodoxies of other religions as with Judaism, would not sit well with the Christian leaders of Amsterdam and would reflect badly on the whole Jewish community, endangering the limited freedoms that the Jews had achieved in that city. The terms of his cherem were severe. [..] It was never revoked."


I'm with Rabbi Hammerman. We need to chuck Bernie Madoff as far as we can throw him, and now.

Best, Schneider

EpsilonAurigae said...

I'm sorry, Mr. Schneider, but I disagree. The Talmud makes no provision for the kind of sanction the Rabbi is suggesting. And I know all about Spinoza. Did you know that Maimonides himself was subject to cherem by rabbis in France?

The word "excommunication" is inappropriate anyway. There is no "communion" in Judaism as there is in Catholicism.

As for "lecturing" a rabbi, I am merely disagreeing with him. Debate is at the heart of the Jewish tradition, and a rabbi has no more official standing in understanding Jewish law than you, me, or any other Jew.

I do share your feelings and the Rabbi's feelings against Madoff. So suppose we create some kind of precedent in which we "excommunicate" Madoff. Should then Jewish murderers also be excommunicated? How about kidnappers? Or other swindlers? Should Ezra Merkin also be excommunicated for pocketing giant fees collected for funneling money to Madoff from Yeshiva University, on whose Board he served?

Or is the magnitude of Madoff's financial swindle what should dictate that he be excommunicated and not others? Then we will be saying that if someone steals enough money, he or she deserves to be ejected from the Jewish community, but that murderers do not. What kind of message is that?

Judaism allows any sinner to seek forgiveness, even someone like Madoff. But certain sins probably cannot be forgiven, and I think the magnitude of his crimes falls into that category. By the way, Madoff will still be a Jew (according to the Talmud), even if he is subjected to cherem.

Again, this is in no way a defense of Madoff or an attempt to minimize his awful crimes. But I do think it is misguided to try to "excommunicate" him.

And I don't think any rabbi or group of rabbis has the authority to do what is being suggested here.

Robert Rubin

Anonymous said...

I agree with your other correspondents who believe cherem is inappropriate. One thing more should be said.

Cherem presupposes not only the guilt of the accused but also the need to protect the community against further damage. That is why heretics are the model for cherem: the community (in the rabbis' view) needs to be protected from being led astray in the future, which justifies the enormous harm of removing a person from our society.

There is little chance that Bernard Madoff will ever be able to steal anyone's mind or defraud anyone, given the likely sentence he will have to serve. Thus cherem in his case offers no current protection to anyone and it does not justify invoking a medieval concept that has been a historical embarassment and that is abused even today by some rabbis. If he's ever pardoned or released, I might consider it then.