Thursday, January 8, 2009

In the Midst of the Battle: Madoff and Gaza

For those who read Hebrew, today's Ha'aretz contains a feature article on my Open Letter to Malcolm Hoenlein Regarding Bernard Madoff. Even if you don't read Hebrew, some browsers have automatic translation (which can come out very funny) and at least you'll recognize the picture! This week's Jerusalem Report also quotes me in its article on the Madoff situation, which has become a huge story in Israel.

(You can read all my entries regarding Madoff here)

Last Shabbat, we had a healthy discussion about both Madoff and the Gaza war, all revolving around how we interpret the famous Talmudic verse from tractate Shevuot 39a, "All Jews are responsible for one another."

The question then becomes, responsible for what? For the SAFETY of other Jews - or for their BEHAVIOR? Should we be most concerned with saving lives or with increasing observance?

The word for "responsible" here, ay-ruvin means to stand in one's place, as surety, the way Judah was willing to become a prisoner in Benjamin's place in last week's portion. It points to the notion of interlocking fates, something that also links the ideas of survival and behavior. On Yom Kippur, after all, we repent in the first person plural. The sins of one are the sins of all, and the destiny of one is the destiny of all.

That's why Jews are tied to Madoff in a manner that can not evoke comparisons with Rod Blagojevich and Serbs or Kenneth Lay and Protestants. That's simply not how Jews do things. That's not how Judaism does them. Like it or not, Madoff is one of us; therefore, we must, in some official and ritualized manner, bring about a separation - hence, the idea of a form of Cherem (excommunication). In the same vein, every Jew must feel the pain of each Israeli, whether a soldier in Gaza or a child in Sderot. We are they, they are us.

That formalized separation would require, traditionally, a court of three rabbis to impose it, people who are leaders of the community. It has been my hope that leaders bridging the Jewish spectrum would unite to do that. Until that happens, it is every rabbi, and every organization, for himself. And a thousand resolutions from a thousand board of directors or a thousand rabbis will not have the power of one simple statement, uttered and accepted by all.

For the Jew, immortality is measured in collective terms. If the Jewish people survive - and if the Jewish idea thrives - I am therefore immortal. Part of me lives forever. That is why Jews are so concerned that their grandkids be Jewish, even if they themselves are not religiously observant. Judah is Benjamin and both are Joseph. Jacob is Ephraim and Manasseh. Jacob could die only when he knew that his idea would live on, through his grandchildren. That's why the portion where he dies is called "Vayechi - And he lived."

We must all be responsible for the behavior of every Jew. Not guilty - but responsible. We have an eternal stake in what is happening now, in Gaza and in a certain Manhattan penthouse.

The Talmud states (Shabbat 54b):

"Whoever can stop the people of his city from sinning but does not is responsible for the sins of the people of that city. If he can stop the whole world from sinning and does not, he is responsible for the sins of the whole world."

The rabbis felt that each of us, with each deed, can tip the scales one way or another, for himself and for the world. We are utterly and hopelessly interdependent. All Jews... all of humanity.

Every civilized human being has much at stake now. Every child being used and abused as a Hamas human shield. Every kid hiding in a shelter in Sderot. Every child...even the two cute ones who began school this week in Washington.

So the answer is that we are all indeed responsible, all Jews are... for the behavior and for the survival of each and every one of our neighbors... our Jewish neighbors, and beyond.

1 comment:

andrew friedman said...

Dear Rabbi Hammerman: i don't pretend to be the most observant Jew, but i am a man of faith, and Judaism is an important part of my life. i am also a white collar criminal lawyer who knows that someday, Bernard Madoff will probably go to prison until he is a very aged man or dies in prison. i am writing this because i learned about your call for herem, and it bothers me.

Traditionally, herem was reserved for infractions of a religious nature, crimes that threaten our faith, not financial crimes. that is consistent, in my view, with a religion that places the highest value on life, on community, and on a common system of belief, not on money.

Bernard Madoff's theft has been a tragic blow, particularly to Jewish charities that trusted him. However, i think it cheapens our religion to compare a financial crime to a crime of faith. i think it cheapens our religion to compare financial losses sustained by Jewish charities with military action spawned by Jihadist terrorism at Israel's borders. most significant, your quixotic quest draws attention away from our community's most important need in the wake of Mr. Madoff's theft.

our faith and community are stronger than the Bernard Madoffs of this world - we don't need an unprecedented, unjustified, and frankly attention-seeking effort to impose herem. Instead, we need to rally renewed support for those charities that have been wounded, to focus Jews on the fact that despite the fact their pensions and investments have declined, we still have needy people in our community.

andrew friedman
washington, DC