Mitzvah and Money
Mitch Albom, author of “Tuesdays with Morrie,” has a new book that is being published in a few weeks, in which he talks about his childhood rabbi and mentor, Albert Lewis of blessed memory. In it, Lewis talks of a Yom Kippur sermon where the subject is death, and he informs the congregation that everyone is going to die. After the service, a man comes up to him all excited. The rabbi asks, “Why are you so excited? I just told the entire congregation that they are going to die.” “Yes,” said the man, “and THAT’S why I’m so excited. I belong to another congregation! I’m just visiting!”
On the day of Ted Kennedy’s death, I was speaking to one of the kids here after services and she said something very wise. “He was very lucky to have lived until he died.” She meant, of course, that he was fortunate to not have had his life cut short unnaturally, like his brothers. He made it all the way to 77. But in a real way he also lived until he died by making the most of each day, knowing, more than most of us, that every day actually could be his last.
Most of us don’t have a bullet proof vest hanging in the closet, as he did. Most of us choose not to live with such intensity. We shove death to the farthest reaches of our closets and our minds.
True, a preoccupation with death and suffering can paralyze us, rendering us cynical and hopeless. But most often it is denial that is the enemy. And denial feeds on itself – we build a huge scaffolding of lies and masks and excuses until it ultimately collapses all around us. Inertia develops its own strange momentum. It’s a momentum that won’t let us move. It’s a refusal to believe in the urgency of the moment, that change is possible and that our lives can have an impact. To confront an ultimate reality, death, we need to cultivate the ultimate degree of honesty.
But Yom Kippur clears away the scaffolding and the masks. Yom Kippur provides us with the glimpse of mortality – we stare death in the eye by fasting and the denial of all bodily pleasures, and then, at the end of the 25 hour day, it shepherds us gently back into the realm of the living.
So let’s not fear looking closely at ourselves. Yom Kippur is a time for hard truths. And folks, we’ve been needing to do this for quite some time. We’ve been talking about mitzvot this week. On Rosh Hashanah I focused on how they are instruments of connection and obligation. Tonight we look at the mitzvot of Yom Kippur as agents of change in the public sphere.
In 1937 in Crakow, the Yiddish songwriter Mordechai Gebirtig composed what was to become his most well-known song: Es Brent, “It Burns.” It spoke about the looming dangers of the Nazis, just across the border. But it really was a call to his fellow Jews to rise up and respond to the growing threat:
It is burning, brothers, it is burning.
Our poor little town, a pity, burns!
Furious winds blow,
Breaking, burning and scattering,
And you stand around
With folded arms.
O, you stand and look
While our town burns.
And today, we are doing the same. There are dangers abounding and we are stuck in a state of paralysis.
There are external threats to be sure, as there were in Crakow in 1937. As Professor Ruth Wisse said at a Hillel conference last year, speaking of the many existential threats Israel now faces, “Ultimately, history is going to ask us only one question, ‘Did you or did you not secure the Jewish homeland.'”
And indeed, we all must search our souls and ask what we are doing to make sure that a precious gift of a Jewish state, 2,000 years in the making, will be with us for generations to come (Hoffman lecture – Bret Stephens).
But ES BRENT, it burns, not because of the Iranian nuclear program or Islamic extremism. We burn because when we take a moral inventory, we come up lacking. The list of al chets we’ve just begun reciting – it is only the beginning. We’ve got to take a hard look at ourselves.
As one congregant, writing to me recently about the Madoff affair, the Syrian rabbis of Brooklyn and Deal and the indictment of Ehud Olmert, said: “I guess the "game is on" about Jewish business ethics throughout the world...now, don't get me wrong, we still probably represent a small percentage, though, the impact of the Madoff affair will be felt for generations, I truly believe we should start to reevaluating our beliefs and who / what we think we are... I think we might be a bit misguided in our personal evaluation of the Jewish people.”
These revelations have been humiliating to all of us. You can throw in any number of other recent scandals that have Jewish connections, including the Agriprocessors fiasco in Postville Iowa. Earlier this month, on the very day that school began both in Israeli and Stamford, which children attend to learn right from wrong, here’s what happened in Israel: Shas Knesset member Shlomo Ben Ezri began a four year prison term for corruption charges, former Former Finance Minister Hirschson arrived at the Hermon prison to begin serving a five year sentence for embezzlement, and the trial of former President Moshe Katzav began, on charges of sexual harassment. And former Prime Minister Olmert was indicted. Four corruption cases, four major public figures, all in one day. Who knew that the expression “Chosen People,” would be meant in terms of a police lineup?
Something is wrong with this picture. If you Google “Jewish” plus “Scandal” you’ll come up with 2,980,000 hits. Even assuming some of them come from anti-Semitic sites, that’s a lot of hits. Yes, there may be a lot of anti-Semites too, but that’s a lot of hits! Narrow it a little, by adding the term “Madoff” and the number is 868,000. In other words, almost one third of the Jewish scandal hits have to do with Madoff. It’s humiliating.
But I really don’t care what anti-Semites think about us. I care what we think about us. And I can only imagine what Jews in their 20s and 30s are thinking right now. They are the ones who need to choose to embrace a Jewish vision for themselves and their families if there is to be any Jewish destiny at all. If they don’t then I will have failed and all my sermons will be like that proverbial tree falling in the forest. No one will hear it. It won’t matter.
But how in the world can I expect people to embark on a Jewish journey when our most venerated institutions have been devastated by greed and corruption and denial, and all the little people have suffered, and even some big people, but no one seems to care! And it just gets worse and worse and worse and no one cares!
The margin for error is so small. One moral slip up in Gaza, or not even, and the world comes crashing down on Israel with accusations of crimes against humanity. And again, I don’t really care what the world thinks. But what the world thinks has a lasting impression on what Jews think, until Jews don’t know what to believe. And they do what is most logical in a free society. They opt out.
While accusations against Israel are damaging for the Jewish self image, the accusations involving Jews and the Wall Street scandals are simply devastating, feeding into every anti-Semitic stereotype that has haunted Jews since the middle ages, when transient and landless, Jews took up the only field open to them, finance. And now we have scandal after scandal, from Bear Sterns to Bank of America, and everyone is obsessed with looking for Jewish names. And there are plenty to be found.
When American Jewish Committee director David Harris wrote in the Times that the media should not focus so much Barnard Madoff’s Jewishness, he was reacting in panic and anger, but his anger was misdirected. He claimed correctly that no one was speaking of Rod Blagojevich’s religion, or Kenneth Lay’s. But that begged the point. It’s not that the New York Times and others in the media were preoccupied with Madoff’s Jewishness. It’s that we were.
The Madoff scandal tapped into the deepest veins of anti-semitic mythology. Journalist JJ Goldberg commented, “His being Jewish is relevant in some way that I think most people can't put their finger on. It's exactly what everybody has in the back of their minds… Jews and polite gentiles don't want to talk about it because it reinforces anti-Semitic stereotypes.”
It's relevant because his story seems to be an anti-Semite’s fairy tale come true. It confirms all the horrible, hateful things we’ve been told since childhood. How do you get two Jews into a taxi? You know, throw a penny in. Remember hearing that for the first time and either running home crying or pretending to smile, or, if you were really brave, saying, “Uh, Joey? Guess what. I’m Jewish.”
“Well of course it’s not about YOU! Can’t you get a joke?”
Well now you don’t even have to throw in a penny! Just throw in 10% annual return – or even less, a letter promising that 10% signed by “Smilin’ Bernie!”
And these sentiments were suddenly released in a torrent of rumination. That’s what we do best. Ruminate. The YIVO institute sponsored a public bull session a few weeks after the story broke, and Pandora ’s Box was opened widely before hundreds of people.
Martin Peretz talked about the materialism in the American Jewish subculture, “with the million dollar Bar Mitzvahs and the lavish Viennese table,” he said, “there's something built in-even the fact that lower middle class Jews feel compelled to bankrupt themselves on these elaborate Bar Mitzvahs.” He was booed lustily by the crowd, Just like Philip Roth was berated when he wrote “Goodbye Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Such is the punishment of those who reveal uncomfortable truths.
Moses Pava, a Professor of Business Ethics, writing in an op-ed in the Forward, went even further in calling out the Jewish community.
“Perhaps the biggest enabler …is the prevailing ethos of the business world. We live in a world that has become increasingly oriented toward a bottom-line mentality. Ours is a culture of money first. In every business school I know of, we teach our students to maximize profits. Good enough is never enough.
Our Jewish communities, which once honored rabbis and scholars, now almost exclusively honor those with the biggest bank accounts. Our students and children surely take note of this.
Bernie Madoff should be punished for his wrong-doing, but we simply fool ourselves if we think that jailing Madoff will solve the deeper problem of which he is just the most recent symptom.”
The Madoff disease did not just infect one person. He was evil. No doubt a special circle of Hell – if only we Jews had hell – has been reserved for him. But he was not alone and he was part of a culture that is trying very hard not to go away. And what is the proof of that? The deafening silence that followed the Madoff revelations from those very organizations – from our institutions and leaders.
The paralysis stemmed from the fact that Madoff was not merely a thief who crashed the party. He was the party’s host. He was the toast of New York’s Jewish elite, especially among the modern Orthodox, although he was not Orthodox himself. As the Times’ Samuel Freedman wrote of that community, “Their leaders and members overlap like a sequence of Venn diagrams. They are bound by religious praxis, social connection, philanthropic causes. Yet what may be the community’s greatest virtue — its thick mesh of personal relations, its abundance of social capital — appears to have been the very trait that Mr. Madoff exploited.”
So when all these institutions were so shamelessly exploited by one of their own, someone so enmeshed in their social circles, what was lost was not merely trust. “The currency is not so much trust;” said Princeton professor Jenna Weissman-Joselit. “The currency is community.”
Communal ties were shaken to the core. But something else was lost as well. The moral voice. The sense of outrage.
Abraham Joshua Heschel said that “we are a generation that has lost the capacity for outrage.” And if that was not the case back in Heschel’s day, with Vietnam and racial injustice - and it has certainly become the case now.
Witness Hadassah. And I love Hadassah. My wife is a life member. I’ve often spoken about how moving it was to spend time in the new pediatric unit in Ein Karem and see how Hadassah is the place where Arabs and Jews not only coexist, but care for one another. From out of Zion will come forth the Torah, and from Ein Karem and Mt Scopus will come Middle East peace.
I really believe that!
But what do I say to those 20 and 30-somethings about an organization that not only betrayed its investors by figuratively cohabiting with the creep Madoff, it betrayed its investors by literally sleeping with the creep Madoff. Go to Hadassah’s site and you won’t see anything about the current scandal involving their ex-CFO’s affair with Madoff. Their leadership has told the press they knew nothing about it. Fair enough. Except that while she was CFO and before she became a best selling tell-all author, Sheryl Weinstein WAS Haddasah.
"Hadassah was shocked to hear the news reports of Mrs. Weinstein's personal admissions regarding this relationship," Hadassah president Nancy Falchuk wrote in a memorandum to board members in mid August. "We knew nothing of her relationship with Mr. Madoff until today, and her departure was unrelated to Mr. Madoff."
Not good enough. Yes, Sheryl was in some ways a victim too, and yes, Hadassah’s current leaders can’t be blamed for the sins of their predecessors. And yes, I still love Hadassah.
But we needed Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu and instead we got a publicists’ idea of damage control.
What they needed to say was this:
This is horrible. We have betrayed your trust, our dear members and investors. We have betrayed the values of the Torah we hold so dear. We have betrayed the cause of holiness and the destiny of the Jewish people. We’ve betrayed the very people whose lives we are trying to save. We were taken in but we are not blameless. There are no excuses. Please forgive us.
There is redemption in such a statement. There is the beginning of a possibility - the possibility of change. Without it, there is nothing but blame and excuses and the scapegoating of Madoff. Excuses are what creates the momentum of inertia. And not since Flip Wilson has “The devil made me do it” worked as an excuse.
This is the perfect time to talk of scapegoats – we’ll read about it tomorrow. The scapegoat was invented for this holiday. But my advocacy of excommunication for Madoff was not so that he would be our sacrificial lamb to exonerate us from all sin. No, it was to do precisely the opposite. The goal was to isolate the evil and identify it clearly, to explain to ourselves and the world why his deeds were so alien to all the values we stand for and to proclaim with great clarity that for such a person there is no redemption. Not to set an example, because this was to be a unique case – for such a person there can be no redemption because the damage he did was so great as to be beyond measure.
I consider the title Jew to be something to be proud of, and I wanted to rob him of that honor. Like Haman, Madoff was completely absorbed in ego and honor, able to cultivate the trust of the powerful through the manipulation of truth and half truth until, ultimately, the end result was a lie. I wanted him to bear the full burden of the truth of what he had done. In the end, no mask was big enough to hide it.
Elie Wiesel suggested that the best punishment would be to sit him in front of a computer screen all day, with photos of his victims flashing before him. But I don’t think that suffices. He saw those victims every day for decades and it never moved him. No, for a person so corrupt and sociopathic, the only punishment that would suffice would not be a life sentence, but one taking him beyond this life: for him to know that no rabbi will eulogize him and no synagogue or Jewish cemetery will welcome his corpse and no minyan will say amen to his wife’s kaddish. For him to know that those circles of connection that fed his insatiable greed were now going to exclude him entirely.
Only then would he realize that there is no redemption in this case. Otherwise he might expect to get the treatment of other supposedly reformed crooks. Jailed terrorists the world over know that it’s only a matter of time before they are freed, either through the extortion of a prisoner exchange or, in the case of the Scottish leaders last month with the terrorist from Lockerbie, a lack of moral backbone.
It burns! Es brent!
But while the Jewish organizational elite fiddled, the Jew on the street burned with anger. And that’s the voice that helped me to see the danger of doing nothing. Thank God I have a congregation to keep me grounded, because I would likely have fallen into the crusty doublespeak of equivocation that has infested our institutions, religious and secular. I wrote that we needed to take a strong stand to affirm the values of our Torah, and sent it out, but the organized Jewish world did very little, preferring to pass the buck while counting up their losses. There was no excommunication, no joint statement, little outrage, just a few choice press releases and a prayer that I would all soon blow over.
I heard from many, many non machers, from all over the world, some of them Madoff’s victims, people with heartbreaking stories to tell. The damage was Katrina-esque. Never minimize it. Our moral levees broke and thousands of lives were shattered. Many homes were lost. People lost their livelihoods, their scholarships, their life dreams, their retirement and in some cases their lives. When Katrina happened, President Bush paid a steep price for being asleep at the wheel. People lost faith in him and that faith was never regained. The Madoff affair has smashed the levees of American Jewish life and it has caused us to lose faith in the very principles of philanthropy that have been our lifeblood as Jews and as Americans. Whether we regain that trust remains to be seen.
People were waiting for action but the powers-that-be said, “Let the legal system do the work.” OK so now it has. He’s in jail, but still there has been no kapparah, no cleansing.
As novelist Thane Rosenbaum wrote, “Among the 11 counts of criminal activity, Madoff will not end up serving any jail time for reinforcing an ugly stereotype — the pernicious connection between Jews and money. He admitted his guilt for committing fraud, but not for defaming Jews, for resurrecting a blood libel with a grotesquely contemporary twist: the commingling of Christian and Jewish blood not for the making of matzo, but for the losing of money.”
As a result, the old canard that Jews are crooks has been allowed to stand. And grow. And Jews have come to believe it. It’s a little like that case that we heard about a few weeks ago, of Jaycee Dugard, the girl who was kidnapped and held hostage so long that she began to relate to her oppressors, the Stockholm Syndrome.
Well, have we heard these Big Lies so much that now we’ve come to believe them and relate to them, and because of it, have we begun to hate ourselves? Must we wake up each day staring into the mirror and repeating, Nixon-like, “I am not a crook?”
So how do respond to all this, constructively? By writing letters and angry blogs? Nah. Been there. Excommunication was a nice trial balloon that became a water balloon. It helped me and others to express outrage, but that’s about it. So what else is there to do? Throw up our hands up walk away? So where will we go to? We are at the edge of a moral abyss. There aren’t too many directions we can walk.
Perhaps we can take some comfort in that Madoff went to jail utterly friendless. Not one letter was written in support of him. Not one of his circle of friends wrote in attesting to his good deeds and fine character. He also spared us a trial, probably knowing that no jury in the world would fail to convict him.
But we are still left feeling uneasy. On this Yom Kippur, we ask, how can we achieve kappara, a real cleansing?
No, the best thing we can do now… is to change the system one person at a time, one deed at a time. They used to say that Jews should have an extra child to replace the 6 million. I never bought into that. No one should be considered an “extra child.” But maybe we all need to be extra honest. Maybe our business practices should be extra fair? Extra transparent? As good as we try to be, maybe this year we need to try to be just a little bit better. If we have the means, maybe we give more tzedakkah to restore faith in our system of philanthropy. We give our normal amount for ourselves, and another 50% to counteract Madoff. If we have oversight over a nonprofit, maybe we are extra vigilant to restore that trust. If we are paying our taxes, maybe we go the extra mile to make sure we’re not cutting corners. If we know of someone who is doing something wrong, maybe we take responsibility to make sure it stops.
At Harvard Business School they’ve taken a first step. According to the New York Times, nearly 20 percent of the graduating class signed “The M.B.A. Oath,” a voluntary student-led pledge that the goal of a business manager is to “serve the greater good.” It promises that Harvard M.B.A.’s will act responsibly, ethically and refrain from advancing their “own narrow ambitions” at the expense of others.
Will that really happen? There’s a Talmudic expression, “halavai,” “It should only happen.” But it’s a nice idea and worthy goal. But the Daily Show gathered some of those students and they collectively stuck a fork in that idea. One Harvard MBA said: "It's impossible to uphold the oath and still be responsible to your shareholders." And another: "I feel that ethics is a really fuzzy subject."
Maybe the best way to blot out the name of Madoff is to blot out his impact, by setting on the other side of the scale so many acts of goodness and kindness and justice and charity and honesty and transparency that it might outweigh even the massive damage he has caused. Maybe we force ourselves to believe again in the goodness of people and the promise and hope embedded in the Jewish message. Maybe that way – that is the ONLY way, to assure that my children and grandchildren – and yours – will choose to have a Jewish destiny and won’t hate themselves.
For our collective future rests on that choice. It is the choice of mitzvah. For the traditional approach of Judaism to money is about as far from Bernard Madoff as you can get. To leave a corner of your field for the poor, that’s mitzvah #44 on the list I’ve linked to our website. Not to commit fraud – that’s #181. Not to cheat in weights and measures, that’s number 182. Not to collect excessive interest, that’s #173. Not to delay the payment of wages, # 184.
These are mitzvot of justice and conscience. These are what we need to put out the fires. Es Brent!
But that requires a restructuring of priorities in Jewish education. Brooklyn College professor of marketing and business Heshy Friedman told the Jewish Week:
I feel that the yeshiva system is partially to blame. There is an obsession in the yeshiva world with the legalistic aspects of the Talmud, without focusing on the practical law. More than 100 of the 613 precepts in the Torah deal with economics and business, yet so little time in yeshiva is spent on this area.
Elie Wiesel now suffers the irony of being once again a victim of a crime of unprecedented proportions, though the destruction of his foundation cannot compare to the crimes of 70 years ago. Still, he picked up on this theme of victimhood running through his life in an interview a few months back, telling the USA Today, "All my life has been about learning and teaching and building on ruins," he says. "That will not change."
He will rebuild - and already is doing that. And while his resolve won’t change, as we’ll see when we hear him at the 92nd St Y next month, his life is living proof that things can change. Society can change.
In the end, as I often say, American Jews are exactly the same as all Americans, only more so. The issues we face in self perception are the same issues confronted by our all Americans following the Wall Street meltdown. If we Jews can find our way out of the morass, we can help lead the rest of America to a future that will truly be enriching, in ways that go far beyond money and material possessions.
So who will lead us from this dark place and toward an era of moral renewal in business ethics, who will restore our pride in who we are and help us dream again about what we can become?
Religious leaders need to play a role, for Jews and for Americans in general. But rabbis long since ceased being moral authorities for Jews. That stopped as soon as we stepped onto these shores. Did you know that at the time of the founding of the oldest synagogue in New York, Shearith Yisrael, they established a rule that if you violated the Sabbath, you got fined? It didn’t work, and rabbinic moral authority that had held sway in the shtetls was a thing of the past.
We need to create a new model now, a partnership between religious and business leaders and elected officials, one that can restore a sense of moral purpose. We’ve seen again and again that the business world cannot regulate itself, nor has Congress been very effective. Only the leaders of the business world themselves can get us out of this mess, but they need moral guidance and support. This rebirth can begin with anyone, so it might as well begin with the Jewish community.
Google “Jewish business ethics” and 487,000 hits will appear. Not quite as many as “Jewish” and “scandal,” not by a long shot. But we can build from that. We can reaffirm a sense of Jewish Business Ethics in this age of scandal, and that can help lift us all out of the morass.
I’ve mentioned Ted Kennedy a couple of times in these sermons, but I want to close with a quote from his brother Bobby, whose words are as relevant today as they were in 1968 when he spoke them on the campaign trail in Lawrence, Kansas.
"Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product ... if we should judge America by that - counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts …the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
"Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."
The true source of our wealth as Jews comes from the priceless legacy that we’ve been schlepping across the face of the earth for 3500 years. We need to remind ourselves that we are the people of the Book, not the people that cooks the books. We are driven to make the world better for our stakeholders, not our stockholders. And our principle stakeholders are the next generation.
According to the Talmud, the first question a person is asked in the next world after death is: “Nasata v’Natata b’emunah?” (Shabbat 31a) Were you honest in your business dealings?
Let each of us be supremely honest in answering that question. Let our signature mitzvah be that whenever we apply our signature to anything, we appoint God as our witness. Let us repent today as if it is our final day, for it may yet be. Let us rip aside the masks of denial and feel the wind whipping on our naked faces.
Furious winds blow,
Breaking, burning and scattering,
While our town burns.
It is time for us to put out the fire.