Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Bernie Madoff's Jewishness

I just watched the Wall Street Journal's internet videos on Bernie Madoff. The whole issue is absolutely bewildering. How could he have pulled this off? How much pain did he cause? While watching, though, something else began to bother me. Actually, I was bothered about this before but the issue seemed to crystallize as I was watching these videos. What does this whole episode say about Jewishness is our time?

Let me explain what I mean. If I told you that I hated fishing but all my friends fished, in fact that's all they ever talked about, you would wonder what happened when I was with my friends. Who we associate with tells us about ourselves. So here is Bernie Madoff, heavily involved in the Jewish community -- how did that work? Was his Jewishness also feigned, something he use to secure easy "clients" for his scheme? Of course, people wonder how he could have done this to friends, to people he knew. But my question is about not only his Jewishness but Jewishness generally in our time. How could a conman feel comfortable within a Jewish community? Was that simply part of the con? Or is it actually possible for a conman to be a "proud Jew", wishing to interact with and within the Jewish community? What does that say about our present Jewish community? Shouldn't a conman not feel comfortable with fellow Jews who stand for values that are the opposite of a conman? I have a feeling that while a thief may like to steal from the Chafetz Chaim -- after all this great tzaddik would be full of rachamim and perhaps, sadly, an easy mark for a con -- this thief would find it very difficult to actually spend time with the Chafetz Chaim for the righteousness that would surround the Chafetz Chaim would drive a thief crazy; he simply couldn't take the ethical atmosphere. So did Bernie Madoff hang out with Jews because they were easy marks, he had an in with them, even though he couldn't stand all the honesty and goodness? Or did he not get this type of feeling when associating with Jews so there was nothing to bother him? And what does this say about the Jewish community? Or is there another perspective that we must attempt to understand in order to explain why someone wishes to hang out with a community that challenges his very intent? Maybe a human being is full of complexity? After all, that butcher who sold non-kosher meat as kosher had a family that was frum -- how could he maintain such a personal facade?

Rabbi Ben Hecht


Garnel Ironheart said...

The missing factor is the conscience. A person is able to perform seemingly contradictory acts because he lacks one.
For example, the chasid who sends three boys to jail in Japan after using them as drug mules but who insists on the highest standards of kashrus in his home. Or the financier who is a big baal tzedakah with stolen money. Or the Satmars at B&H who were busted for underpaying their workers.
The thief with a glimmer of conscience would not hang around with the Chofetz Chayim. The one completely lacking any conscience would, because he would figure that if the Choftez Chayim is an easy mark, he'll have lots of friends who are just as easy.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

Garnel, that is precisely my point. If someone like Bernie Madoff is hanging around the Chafetz Chaim it must be because he thinks it would be good for "business". It sure ain't because he enjoys being around the Chafetz Chaim because the whole being and atmosphere around the Chafetz Chaim would challenge his desires. Yet, did Madoff only hang around with Jews because they were easy marks? Or was there another reason that he hung around with them and the chance of feeling bad -- a la Chafetz Chaim -- was not a concern? The guy concerned about kashrut while using boys as drug mules had a reason for his behaviour. Keeping kosher must have not impacted on his use of the boys. Furthermore, hanging out with people who were keeping kosher did not impact on this behaviour.

Bottom line, there is a value in making people who wish to do evil feel uncomfortable in your presence.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Garnel Ironheart said...

Not if they're big enough donors.

Simon Synett said...

I heard once from Rabbi Y. Kamenetsky, based on the Rashi on Vayichad Yithro, that we shouldn't be surprised when we find contradictory values expressing themselves in one person, because as we see from Yithro, a mentsch is a stira (apologies that I don't recall the Yiddish phrase in full).

I think this is important because if we refuse to acknowledge those contradictions within, we may find too late that we've been tricked into acting according to our baser desires, which will come to exert themselves with all the more power.

Best to admit that we all have a yetzer hara as well as a yetzer tov and that they have a funny way of coexisting in the depths of our hearts. That recognition is far more helpful in the quest to be a yashar. God help us...


Simon Synett