Opinion: Groping in the Dark

The swirl of news about the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) former managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was accused recently of sexually assaulting a chambermaid in his expensive Sofitel hotel suite, contains another juicy nugget of information. Strauss-Kahn is Jewish. His wife is Jewish. In fact, Strauss-Kahn was born, like many French Jews, to a Sephardic mother from Tunisia. He participates in public Jewish life. He does not hide his Jewishness. Should we?

Well, that’s what many people right now would like to do. When we read about a Jew connected to a public exploit of a criminal nature — be it a rape, Ponzi scheme or Medicare fraud — most of us cringe and wish we somehow weren’t ethnically or genetically connected. When breaking news of crime is exposed, our knee-jerk impulse is to pray that whoever is involved isn’t Jewish.

Sadly, in the past few years, we have become used to seeing more Jews exposed for white-collar crimes in the news. And in some pathetic and ironic way, we’ve managed to unify Jews under the same banner — from Reform to Satmar Chasidim, Syrians and Ashkenazim, Jews from Chicago and Jews from Australia. What has brought us together? Crime. How else to explain a joke that took a spin in cyberspace recently: “The Top 10 Signs Your Rabbi Was Indicted.” These included, 1) your synagogue charity auction now includes “kidney,” 2) your rebbetzin is suddenly on JDate, and 3) the rabbi’s sermon comes in the form of an affidavit.

But if you have nothing to do with Strauss-Kahn, Bernard Madoff or any other member of the criminal glitterati other than share a religion, why should you care?

We do care, and we care for the same reason that when a Jew wins a Nobel Peace Prize, we take just a smidgen of credit for it, and when a popular celebrity announces he or she is Jewish, we stand a little taller. We are connected by a mysterious bond called peoplehood, a psychic sense that we are part of an extended family with deep historical roots and a moral and spiritual vision. This is not something we give explicit voice to, but it is something many of us feel deep down in our kishkes (gut).

It’s the quiet nod of recognition we give to a woman in a grocery checkout line with a Star of David around her neck. It is the subtle intimacy we experience as a minority people who are experts at the world’s most boring game: Jewish geography. We play it because six degrees of separation is way too many. Six one-hundredths is a lot more comfortable. After all, it’s a hostile world out there. You need to know who your family is.

Yet, just like we’re not proud of every member of our family, we put up with those criminal few (yes, it is only a few) who need to zip up their pants, get a better accountant or have a time-out from Wall Street. The downside of peoplehood is that just like we may feel psychically connected to strangers merely because they are Jewish, we are also connected to Jews who commit crimes in the public eye.

The ancient rabbis shared this worry and created the term ma’arit ayin (literally, what the eye sees) to help people model moral excellence everywhere lest others observe spiritually contradictory behaviors and assign them to the Jewish people as a whole. This falls under a larger legal rubric of Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name. When a Jew in the public eye is morally upstanding, we all bask in his or her light. When a Jew in the public eye tries to rape a woman who is powerless, we squirm.

This is not the same as the Yiddish expression, a shandah for the goyim. When we adjust our behavior because of self-conscious modeling, we do so for the sake of righteousness and goodness. When we worry about being a shandah for the goyim, we care less about what we do and more about what we look like. It’s like being caught in a perp walk but worried that you forgot to put on lipstick. It’s an ethically superficial way of moving in the universe.

Are these just isolated cases of a few Jews gone bad or are they symptomatic of something much darker that we’re not willing to confront? I’d like to believe the former. I’d like to believe that Jewish affluence and influence in the world has presented us with new/old challenges. If we want to make a difference on the global stage, be it in economics, research or politics, then we must move with the ancient weight of Isaiah’s teachings, “Learn to do good.” Goodness is not assumed. It is taught. It must be taught and reinforced in our synagogues and schools and adult education programs. It is not a given.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s Jewishness may not have even crossed his mind as he acted, but his Judaism was not something detached from his identity when others reported his alleged crime. We, the Jewish public, all pay some small psychic cost in pride for the acts of strangers. It’s the price we pay for being in the same family, whether we want to or not. If it is the label others give us, then perhaps it’s time to have a difficult family conversation about raising the ethical bar. After all, when it comes to the reputation of the Jewish people, we’re all stakeholders.

Erica Brown serves as the scholar-in-residence for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her latest book is “In the Narrow Places” (OU/Maggid). She also wrote “Confronting Scandal” (Jewish Lights) and can be reached at leadingwithmeaning.com.