Madoff’s Redemption


If you’re an active member of the Jewish community — and perhaps even if you’re not — there’s almost no way to properly digest the Bernie Madoff scandal. It’slike a quadruple shot of cheap vodka that you drink quickly on an empty stomach. You feel disgusted and drunk at the same time.

First, of course, there’s the alleged scale of the swindle. Fifty billion? You can cut that by 80 percent and it would still be an obscene number.

More than dry numbers, though, there’s the sadness we all feel for the tens of thousands of disadvantaged people — Jews and non-Jews — who will now suffer because the organizations that usually help them have been ruined, not to mention the many individuals and families who have lost their life’s savings overnight.

Then there’s the fear of the uncertain — what all this will mean for the future of fundraising and Jewish philanthropy in an already depressed economy, and to what extent the scandal will fuel the fires of anti-Semitism, as well as turn off many Jews to their faith.

Finally, just to add a touch of the surreal, we have a suspect who apparently immediately confessed to his crime. How often does a white-collar criminal who can afford the best legal advice tell the authorities who have come to arrest him that his financial empire is all “one big lie” — and that he has been engaged for years in a fraudulent Ponzi scheme to the tune of $50 billion?

Well, never.

Put all this nasty brew together, and you have a Jewish community that’s reeling with anger, shock, sadness and shame. We can’t speak fast enough to catch up with our emotions. We almost wish the guy would have kept his mouth shut and had his $900-an-hour lawyer give us the usual “my client will vigorously defend himself from these outrageous charges” response — so that at least we would have been broken in gently.

Instead, we got mugged with a sledgehammer.

One of the dangers of being overwhelmed with so much criminal havoc is that we will lose all perspective when trying to draw conclusions. We may feel, for example, that because the crime is so big, our conclusions must also be big.

But let’s remember that there are many things in this story that are not so big.

Bernie Madoff, for one. Here is a gonif who preyed on the weaknesses of his own people and stole money not just from the wealthy, but from charitable organizations. How much smaller can you get?

How many Bernie Madoffs are there in the Jewish community? The truth is, for every Madoff we hear about, there are probably a million honest Jews we never hear about. Madoff may be a disease, but he’s not an epidemic.

Every day, thousands of deals are made in our community, one Jew trusting another Jew and no one getting ripped off. We don’t hear about these, precisely because no one gets ripped off. There’s no doubt we ought to do more due diligence at all levels of Jewish philanthropy, and I’m sure that as a result of this scandal, we will. But let’s not kid ourselves: For as long as there are human beings, trust will play a central role in the affairs of men.

Trust serves as a convenient shortcut for making decisions, but it also serves a deeper human purpose — it strengthens our emotional bonds. It gives us a chance to show loyalty and faith in other people, and when it is reciprocated, we feel a deeper connection.

Complete Madoff CoverageFrankly, what worries me most is not that we will see more Madoff-level crimes of betrayal in our community, but that we so easily ignore the millions of little offenses we regularly inflict on each other. Those little offenses may not rise to the level of illegal behavior, but they have the cumulative power to corrode the human bonds that tie our families and communities together.

I’m talking about the little lies, the hurtful gossip, the verbal abuse, the arrogant looks, the inconsiderate gestures. How many thousands of instances are there every day when one of us will hurt someone — maybe by using hurtful language or breaking a promise or giving a family member the silent treatment? How many numerous opportunities are missed every day to help another person — maybe by bringing soup to a sick neighbor or simply saying something nice to our mothers?

Madoff’s “swindle of the century” is a tragic ethical breakdown for our community, and we should all help to pick up the pieces. At the same time, the scandal can also serve as a wake-up call to remind us of the myriad ethical obligations we have in our own lives and within our own communities.

Our rabbis and educators can lead the way in answering this call. They can start by making it clear to their congregants and students — many of whom will become our future leaders and financiers — that nothing is more important in Judaism than the way we treat one another. Yes, God loves it when we go to shul or study the Talmud or have a “spiritual experience” or contribute to the shul’s building fund. But God loves it even more when we make it our priority to follow the Jewish laws and principles of how we should properly interact with other people.

This is the Judaism of ethics — the only Judaism that every Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Conservative, Humanist, Chasidic, Renewal, Egalitarian, Ultra-Orthodox and gay rabbi on the planet will unite behind.

It’s the Judaism that Bernie Madoff shunned, but that the aftermath of his scandal may reawaken.

Imagine that. Instead of the Messiah coming down to redeem us, a sleazy villain shows up on Chanukah and shocks us into reasserting that great Jewish ideal of learning how to live an ethical life.

If you ask me, that sounds a lot easier to digest.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine, Meals4Israel.com and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Moving beyond charity


One of the biggest misnomers in the Jewish vocabulary is the translation of tzedakah as “charity.” This mistranslation has gone on for so long in the American< Jewish community that it's a hard habit to break. Most Hebrew school kids will give this answer when asked, much as they will say that mitzvah means "good deed" (another misnomer, for another column).

Tzedakah is much more than charity since it comes from the word tzedek, which means “justice.” When looked at in this light, the giving of tzedakah is so much more than charity; charity seems to indicate something we give voluntarily and only to those who are less fortunate than we. Tzedakah, while it might come in the form of monetary giving, is a commandment that calls us to a much more profound level of interaction with the world than just writing a check to a worthy organization.

Don’t get me wrong — there is nothing wrong with writing checks. It’s just that this is not the end of — nor the essence of — tzedakah. Rather, as a commentator reminds us in regard to this week’s parshah, Shoftim, tzedakah is intimately connected to creating a meaningful and just legal system.

This parshah is the call to justice par excellence in the Torah, for it includes the famous verse, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (justice, justice you shall pursue), which, according to Chasidic master Simcha Bunem, reminds us that justice is to be pursued by just means, unlike many of the false, doublespeak pursuits of justice that we have witnessed throughout history (and in our own day, where so-called justice is pursued for selfish ends).

But I am most interested in the opening line, where the Torah calls on us to “appoint judges and magistrates in all our gates, the places that God gives to you, and you shall judge the people with righteous justice (mishpat tzedek)” (Deuteronomy 16:18).

What does “righteous justice” mean?

Commenting on this verse, the great 19th century master, Chatam Sofer, says it relates to a verse from the prophet Hosea, “v’erastich li b’tzedek uv’mishpat, uv’chesed uv’rachamim,” a line about God betrothing us with justice (tzedek), law (mishpat), kindness (chesed) and compassion (rachamim), which we say while putting on tefillin in the morning. According to a midrash, God provides the world with kindness and compassion, and we provide justice and law, thereby creating a balanced and holy alliance. It’s a tangible and beautiful way of conceptualizing the covenant between divinity and humanity. Chatam Sofer goes on to say that “God gives us space to create homes, societies and communities, out of love and compassion, and it is up to us to create them with justice and righteousness, by creating laws that are fair and just for all members.”

This is the true meaning of tzedakah: not charity, but justice.

And in a fascinating connection, another commentator, in the 20th century collection of teachings Likutei Yehudah, says that it is precisely for this reason that Shoftim follows last week’s parshah, Re’eh, which mentions the mitzvah of tzedakah; without justice, there is no tzedakah, and without tzedakah, there is no justice. This is a powerful and profoundly relevant teaching for our time.

In envisioning a world where the interaction between justice and tzedakah is a reality, we are blessed in today’s age to have amazing organizations in our community, like the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which has helped to redefine what giving means. Not only do they collect money, but they distribute it in a way that helps people achieve sustainable development; they bring people — young people especially — to work in developing nations, offering participants a firsthand look at true poverty and a hands-on way to help alleviate it. They seek to reshape the global landscape with just solutions for systemic problems. AJWS and its volunteers do this because the Torah calls on us to be just in our ways. They are living the words of the Chatam Sofer, leading us in our part of the covenant.

I believe that our nation as a whole can learn a great deal from AJWS, as we seek to recapture a sense of justice and righteousness in our country, for one could argue that we are taking God’s compassion and kindness for granted.

Mishpat tzedek, just laws, must seek ways to be as inclusive as possible, bringing people together, not tearing them apart. Until we work together as a human family to guarantee tzedek — true justice and not just charity — we will not be fully living up to the potential that Parshat Shoftim calls us towards. Americans are a very generous people in regard to charity, and Jewish Americans especially. Let us turn our efforts now with as much vigor toward justice, fashioning an even more holy society based on mishpat tzedek, the great confluence of law and righteousness. True tzedakah can change our world in a way that charity alone cannot.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (www.pjtc.net). He also serves as national secretary of Brit Tzedek V’shalom, corresponding secretary of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and on the board of Jewish World Watch. He welcomes your comments at rabbijoshua@pjtc.net.

Right or Righteous?


Have you ever dealt with someone who insisted s/he was right — even smugly so — while actually being objectively, measurably and completely wrong?

Now, let me ask a tougher question: Have you ever been that person? If so, you are in good — and plentiful — company.

In this week’s portion, Vayeshev, Judah marries his son Er to Tamar. But Er is evil, and God takes his life. Because Er dies childless, his brother, Onan, marries Tamar in compliance with the levirate law (Deuteronomy 25:5). Children from their union would “belong” to Er and perpetuate his name, and therefore also reduce Onan’s portion of the family estate. Onan “spills his seed,” rather than impregnate Tamar. When God takes Onan’s life in punishment, Judah sends Tamar back to her father’s house to wait for his third son. But Judah considers Tamar a “black widow,” and has no intention of providing her protection and progeny through a third marriage.

A long while later, Judah loses his own spouse. Tamar finds out where his travels will take him following the mourning period, and waits at the crossroads, posing as a prostitute. She requests his distinctive seal, cord and staff for collateral, until the payment of a kid can be delivered. Later, the “prostitute” who has Judah’s proprietary items cannot be found to make the exchange.

About three months later, Judah is told that his daughter-in-law is pregnant. Everyone assumes that Tamar is guilty of harlotry, since she is supposedly awaiting levirate marriage. Judah calls for her to be brought out and burned for adultery. She sends him the seal, cord, and staff with the message: “I am pregnant by the man to whom these belong.” Understanding the lengths to which Tamar has gone, he announces: “She is more right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her my [third] son.” Not only is Tamar’s life spared, one of the twins she carries is Perez, progenitor of David and the Messiah.

Judah thought his first two sons suffered because of Tamar. He thought he was sparing his third son. He thought she betrayed the family. He had it entirely wrong.

To Judah’s credit, he acknowledges the children he sired and the justice of Tamar’s position. He can’t make everything right; he can’t give Tamar a real marriage or compensate her for lost time and honor. Yet his admission of guilt and fallibility makes him not only more likable, but actually more righteous. Saying, “I’m wrong and you’re right” is a crucial step in his moral development. It enables him to repent and in some way compensate for the greatest wrong of his life: selling his brother, Joseph, into slavery.

With Tamar, Judah is proven wrong by the collateral (eravon, 38:18) he leaves behind. Then — and perhaps, therefore — he is able to offer himself as collateral (anochi e’ervenu, 43:9), and protect Benjamin in a way that he failed to protect Joseph years before. When Benjamin is framed for a crime, Judah, having pledged himself (arav, 44:32) for the boy, pleads to be enslaved in his stead. Only in the face of this expression of love and righteousness, does Joseph finally reveal himself and forgive his brothers.

There is a modern-day term for the inability to admit wrongdoing: sociopathy. A conscience that cannot feel guilt is capable of untold evil. An ability to look critically at ourselves, to see where we are wrong, is the beginning of making things right.

Being right — in the narrow sense of “correct” — amounts to very little, if a correct position isn’t also righteous. Joseph is correct in interpreting his dreams of domination and superiority to his family, but he is also insensitive and inflammatory. He is right again, according to midrash, in what he tells his father about his brothers’ bad behavior. But in Jewish law, unlike American, truth is not a defense against defamation. Accuracy is not piety.

Judah wins Joseph’s heart and heals the breach between the brothers not because he is right, but because he is righteous.

I like to think that Judah, after fearing and ignoring Tamar, learns from her. He learns to question his own position and to treat those who may be wrong with kindness. Tamar is right when she advocates for herself, Er, and her future children. And she is righteous in the way she makes her claim. She could have exacted revenge and humiliated Judah, displaying his personal items and publicly naming him as the father. Instead, she sends him a private message that allows him to preserve his dignity.

Tamar takes a risk because Judah might have let her burn, rather than admit he was wrong. In fact, it’s because she could have burned that the rabbis teach, “better for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace than to publicly shame another” (Ketubot 67b). Tamar is willing to risk more than most human beings to be righteous. She is also willing to see more nuance than most of us. Her father-in-law was wrong, but that’s not all he was. Despite the way Judah treated her, Tamar is able to see some decency in him and decides to trust him. Between the time he recognizes his belongings and the time he pronounces “she is more right than I,” they are both in peril. The exchange between them is a gift of grace for and by them both. Tamar is finally recognized, as so many family members long to be. Judah discovers that, though wrong, he can still choose to be righteous. And so can we.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue (www.makom.org).

Tisha B’Av Today


This week a friend confessed to me his problem with fasting on Tisha B’av. My friend is Orthodox and Israeli — an alumnus of one of the elite hesder yeshivas — and he felt that it would be wrong for him to fast this year on Tisha B’Av.

“I cannot abide the litany of persecution and victimization, which the community reads in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, all the while ignoring those who are our victims not far away in Ramalah and Qalqilyah, Daheishah and Tuqua.”

Within the American context this problem is equally bad. The annual litany of persecutions included in the kinot (poems) of lamentation recited on Tisha B’Av eve and morning are usually enhanced with readings impressing upon the congregation the ongoing, continuing, eternal oppression “we” have suffered. This stance of eternal victimhood, with the whole world as fixed and immutable oppressor easily erases differences in time and place, differences in situation. We in the United States are not under any physical threat. We are probably the most affluent and powerful Jewish community in recorded history. Anti-Semitism in the United States is a fringe phenomenon which, when it rears its ugly head, is immediately swatted by the highest levels of the government. Mistaking our situation for that of another Jewish community in history is dangerously delusional. While those who ignore the past might be doomed to repeat it, those who are stuck in the past cannot see the present, and make serious and costly mistakes that will harm us in the future.

This however is not what Tisha B’Av is about.

Tisha B’Av is the day on which we are forced to confront the radical possibility that we are unable to create an ethical polity. Tisha B’Av is the day on which we must give ourselves an accounting of how “Jerusalem” became a “den of murderers” in the words of the prophet. We must think hard about how all our cherished hopes for ourselves as a community based on ethics and a commitment to social and economic justice can — and at times have — slipped through our hands. How have we stood on the sidelines while we became allied with the forces of injustice, or the agents of oppression.

On Tisha B’Av we sit on the floor, alone; we do not greet each other. We perform the dissolution of the basic bonds of community. For one stark moment we must stand naked before ourselves and say: “How did we get here?”

For this reason I will fast on Tisha B’Av. Davka — especially in a Jewish calendar year that includes Israel Independence Day do we need Tisha B’Av. Especially in a country in which we control resources and have the possibility to allow working people to earn living wages and exist in dignity — or not — do we need Tisha B’Av. Especially here and especially now we need to stop and reflect on Tisha B’Av. In the words of the prophet: Zion will be redeemed by justice, and her returnees by righteousness.


Dr. Aryeh Cohen is chair of rabbinics at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism. He is also the president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

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