Rabbi: Kick Madoff out of the Jewish people

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, religious leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., wants Bernard Madoff excommunicated. Here’s the rabbi’s letter to Malcolm Hoenlein (not sure why this is a job for the Conference of Presidents, but we can discuss that another time) making the case for such a drastic step:

Malcolm I. Hoenlein
Executive Vice Chairman
Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations

Dec. 23, 2008

Dear Mr. Hoenlein,

I call upon the leadership of the American Jewish community, specifically the Council of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations — which includes both lay and rabbinic groups — to initiate action leading to the excommunication of Bernard Madoff.

Such a move would be unprecedented in the annals of American Jewry, and by its scope and power, perhaps in all of Jewish history. But never before has one man done such damage to individual Jews, Jewish organizations and Judaism itself. His actions were a betrayal of trust of an unprecedented degree. An overwhelming and overpowering statement of condemnation is essential. A clear message needs to be sent to others who might also be involved in similar schemes, to the Jewish public seeking moral leadership and to the public at large.

There have been many who have done more harm to Jews. To my knowledge, Madoff has not killed anyone (update: Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet committed suicide on Tuesday, after the hedge fund he operated lost $1.4 billion because of Madoff). But the foundations and charities he has harmed irreparably will prevent people from getting needed health care or educational assistance, will likely keep Jewish youth from rediscovering their identities and aged Holocaust survivors from recording their stories. Mark Charendoff of the Jewish Funders Network described it to “The Forward” in near apocalyptic terms, as "an atomic bomb in the world of Jewish philanthropy.” An apocalyptic crime calls for an unprecedented response.

But the greatest damage done by Madoff has been to Judaism itself.

David Harris of the American Jewish Committee wrote in a letter to the New York Times of his concern that the Times’ coverage of Madoff had placed a “striking emphasis on his being Jewish.” But the Times is hardly alone in drawing that connection: Google “Madoff” and “Jewish” and 295,000 Web links already appear. The ADL called this a spike in online anti-Semitism. So we have a situation where Jews are being blamed for a crime that has disproportionately harmed Jews. I can understand why Jewish organizations are jittery about anti-Semites having a field day on this matter, but the most effective way to address it is through a clear repudiation not only of Madoff himself, but of the anti-Judaic nature of his acts.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said that in a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible. On so many levels, beginning with that commandment about not stealing, Jewish tradition abhors what Madoff has done. Unless we Jews raise our voices louder than anyone else in condemnation of these acts , we are not only giving credence to all the false images being perpetrated by the anti-Semites, but we are perpetuating what the ancient sages dubbed a “hillul ha-shem,” a desecration of God’s name.

Rabbis have employed excommunication often over the centuries, particularly in chasing down husbands who refuse to grant religious divorces to their wives; but usually the impact has been localized. In medieval times, it was used as a political weapon against alleged heretics, like Spinoza and some Karaites. In our time this tool has lost its clout, simply because the Jewish community lacks unity, and because rabbinic sanction has little impact outside the ultra-Orthodox world.

But Madoff’s crimes cut across the Jewish spectrum – like a hatchet, not a scalpel. Hadassah reportedly lost $90 million; the Robert E. Lappin Foundation of Boston, which sent twenty of my community’s teens to Israel for free two years ago, was forced to shut down. Imagine if all the organizations represented by the Council of Presidents were to come together and say, flat out, that Madoff has done irreparable harm to Jews and Judaism and that he is not welcome in any synagogue, JCC or Federation event anywhere. No rabbi will marry him or bury him. No organization will make excuses for him. He is to be cut off. Period.

The mechanism for excommunication would need to be devised from scratch, along with the precise consequences. There would need to be a degree of rabbinic and lay cooperation that we’ve rarely if ever seen among Jews in this country. We are in uncharted territory. But to this point, the response of the organized Jewish community to this scandal has been tepid at best, likely because many fear the anti-Semitic backlash that, ironically, will only be exacerbated by continued tentativeness. Most of those directly impacted by the scandal were blameless save for their blind faith, but too many traveled in the same social circles that honored this man for all the wrong reasons; too many proclaimed his genius. Those images are what will remain unless American Jewry recognizes that there is something rotten that must be exorcised from our culture and from our midst. Some have said that what we need is the equivalent of a moral bailout. What we certainly need is resolute action.

Ultimately, it’s not because of the anti-Semites that this needs to be tackled head-on. Our own children are watching us. If the communal response to Madoff is concerted, unified and reasonable, this could be American Jewry’s finest hour. If not, it will be the continuation of our worst nightmare.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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