Madoff essay blasted, Shafran apologizes


Rabbi Avi Shafran’s essay last week, where he argues that Bernie Madoff is worthy of moral admiration while Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger is not, was almost certain to generate some intense criticism. Shafran apologized today for "errors in both the content and tone of the essay," though without specifying what those errors were [UPDATE: In response to a request from Rabbi Avi Shafran, his column has been removed from JTA’s Web site].

Here’s the full text of his statement.

My recent Am Echad Resources essay “Bernie, Sully and Me” has generated substantial criticism from  many readers, including people whose opinions I deeply respect. I have come to the conclusion that that there were errors in both the content and tone of the essay, for which I apologize.

My main goal in publishing these essays is to help people understand eternal Jewish truths.  Unfortunately, here I chose unsuitable examples for the concepts I sought to impart, failing to accomplish that goal and offending many people in the process. 

I am grateful, as always, for the constructive comments and feedback I received from my readership, whose confidence I hope to retain going forward.

The Shafran piece generated two blistering op-eds in response from writers at opposite ends of the religious spectrum. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, went first, saying Shafran’s views demonstrate "stunningly ignorance of Jewish tradition." Ouch.

Here’s Yoffie:

Shafran completely misinterprets Jewish teachings on repentance.  A few pious words in a courtroom are not enough.  Our tradition sets out clear standards by which the validity of teshuvah is to be judged.  Words of confession and regret are sufficient for ritual infractions, which are considered sins against God; for ethical sins, such as stealing, words must be accompanied by sincere efforts to repair the harm done to the victims, including providing compensation and a direct, personal apology.  (See Yoma 85b, and Maimonides, Hilkhot Teshuva, 2:9.)

Madoff, of course, has met none of these standards. His true intentions are best measured by the fact that he continued his thievery until the day before his arrest.  He has not cooperated with prosecutors in locating stolen assets so that compensation can be provided to the victims. He has not assisted authorities in identifying others who worked with him. He has avoided direct apologies to the victims; indeed, his pathetic display in court was notable primarily for his refusal to address the victims who were present.  In short, based on the evidence to date, Madoff’s teshuvah is not teshuvah at all.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb concurs with Yoffie about the inadequacy of Madoff’s penitence, then goes further:

Shafran argues that Madoff’s initial intentions were good, but that he became "inextricably trapped" in his own machinations. From the Jewish perspective there is no such thing as "inextricably trapped” — there are always choices — and he had numerous occasions, indeed daily opportunities, to end the scandal and thereby at least mitigate the losses of his victims.

There is another dimension to Madoff’s treachery. As a Jew, and as one who identified himself strongly with Jewish causes, he created a chillul HaShem, a profanation of the name of the Almighty, of historic proportions, reflecting disastrously on the reputation of all Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish God. Shakespeare’s Shylock and Dickens’ Fagin fade as symbols of supposed Jewish avarice and greed in comparison with Madoff and his misdeeds. Furthermore, reaction to his crimes not only sullies the name of Jews the world over, it endangers them everywhere. It provides confirmation for the most venomous anti-Semitic propaganda. For this, forgiveness is impossible.

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