Should Mrs. Madoff have reported Bernie?


Question: Should Mrs. Madoff have reported Bernie? What does Jewish law say about her obligations?

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Ruth knew about the Ponzi scheme and that Bernie’s crimes were committed while of sound mind and body. From the public record there is little information about Bernie’s mental state – aside from indications he is a grade-A sociopath, of course.

So should Ruth have blown the whistle on Bernie? By all means.

Family loyalty cuts deep in Jewish tradition, but not that deep.

While there are cases in the Talmud where even an abusive parent may still be honored by a child, thereby fulfilling the fifth commandment, honoring might better be accomplished by checking that parent into the nearest rehab facility. Sometimes the best way to show love for someone is to help that person kick an annoying habit, like, say, stealing fifty billion from unwitting retirees and Hadassah ladies. Maybe after the first twenty billion or so, Ruth might have done her hubby a favor and called officials at the S.E.C. (who would undoubtedly have ignored her, but that’s another matter).

There is no fifth commandment for honoring a spouse, but shalom bayit (peace in the home) was something that the rabbis took very seriously. Spousal abuse was shockingly tolerated by early authorities (even by Maimonides, who advocated wife beating as an acceptable form of discipline), but it thankfully fell out of favor by the 12th century and has since become prime grounds for divorce. It can be argued that, in drawing his wife into his web of deceit, Bernie’s actions constituted a form of spousal abuse, even as Ruth was being "battered" with yachts, mansions and other ill-gotten riches.

So the question is then not whether she should have blown the whistle, but how.

When it comes to matters of the tongue, the sage Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaCohen Kagen, A.K.A. the Chafetz Chayim , is the supreme authority. Mr. I-Hate-Gossip is one of the few authorities of the past few centuries revered across the board, by Jews from all denominations. He recommended a seven step process that should be followed before publicly reporting someone for defrauding or stealing. Ruth could have followed this game plan:

1) The crime should be personally witnessed, not based on hearsay. (No problem there.)

2) The reporter needs to be certain it was really theft. (The name Madoff has now become synonymous with theft)

3) There needs to first be a gentle and private rebuke (I’d have loved to be a fly on the wall in the Madoff bedroom when that was done).

4) There can be no exaggeration of the crime (Precisely).

5) The snitcher needs to examine his or her own motives in reporting the snitchee (No problem here. Ruth had everything to lose in reporting Bernie- and even if she hated him, his crimes were too great to ignore)

6) Can the crime be undone in some manner other than blowing the whistle? (In a word, no.)

7) The reporting should not result in any more damage to the culprit than he would have received from a fair trial. (In this case, it would have led to a trial).

If Ruth needed other sources as incentive to justify singing to the authorities, she could have cited the commandment not to "stand idly by the blood of our neighbor," which Maimonides extended to cases of financial risk.

And then there is the old standby, Pikuach Nefesh, which suggests almost any measure can be taken when a life is in danger. Madoff’s crime has undoubtedly shortened lives, including most notably Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, who committed suicide in the wake of the scandal.

Neither Jewish law nor I advocate the creation of a Stalinist society in which people routinely turn in family members for supposed crimes against the state. But there was absolutely nothing routine about this crime.

Ruth should have snitched.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read his blog here, and follow him on Twitter.
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