(UNDATED) Rabbi Peter Berg plans on reminding his congregants this month that the first question God asks when they reach heaven’s gates is whether they have dealt honestly in business.
“The rabbis of the Talmud have always believed there is no question that’s more important,” said Berg, the senior rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta, “because it ultimately gets to honesty and faithfulness and integrity.”
It is a lesson that Bernard Madoff may have heard, but certainly didn’t adhere to. Madoff pled guilty in June to running one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in history. His estimated $65 billion fraud devastated the life savings of millionaires and small investors alike, and destroyed the endowments of numerous charitable groups.
So, in this Jewish season of seeking forgiveness and granting it, the question arises: Should Jews forgive Madoff? Can they?
In American Jewish circles, Madoff is more than someone who has brought shame on his community. He has single-handedly crippled many of their operations. Madoff leaned heavily on his inner circle of Jewish millionaires and philanthropists to find clients for his business, and Jewish institutions are among those hardest hit by his fraud.
“In addition to the practical damage, you have this idea of how can he do this to his own people?” said J.J. Goldberg, the editorial director of The Forward newspaper in New York. “Many people are particularly upset that Madoff preyed on Jews.”
Added Rabbi Benjamin Berger, senior Jewish educator at Ohio State University Hillel, “It’s especially painful and shameful. It feels like we have been attacked from the inside.”
Hadassah, a Jewish women’s organization known for sponsoring hospitals in Israel, invested $40 million with Madoff. That money eventually brought in $130 million in profit, but Madoff reported an addition $90 million in the bank that never materialized. Yeshiva University officials acknowledged the Orthodox school lost $110 million because it trusted Madoff, the treasurer of its board of trustees.
Other Jewish groups have been hit by the loss of major donors and smaller foundations they depended on for operating expenses. Several Jewish foundations have closed due to a lack of funds.
As Jews prepare to mark Yom Kippur (beginning Sept. 27), they will atone for their sins, both to God and their fellow man. In Judaism, the process is known as teshuva¸ or return, and it requires sinners to seek forgiveness from themselves, their community, and God. They must confess their sins, show regret and resolve to never do it again.
“Our tradition teaches us we are all capable and required to stand before God and our community and to stand for ourselves and take our actions seriously and repent for them,” said Berger, from Ohio State. “Bernie Madoff’s sins against the community and all people were so great and so egregious. But that doesn’t mean he’s not capable of teshuva.”
Madoff apologized in court in June, before being sentenced to 150 years in prison. He turned to face several of his victims in the audience and said he was sorry, adding, “I know that doesn’t help you.”
Indeed, while Madoff may apologize, the broader Jewish community may not be ready to forgive.
“There are two kinds of sins we atone for on Yom Kippur,” Berg said. “Sins against people and sins against God. I think Bernie Madoff’s crimes were so heinous, he sinned against God.”
There are some sins that are unforgivable, according to Jewish teaching. One is murder, and Madoff’s scheme may have prevented many people from receiving access to doctors and medical attention. Another is the worshipping of false idols, and Madoff seems to have worshipped money.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said it is not up to the Jewish community writ large to forgive, but to those who were individually wronged.
“He hurt people individually,” Foxman said. “He didn’t go out to hurt the community. He didn’t go out to look for Jewish institutions. The community got hurt because individuals got hurt.”
Yet it is also a commandment to forgive, said Rabbi Charles Feinberg, associate rabbi of Washington’s Adas Israel synagogue. “Forgiveness doesn’t mean you justify and excuse behavior,” he said, “but it is a way to lead to repentance and restitution.”
The ultimate goal, he said, is to be freed. “By forgiving, we can remove ourselves and move on,” Feinberg said. “If we don’t, our anger can destroy us.”
Many Jewish scholars believe forgiveness can bring forth repentance. But for Madoff, the last part of teshuva may ultimately be the most difficult.
“The real way we know if someone has repented is if the opportunity to do the same thing comes before them and they don’t, they refrain,” Berger said. “And that’s not an opportunity he’ll ever have.”
By MATTHEW E. BERGER
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