What Jack Abramoff did is a shanda. It is unethical and illegal. On top of the laundry list of legal counts against him, Abramoff used racist and defamatory language about his Native American clients. Nice Jewish boys shouldn’t do such things, because it is just plain wrong; because, historically, the actions of any one Jew can be misused to reflect poorly on Judaism and the Jewish community; and because he should know better as a member of a People who have all too often been similarly defamed. That he presented himself as a nice Jewish boy just makes the shanda all the worse.
The biggest shanda, though, is that he didn’t have a sense of the shanda value of what he was doing. If he did, he wouldn’t have done it.
A story is told about a young boy who hitched a ride with a wagoneer on his way to Warsaw. Along the way, the wagoneer passed a field of hay. He stopped the wagon and asked the boy to call him if he saw anyone because he wanted to take some of the hay while no one was looking. As soon as the man reached the field, the young boy began hollering. The wagoneer raced out of the field, hopped onto the wagon and urged his horses into a gallop. After seeing that no one was following, the wagoneer slowed down and, turning to the boy, asked who had seen him in the field. The young boy answered with only one word: “God.”
It is not enough to be concerned about the shanda value of doing something only if one gets caught. Then, like Jack Abramoff, or the wagoneer, you can try to get away with something as long as you think no one knows or can catch you or cares enough to protest it. There is a shanda test that each of us is held to in our public and private lives, by God if not by our neighbors, co-workers, or co-conspirators: whether we do the right thing even when no one is looking. Jack Abramoff failed that test long before he was caught, as did all those who profited along with him.