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Eliyahu Stern, an Orthodox rabbi, should take a few deep breaths, relax, and contemplate before rushing out with another condemnation of someone else’s sincerity or good faith as an Orthodox Jew. I’m confident that if he does this, he’ll realize that he has himself forgotten to apply an important Torah principle–which I’ll freely admit I often forget about, so I know how hard it is to keep in mind.

In Leviticus, we are commanded: “With righteousness shall you judge your fellow” (19:15). The classical medieval exegete Rashi explains that the verse has a crucial meaning beyond the obvious. Namely, we must be “dan l’kaf zechut“–that is, judge on the side of merit, give the benefit of the doubt. This is the case when we can afford to do so, but not when we can’t. In other words, if judging charitably would potentially hurt me–for example, if I’m considering going into business with a person rumored to be a crook–then I’m not required to be dan l’kaf zechut. God doesn’t ask me to be a sucker. But where it costs me nothing, I am certainly obligated to judge every individual favorably.

Rabbi Stern casts down righteous indignation upon me, as well as on my friend and teacher Rabbi Daniel Lapin, because we gave Jack Abramoff the benefit of the doubt, at least until Abramoff admitted to crimes that will likely send him to prison for years. Since judging Abramoff favorably till his legal case was resolved cost me nothing, I don’t see how, ethically, I could have done anything else. I could leave my reply at that, because that really is all that needs to be said. However let me try to clear up some misunderstandings in Rabbi Stern’s post.

Stern calls Jack Abramoff an “embarrassment to Orthodox Jews.” Why should we be embarrassed? Are we supposed to be so naive and childish as to think that no one wearing a kippah will ever act in an unethical manner and end up in the news columns for it? Am I supposed to be embarrassed that Orthodox Jews are human too?

Rabbi Stern with a straight face castigates Rabbi Lapin for “assuring” Abramoff in an email that giving him a degree as a “Scholar of Talmudic Studies” would be “no problem.” If you actually read their email exchange, it’s obvious Lapin was replying with tongue in cheek–which is proved by the fact that Toward Tradition never awarded Abramoff any supposed Talmudic degree, rabbinic ordination, or anything similar. But this sidesteps the more basic question: Who cares about Abramoff’s ambition to join a fancy-pants Washington social club, the Cosmos? If he had been admitted with a trumped-up rabbinic degree or whatever, is this something that should evoke our anguish, amounting to a “sick symbiotic relationship,” as Rabbi Stern writes? Give me a break.

In any case, no one sought to “kasher” Abramoff’s actions, or “bless” them. In my Forward column, I simply admitted I had an interest in the matter (Abramoff supported some good causes, including Republican ones) and I asked why his supposedly disinterested critics couldn’t admit that they themselves also have an interest (in seeing Republicans humiliated). Jack Abramoff has admitted his guilt, but I felt then and still feel that he is being made a scapegoat, sacrificed to assuage the guilt of many in government who have been compromised by dependence on gambling money.

Abramoff was never my “crony”–though I met him twice and liked him. He was a gracious host when I spent the Jewish holiday of Sukkot in his home about 10 years ago. The next time we met, I was presenting a plan for a potential new Jewish magazine to some possible funders. Abramoff was there and argued for funding something else.

In calling me a “crony,” Stern tries to blacken me by implication. How ethical is that?

Finally, please note that I don’t offer my opinions as “Orthodox,” merely as my own interpretation of events and of Jewish texts. I’m a journalist, not a rabbi like Eliyahu Stern.

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