The news of Jack Abramoff’s guilty plea is, sadly, just the latest chapter in the sordid story of the intersection of money and power.
Going back to the story of Purim, we see how the wicked Haman–the first lobbyist?–paid King Achashverosh 10,000 silver talents to get a decree passed to annihilate the Jews.
Since the beginning of government, those in power have taken advantage of the system to enrich themselves and further their own ends, generally at the expense of everyone else. The irony here is that Abramoff claims to be an observant Jew, even as he was bilking Native American tribes out of millions of dollars and flying politicians to Scotland to help clients circumvent labor welfare laws.
Here too, there is nothing new–a claim to be ‘religious’ while ignoring the ethical injunctions that are a crucial part of living a godly life. This is why it says in Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of our Fathers): “If a man profanes things which are sacred, and offends the holidays and puts his fellow to shame publicly… even though he has a knowledge of the Torah and good works, he has no share in the world to come.” (3.19)
If this seems unduly harsh, I should point out that Abramoff stole not only money, but also the public trust. By perpetuating a system of pay-to-play, he helped contribute to and validate the widely held cynicism about government and public service, precisely when this country needs some idealism and hope that government can be a force for good. And by acting this way while claiming to be “religious,” he drags the ideals of all those of good faith into the gutter as well, turning his offense against other people into a chillul ha-shem (an offense against God) as well.
I should be very clear that there’s nothing particularly Jewish about this story–corruption has no religion. A while back, it was Charles Keating and the savings and loan scandal (Keating was a conservative Catholic who spearheaded a prominent anti-pornography campaign under the heading of moral values while paying off senators to avoid regulation and oversight for his banks–hypocrisy, it seems, has no religion either.)
Jack Abramoff was simply a part–albeit an important part–of the culture of corruption that currently reigns in Washington. And until the cushy system that makes it easy for lobbyists and politicians to cozy up to each other out of the public eye is reformed, we will continue to have corruption and hypocrisy, even a those who commit proclaim their ‘religious’ values.