Virtual Talmud

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.

Let’s cut to the crux of the issue: Jack Abramoff is an embarrassment to Orthodox Jews. His rabbis and the religious figures supporting him and living off his dirty money are embarrassments to Judaism.

Lest you have forgotten the way Abramoff–the lobbyist who yesterday pleaded guilty to three felony counts in a deal with federal prosecutors digging into a burgeoning public corruption scandal–has used his self-professed Jewish piety to burnish his image, I’ll refresh your memory with the following story.

In 2000, Abramoff was nominated for membership in the Cosmos Club, an exclusive Washington insiders organization. Its members include Nobel Prize winners and retired congressman and senators.

Abramoff was flattered by the nomination, but knowing all too well just how newly cool he was in Washington circles, he feared the club would realize the emperor had no clothes. He needed some serious moral and intellectual credibility quickly.

So he called his “rebbe” and long-time supporter Rabbi Daniel Lapin, head of the right-wing fringe Jewish organization Toward Tradition and asked him if he could patch together some award in his honor–“something like Scholar of Talmudic Studies,” Abramoff said in an e-mail to Lapin. While Lapin was at it, Abramoff asked Lapin if he could make it appear “that I received these in years past.” Lapin assured him it was no problem.

The story only touches the surface of the sick symbiotic relationship between Abramoff and his “rabbis.”

In 2002 Abramoff founded the Eshkol Academy, an Orthodox Jewish school in Maryland. David Lapin, Daniel’s brother, served as the dean. According to emails revealed during U.S. Senate hearings into the Abramoff-Ralph Reed Indian gambling scandal, Lapin was paid $20,000 a month through Abramoff’s Capital Athletic Foundation. The Eshkol Academy closed in 2004 after questions were raised in the press about Abramoff’s financial dealings with Indian tribes. In 2004, 13 former Eshkol employees sued the academy, demanding nearly $150,000 in back salary. The teachers’ complaint claims that the Capital Athletic Foundation “was used to launder funds from the tribes to Eshkol.” Federal tax records show that various Indian tribes donated more than $1 million to the foundation, which in turn benefited the school.

Behind every corner of this investigation there is another right-wing rabbi or
“observant Jew” ready to “kasher” Abramoff’s antics. If it wasn’t one of the Lapins, it was Abramoff’s other crony David Klinghoffer blessing Abramoff’s actions.

Klinghoffer is a self-described Orthodox Jew who seems to revel in castigating Jews about the need for morality in American public life. Yet, as late as May 13, 2005, this great self-righteous moralist was still defending Abramoff in the Forward. In the artcle, Klinghoffer praised Abramoff’s yeshiva charity, castigating his readers and telling them, “I’d like to see Abramoff left alone in large part because, instead of spending the millions of dollars he raked in on Ferraris and yachts, he lavishly spent it on causes that I think are good and important: an Orthodox high school he founded in the Washington, D.C., area, headed by a rabbi whose taped lectures I have long listened to with admiration.”

Using biblical metaphors and justifying Abrahmoff’s actions as “mundane” Klinghoffer asked his readers to sympathize with poor Abramoff. “His humiliation is nearly complete,” wrote Klinghoffer, “yet who among us would not be humiliated if a decade’s worth of our e-mail were leaked by Senate investigators to be dissected by journalists eager to carve us up like a Thanksgiving roast?”

I am sorry, Mr. Klinghoffer. There is nothing remotely Orthodox or Jewish about your opinion. Jack Abramoff is a blot on the Jewish world.

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.

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.