It’s almost difficult to believe the size and scope of the scandal wrought by Wall Street money manager Bernard Madoff. I knew the story had a religion angle because I follow the excellent work of religion reporter Brad Greenberg at the Jewish Journal‘s God Blog. I learned early on from him that Madoff is Jewish and worked with a significant number of Jewish investors and charities.
Mainstream outlets have picked up on the story. The Associated Press had a nice lede:
The Hebrew word for charity is “tzedakah.” But it means something more, too: doing the righteous thing.
Many of the investors allegedly swindled by Wall Street money manager Bernard Madoff are, like him, Jewish, and for many of them, contributing to Jewish causes is a crucial part of their culture. The effect of their losses on the Jewish philanthropic world is being seen as nothing less than catastrophic.
The story looked at the financial and psychological impact of the Madoff scandal. The article talked about the importance of philanthropy in the Jewish community and which groups would be affected.
The Los Angeles Times also picked up on this angle:
Los Angeles real estate financier Richard Ziman, a member of the [Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles'] board, called Madoff’s alleged crimes astounding.
“There is no greater shanda than stealing from friends, family and those who gave him such trust and confidence,” Ziman said, using a Yiddish term for disgrace. “It makes this country look as though we have allowed the unregulated world of investment to take control.”
Time magazine has an interesting first-person account of how credulous investors were, although there is no religion angle.
But if you find the religious angle to be an integral part of the story — and it is — you simply have to read the Jewish Journal. The staff there are all over the biggest Jewish story of the year.
Try “Stunned local groups start to count losses as list of Madoff’s victims grows,” “Bernie Madoff and the end of the Jews,” “Is Bernie Madoff Jewish? Very. Oy.,” “Madoff’s ‘unspeakable evil’ shocks those who thought they knew him well,” and “What would the sages say about Madoff?”
Here’s a sample from the last article, which is about Rabbi Elliot Dorff’s take on the situation. He is rector of American Jewish University and a Conservative Jew.
What he found most troubling, though, was that for decades Madoff had lived and breathed Orthodox Judaism, and yet he apparently didn’t have a problem ripping other Jews off.
“As a religious Jew, how do you see it being OK to daven three times and day and then defraud the Jewish communities of many cities of their funds?” Dorff asked. “If anything, this shows you can’t be a religious Jew simply by observing the laws. Being a religious Jew must entail being moral as well. Beside the fact that it both illegal and immoral to do this to individual investors–to do it to Jewish federations representing the Jewish community is just unconscionable. What happened to Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh BaZe–all Jews are responsible for each other?”
“Piety,” he added, “is not an excuse, let alone a justification, for immorality.”
The religion angles here are fascinating and a great hook for exploring some of the meatier doctrinal issues in Jewish thought. Hopefully reporters won’t focus solely on the financial impact at the expense of the moral discussion.