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ETHICS

YOM KIPPUR 5770 / 2009

According to an apocryphal story, Calvin Coolidge was once asked, after church, what the minister had spoken about. He replied, “Sin”. His questioner asked, “What did he say about it?” Coolidge said, “He was against it.”

There are some events, about which our attitude should be easy to predict, and why say the obvious? For that reason, I have never given a sermon about the Madoff scandal. What is there to say about it? What Madoff did was terrible, and the consequences for many people and organizations have been very sad. The past year, however, has included a surprising number of scandals in which there is a Jewish angle. There is more to say about an event than whether it is good or bad, and I want to consider a string of recent events and what we might learn from them.

I am going to start before Madoff, with the banking and credit collapse. Whether or not there were any illegal activities in that series of events, some people acted recklessly, foolishly, or selfishly, and it seemed to me that quite a few Jewish names were mentioned then. Of course, there is Bernie Madoff, with his $65 billion Ponzi scheme, not to mention his apparent affair with the CFO of Hadassah.

In the summer, there was the New Jersey money laundering and organ selling scheme, which included five rabbis, mostly from the tightly knit Syrian Orthodox community. Also, former Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has been shadowed by scandal for a long time, was indicted on corruption charges. I must immediately point out that neither the people involved in the New Jersey scandal nor Mr. Olmert have been convicted, so we cannot assume that they are guilty. However, I am not making a legal judgment, I am giving a sermon, so I think that this little disclaimer about those particular individuals is enough. Anyway, I could find enough other examples of people who have been convicted of crimes; for example, former Israeli Finance Minster Avraham Hirshson was sentenced in June to five year in prison for embezzlement. I have just picked the best known cases.

First, let us consider why there have been so many recent noteworthy scandals involving Jews. One possibility is that Jews are generally dishonest. There are, of course, people who believe that, but I trust that you don’t believe that, and I don’t either. It is also possible that, if you look at all cases of corruption, embezzlement, money laundering, etc., that Jews are not particularly prominent, and that the set of examples which I have chosen is not representative. On the other hand, without assuming anything bad about Jews, it is possible that Jews have been disproportionately represented in financial wrongdoing recently. It could be a statistical artifact. We don’t really know if there have been an unusual number of scandals involving Jews, and, if there have been, we don’t really know why.

There is more to be said on the subject, however. We tend to be sensitive on the subject of scandals involving Jews, because we feel that they somehow reflect on us. There is a famous passage in the Talmud Shevuot which deals with this subject. It is the classical source for the well-known saying, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh” (All Jews are responsible for each other)

In the Talmud, that assertion struggles with the important principle of individual responsibility, and the conclusion is that Jews are responsible for one another’s behavior when they are in a position to affect each other’s behavior. I don’t think that any of us had any influence on Bernie Madoff, so, in that sense, we are off the hook. However, we know that many people wrongly associate all Jews with the bad actions of individual Jews, so, while we don’t have to feel guilty about Madoff and the rest, we understandably feel uncomfortable.

The ADL’s survey of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States goes only through 2008 (and 2008 showed a decrease in the numbers of such incidents for the fourth year in a row), but there is anecdotal evidence of increased anti-Semitism, especially on the internet, connected to the recession and the various scandals which I have mentioned. Some of the posters, with a perverse ingenuity, manage to connect Madoff, the organ traffickers, and Israeli politics.

One of my colleagues wrote about the Madoff scandal, and perhaps also about the financial crisis, that we (the American Jewish community) are partly to blame because we have lionized those who make large amounts of money, setting a value on wealth ahead of ethical behavior. I don’t know about that. Certainly, some people in America, and some American Jews, glorify wealth. I can’t imagine any other reason why Donald Trump would be a celebrity, or why there would be a television program called “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”.

In the Jewish community, the culture of kovod may fit into this pattern somewhat. Many of the people whose pictures we see in the Israelite are people who have a lot of money, because they give a lot of money to Jewish causes and organizations. I think, though, that, for the most part, we recognize that it is the giving part, the mitzvah of tzedakah, that is important, and not just having money. I have said many times that we here at NHS are better at recognizing that ordering of priorities than are some other synagogues. We are very happy to have some generous donors, but I know that, in giving recognition to people who contribute to the congregation, we are very careful to recognize all kinds of contributions, not just financial ones.

I have read opinion columns which connected the New Jersey rabbis scandal to excessive parochialism and inward looking in some parts of the Jewish community. There may be something to that. Some of you saw the film "Hiding and Seeking", which we showed before our first Selihot service. In a shocking moment from the film, the central figure played a recording of a rabbi saying in a shiur, a lecture, that he wanted to instill in all Jews a hatred of the goyim. Significantly, the rabbi also said that we should be polite and courteous to individual non-Jews, and that we should treat all people with the utmost integrity.

It is possible in principle to behave ethically towards individual non-Jews but to hate them as a group, but I have no doubt that parochialism and ethnocentricity make people more ready to cheat or mistreat members of other groups. All you have to add is the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, and that is around everywhere. Let me make it clear that I don’t regard ethnocentricity as intrinsically bad. Without some measure of ethnocentricity, the Jewish people would not survive. However, ethnocentricity is liable to grow excessively, and when the universal failing of greed comes into play, we see things such as those which happened this summer.

I would like now to suggest a few lessons which we should take from reflection on all these unpleasant events. I don’t think that the American Jewish community as a whole is guilty of anything in respect to these scandals. However, the situation seems to me to be like that of our Yom Kippur confession. We recite, in the plural, comprehensive lists of sins: “Al het she-hatanu lifanekha b’ones uv’ratzon, v’al het she-hatanu lifanekha b’imutz halev,” (For the sin which we have committed before You under compulsion or freely, and so on), all the way through the alphabet. I hope that none of us has committed all the sins on that list, but I am sure that each of us has committed some of them, and, as we go through the list, when we come to something that applies to us, we should give ourselves an especially hard klop.

First, there is the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, for money; there is greed. The rabbis recognized that the desire to acquire things is part of human nature, and they recognized that it makes the world go ‘round. In the Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, they said, if it were not for the evil inclination, no one would engage in business. However, this side of the yetzer hara, like others, has to be kept under control.

I assume that I don’t have to remind you not to steal things, but we should remember that deceptive advertising or presentation is also forbidden by Judaism. In the Talmud Bava Metzia, we learn that, in putting out a package of fruit for sale, one may not systematically pick worse fruit off the top, so that the package looks better than it really is. We should also remember that not every check that we write to the synagogue (or other non-profit organization) is a tax deduction. If we get some tangible benefit from the payment, then it is not a charitable donation. If we pay for a dinner, only the amount that we pay above the fair market value is a donation.

This question of taking improper deductions involves another ethical issue which I shall mention, but first, while I am talking about the yetzer hara for money, I want to mention the value of a modest and moderate way of life. In Mishnah Avot, we learn that Rabbi Meir taught, “Do less business and study Torah”, and Hillel taught, “The more flesh, the more worms. The more possessions, the more worries.” Ben Zoma taught, “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.”

Now, I must say, to be honest, that the rabbis also liked to tell about the legendary wealth of Rabbi Judah Hanasi; it was a kind of Talmudic version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I would say that there is nothing wrong with living comfortably, and the line between comfort and excessive luxury is obviously subjective. However, Maimonides wrote, in the Hilkhot Deot, the Laws of Moral Dispositions, that, in most cases, the right path to follow is the mean between two extremes, but that, if we are more inclined to veer in one direction, we should make a special effort to go in the other. Since acquisitiveness is a more common trait than asceticism, I believe that we should make a special effort to moderate our desires to get and have more things.

To return to the matter of taking improper tax deductions, that is not only a form of stealing, it is illegal. We have a principle, “Dina d’malkhuta dina”, the civil law of the country has the force of Jewish civil law. Aside from the contents of any given law, it is a mitzvah to obey the law.

I doubt if any of us feel the generalized “hatred of the goyim” which the rabbi quoted in the film recommended. Most of us deal with people who are not Jewish all the time, and, for that matter, many, if not most, of us have relatives who are not Jewish. I actually believe that most American Jews would do well to be more ethnocentric, more focused on specifically Jewish concerns, than they are.

However, here, in a Conservative synagogue, where many people are more involved in Jewish life than the American Jewish average, I want to warn against excessive ethnocentrism. Last year, when we hosted a regional United Synagogue function, I spoke about the Hekhsher Tzedek project, which is adding a dimension of ethical concern to the kosher food industry. One man objected that this initiative would make kosher food more expensive and discourage people from keeping kosher. I replied that I didn’t think that it is right to promote kashrut on the backs of people, mostly not Jewish, who do hard and dangerous work for low pay and, often, no benefits.

One of my favorite Talmudic stories touches on several of the concerns which I have mentioned. It is from the Talmud Yerushalmi Bava Metzia:

Shimon ben Shetah (one of the earliest of “the sages”) worked at preparing flax. His students said to him, “Rabbi, stop it. We’ll buy you a donkey, and you won’t have to work so hard.” They went and sought a donkey from an Arab, and a pearl was found on it. They came to him and said, “From now on you will not have to work any more.” He said, “Why?” They said, “We bought a donkey from an Arab, and a pearl was found on it.” He said to them, “Does the owner know about this?” They said, “No.” He said, “Go and return it to him.” They said, “But didn’t Rav Huna say in the name of Rav, that, even those who say that we may not keep anything stolen from a heathen agree that, if we find something that a heathen has lost, we may keep it.” He said, “Do you think that Shimon ben Shetah is a barbarian? He would rather hear the Arab say, ‘Blessed is the god of the Jews’ than possess all the riches in the world.”

The Jewish mystical tradition placed much emphasis on the idea of tikkun, reparation. Certain mitzvot are regarded as a tikkun for certain sins or failings. The scandalous behavior of people like Bernie Madoff and the New Jersey organ traffickers and money launderers constitutes a hillul hashem, a desecration of God’s name. Besides being intrinsically wrong, it makes Judaism and the Jewish people look bad. We can accomplish a tikkun for that sin by living lives which are a Kiddush hashem, a sanctification of God’s name, following the example of Shimon ben Shetah, who gave up a chance to be wealthy in order to live a life of scrupulous honesty in dealings with all people of all religions.

 


 


:chavaniceday@gmail.com

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