The Madoff Madness

May 8, 2009

5 min read


Honor and dishonor in the Jewish community.

It's very hard for many people to have a happy Chanukah this year.

It's not just because the world economy is in meltdown and we are frightened more and more by our dwindling bank accounts and impoverished pension plans. It's because the very meaning of Chanukah today seems to be in jeopardy.

The Maccabees may have won a long time ago, but in the age of Bernie Madoff madness the spiritual victory of the Jewish people over the values of Hellenism and Greek culture remains highly doubtful.

Chanukah, unlike Purim, doesn't celebrate the physical survival of Jews in the wake of a genocidal threat. It commemorates our ability to preserve Judaism at a time when the world around us worshiped totally different ideals. The symbol of the holiday is oil because unlike other liquids, oil does not mix with water but maintains its own identity and rises to the top. So too, the Jewish people did not assimilate.

Instead of worshipping the holiness of beauty, the heroes of Chanukah maintained their allegiance to the beauty of holiness.

When confronted with a culture that worshiped the holiness of beauty, the heroes of Chanukah maintained their allegiance to the beauty of holiness. The Greeks claimed that beauty is truth. The Jews insisted that only truth is beauty. The Greeks glorified the physical. The Jews insisted the spiritual has greater importance. The Greeks sanctified the gymnasium and the marketplace. The Jews worshiped in the Temple and the house of study. The Greeks idolized wealth. The Jews venerated values.

To those who ask how could the Bernie Madoff scandal have happened, the answer can only be that for far too many Jews today the Maccabees were wrong and the Greeks were right. Given a choice between assimilating with a conspicuous consumption culture that proclaims "he who dies with the most toys wins," or a more modest lifestyle circumscribed by Torah and mitzvoth, the tragedy is that so many Jews opted for the former.

It wasn't too many years ago that Michael Douglas won an Oscar for best actor in the movie Wall Street. In the film Douglas played the role of a fiendishly avaricious stock market speculator. To thunderous applause, in one of the climactic scenes of the film, Douglas tells his adoring audience, "There's a new law of evolution in corporate America. Greed is good." Strangely enough, that seemed to strike a chord among some of the very people who gave the world the Ten Commandments that concluded with the powerful divine edict, "Thou shalt not covet."

Due Diligence?

To understand the Bernie Madoff scandal, it completely misses the mark if we focus our attention solely on the one man who engineered this incredible Ponzi scheme. It isn't shocking, after all, to discover that con men can still be found in our midst. What needs to be analyzed is how it was possible for so many financially astute businessmen, as well as organizations committed to prudent investment policies, to fall victim to the seductive lure of a phony who promised returns that the investors themselves recognized as "too good to be true."

Why were they all willing to assume a level of risk that simply didn't make sense? The answer undoubtedly is because our society was making it clear that it was far more risky not to make outrageous returns on your money, not to have a billion dollars if you only had half a billion, not to be super super wealthy if you are only in the to be pitied category of just the super wealthy.

When being just rich isn't enough, the rich have to risk everything to maintain their social standing.

Honor in Jewish life has all too often been meted out only by the measure of financial, rather than personal, worth.

So where does the real blame lie? Bernie Madoff was taking advantage of a social reality created by us, by our organizations, and yes even by our charities. Honor in Jewish life has all too often been meted out only by the measure of financial, rather than personal, worth. Only the millionaire could become a macher, and only the close-to-billionaire could dream of becoming a major Jewish leader or honoree.

Tell me who your heroes are and I will tell you what you worship, goes the old adage. When scholars are given positions of prominence we can conclude that study represents a prime value. When the wealthy are the only ones allowed on the dais of communal leadership we are making clear what we hold dear as our priority.

Ask our young people today what they want to be when they grow up. If they respond, "to be successful," probe a little further and ask what they mean by that. More often than not they will smile and say, "That's simple; I want to make a lot of money." And why are they so materialistic? There is no wonder about that. It is because we have shown them that that is the ultimate way in which we will evaluate their success. Just look at the role models we offer them as the ones worthy of our respect and admiration.

So our best and our brightest have been going off to Wall Street instead of to professions of communal service, to the banks instead of to the rabbinate, to the marketplace instead of to the meeting places of teachers and scholars. And when they make their first big bundle they'll realize it isn't enough by far. And that's when they will become fair game for the next Bernie Madoff.

Catalyst for Change

Every crisis, it's been said, has within it a seed of blessing. The Madoff scandal, with its 50 billion dollar immediate loss and its ripple effect that may well be equally cataclysmic, must serve as a catalyst for change if we are to imbue it with any meaning. The Madoffs of the world must be deprived of their greatest strength -- the power given to them by a Jewish world that has succumbed to values foreign to our faith and antithetical to our tradition.

We must relearn the powerful lesson captured in the story told by the Dubner Magid, one of our most famous storytellers. He described a father in a little shtetl taking his child to the cheder to learn. It's 6:30 in the morning, bitter cold outside. Father and son are huddled together for warmth. All of a sudden they hear music, a loud fanfare, the sounds of a procession in the distance. People are coming to look, leaving their homes, shouting, "The poretz [the Polish nobleman] is coming!" Suddenly from a distance they see a beautiful carriage approaching pulled by a team of magnificent horses. Right near them the carriage stops. No sooner does the servant open the door than out steps the poretz, dressed in all his finery, oozing of opulence, bedecked in jewelry and the costliest of garments. And the Jewish father, seeing this, gives his child a little tug and says, "Take a good look my child. Because in case you don't learn Torah, that's what you're going to look like!"

As we conclude the festival of Chanukah, we have to identify again with Matisyahu and the Maccabees. It was they who looked at a world tempted by the materialistic visions of Hellenism and warned their fellow Jews that if they traded their holiness for the empty rewards of hedonism, that's what they would look like. And we too, if we make the mistake of choosing gold over God as priority, will be easy victims lying in wait, doomed yet again to Madoff mania.

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