He was all of Joseph’s brothers rolled into one.
He, of course, is Bernie Madoff. And his alleged betrayal of his financial brothers, so to speak, seems biblical in proportion — perhaps $50 billion, much of it from Madoff’s friends, people he had recruited from the country clubs of Palm Beach, Fla., and Long Island and the pews of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue, among other places.
For area rabbis, some of whom had in their pews last Shabbat those who had significant investments with Madoff, the week’s Torah portion about Joseph and the envy of his brothers proved to be the perfect lesson-drawing metaphor.
The rabbis at ground zero of the scandal — Fifth Avenue and Congregation Kehillath Jeshurun — were mum to reporters. KJ,
as it is known, lost several million dollars it had invested with Madoff, and Fifth Avenue, whose members reportedly lost some $2 billion collectively, was the home shul of Madoff as well as Elie Wiesel, whose humanitarian foundation was hit hard by Madoff’s alleged Ponzi scheme.
But other rabbis found moral parallels in the Joseph story.
“His brothers threw him into a pit, and then sat down and had a meal,” said Rabbi Steven Moskowitz, spiritual leader of the Jewish Congregation of Brookville, L.I.
The brothers’ callousness is reminiscent of the actions of Madoff, the Reform rabbi suggested, because he “stole from his family and from friends and charities. … Part of the lesson of the Torah is that this is a part of human nature [and] we have a certain responsibility to those that have been thrown in the pit, so to speak — the charities and the friends.
“There is always a tendency for people in hard times to say he is not my brother,” Rabbi Moskowitz continued. “But part of the scandal is that we can no longer say that because these are friends of ours and charities we support. It is our brother who is sitting in the pit.”
Rabbi Howard Stecker of Temple Israel in Great Neck, L.I., which is Conservative, spoke of what happened to Joseph after he was lifted out of the pit and sold into slavery.
“Over the next several weeks we will read of how the brothers learned that they are accountable for each other and that they need to be able to rely on each other,” he said. “We are dealing with situations in which Madoff disregarded the responsibility he had towards all of the people who placed their trust in him.”
He noted that a “tremendous amount of good had been done based on people’s investments with Madoff, and a tremendous amount of good is now going to be curtailed. He betrayed the trust of countless people.”
Just as Joseph’s brothers learned that they are responsible for each other, Rabbi Stecker said such responsibility is crucial not only for those who handle other people’s investments but those who are entrusted with people’s “health and spiritual well being.”
Asked what the Madoff scandal says about trust, Rabbi Stecker said: “The rabbinic statement says that we should respect but also suspect one another. We need to be careful and have a healthy skepticism.”
Rabbi Howard Buechler, spiritual leader of the Dix Hills (L.I.) Jewish Center, also Conservative, compared the biblical Joseph to Madoff.
“Joseph’s is a rags-to-riches story, one in which Joseph learns from his mistakes and becomes the one who ennobles humanity by giving and sharing,” he said. “In contrast to the righteousness of Joseph, we see that Bernie Madoff, having already admitted his guilt, displays an arrogant contempt for his fellow human beings. To defraud friends, family, Jewish philanthropic organizations and institutions in the process of his illegal and immoral actions is shameless. Where Joseph learned from his mistakes, Bernie Madoff fed on his mistakes and became a parasite to those around him.
“Joseph was exploited and transcended a childhood filled with abuse and abusiveness to become an individual who learned to care and love. Bernie Madoff, as the reports indicate, simply abused people and exploited power and has devastated the lives of countless individuals around the world. And that is a shonda. … Joseph is remembered as a tzadik, a righteous man. Bernie Madoff’s name sadly will be synonymous with vile economic exploitation.”
Several rabbis stressed that those who were swindled by Madoff should be seen as victims.
“They were not greedy, they were just trying to make a good investment,” said Rabbi Paul Kushner, spiritual leader of Shaarei Sholom East Bay Reform Temple in Merrick, L.I. “What fascinates me is that you couldn’t invest with Madoff unless you had an in. He was selective in whom he fleeced. It’s like all the nightclubs that turn people away — the ‘beautiful people’ want to go there because it’s hard to get in.”
Asked what lesson can be learned from the scandal, Rabbi Kushner replied: “I’d hate to live in a world where nobody trusts anybody. What bothers me is that he knew that sooner or later the bubble was going to burst. He was taking money from charities – it’s like taking money from the pushka or prying open the poor box in church.”
Rabbi Raphael Rank of the Conservative Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, L.I., said Madoff has been an “embarrassment and hurt for us all. In the end, all we have is our name and his name will not be linked with God’s name … because his life has been a desecration of God’s name.”
He and several other rabbis said they had spoken with members of their congregations who had invested with Madoff.
“They told me they had realized gains in their investments and that the statements they received on a monthly basis were detailed with all sorts of trades that had gone on in the last month,” Rabbi Rank said. “And each time they had incurred some kind of a capital gain. Under the circumstances, why withdraw any of your money because it kept growing.”
He said he had heard from one congregant whose banker had reviewed the Madoff investments and told him something was wrong because Madoff was making 10 percent while everyone else was losing 35 percent.
“He said he felt it was time for him to withdraw his money,” Rabbi Rank said. “But he did not. The trust in Madoff was profound and he violated it in such a radical way that it is mind boggling.”
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, spiritual leader of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan, pointed out that Judaism, unlike some other religions, “never considered wealth to be a negative thing. The Talmud emphasizes that in the end of days we will be called before our Maker and taken to task for every legitimate pleasure we have denied ourselves in this world. We need money to sustain ourselves in dignity, to sustain Jewish life. Without money there can be no Torah; we need it to perfect the world.”
He added that the wealthy are expected to give a lot of their money to “support Torah … and to improve the human condition.” But, he stressed, “we have made our wealth honestly — you are not entitled to steal to enrich yourself or even to give to others. Robin Hood was not a Jew.”
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said the reason the Madoff scandal was a prime topic of sermons last Shabbat was that so many people were hurt.
“We have a responsibility to say something,” he explained. “An ethical breakdown has occurred and the rabbis need to be very vocal about the deterioration we have seen. I would hope clergy of all faiths address it. I would hate to see this made a so-called ‘Jewish problem.’”
Rabbi Potasnik, who is Conservative, said the Madoff scandal should be seen as emblematic of recent ethical scandals, among them those involving Enron and Tyco and the allegations of corruption surrounding Illinois Gov. Ron Blagojevich.
Rabbi Michael Klayman of the Conservative Lake Success Jewish Center in Queens said he also mentioned “Blagojevich, deceit, dishonesty and Madoff.”
“We should never become so cynical that we accept this abuse of trust as being common everyday practice,” he said. “I argue that we should never accept it as being commonplace and always have to have a conscience. No matter how many times we hear of it, it should always enrage us.”
Rabbi Potasnik said the Madoff scandal should cause a rethinking of what success is in America.
“We confer success upon those who have made it financially, maybe we should spend more time recognizing those who have made it morally,” he said.
He said two recent news stories came to mind: a man who returned an elderly woman’s winning lottery ticket he found, saying he never thought of keeping it, and the staff of a museum that went through the garbage and vacuum cleaner bags to find a diamond ring a woman lost.
“Those stories tell you that maybe we are succeeding from the bottom up, not from the top down, in teaching ethics,” Rabbi Potasnik said. “We should honor those who are honorable. What message does it send to young people when those who are financially successful are seen as having achieved greatness in society? That has to be challenged. … Madoff is a dishonest human being who happens to be a Jew. His behavior reflects on his lack of personal values.”