333: End-of-2008 reflections slice deep; consider the Madoff catastrophe

ike most Americans, we’re reflecting on 2008 and making hopeful resolutions for 2009 this week. Today, we’re still in the “2008” part of that journey. AND, if you’d like to discuss today’s story — or share other thoughts about this annual milestone — you can Email us here at ReadTheSpirit’s home office or you can visit www.OurValues.org right now, where we’re hosting a year-end discussion with readers about the year’s Top Stories with Dr. Wayne Baker.
    On Monday, Dr. Baker pointed out that the economy is likely to rank as one of the biggest stories related to American values. From the ReadTheSpirit mail bag, I can confirm that various aspects of this economic crisis are front and center in our readers’ minds and prayers this week. Among the hottest topics with readers is the story of Bernard Madoff, the former Wall Street honcho arrested by the FBI on Dec. 11 in what may turn out to be the largest investment fraud ever perpetrated by one person.
    Or was it one person?

    Countless people came to Madoff over the years and pressed millions, then billions, into his secretive investment schemes, hoping for solid payoffs that Madoff seemed to provide for many years.
    This is a spiritual story on many levels — as spiritual as Charles Dickens’ “Chistmas Carol,” certainly. But the Madoff story also is spiritual on a very pragmatic level: Now some charitable organizations, including Eli Wiesel’s own foundation, may be close to financial ruin. And, because Madoff was closely associated with Jewish causes, there is fear that his case will touch off renewed anti-Semitism.

    Actually, here at ReadTheSpirit, I haven’t seen evidence of that old bigotry raising its ugly head. In fact, I’m hearing from readers who are thoughtfully chewing through this whole crisis in sophisticated ways. Greg Mann, a reader with a background in politics and social action himself, wrote just such a note this week.
    “I don’t think Madoff was a scum. He got into something and he couldn’t get out. From what I’ve heard … he tried, not too hard, but did try a couple of times to get out of this, but his own investors would say, ‘Oh, Bernie, we know you can do it.’ Or words to that effect,” Greg wrote. “And then this latest cisis just led him to a point of no return. … I mean no one is so cruel to really take money from groups like the Wiesel Foundation and ‘play’ with it. The problem was he began to believe his own lie, and there wasn’t any way out.”

    Another reader — the writer Judy Gruen, author of “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement,” wrote a couple of Emails about Madoff. Eventually, Judy rolled up her sleeves and wote the following year-end reflection on Madoff, the dangerous nature of the world — and what it feels like to view some of these events from the perspective of a religious minority. Judy is Jewish and regularly writes about Jewish life from a personal, every-day perspective.
    Here, then, is one American’s year-end reflection on one of the year’s Top Stories …



When I was growing up, any news of a terrible calamity, such as a plane crash, would guarantee the same reaction from my grandmother: “Oy, I hope there weren’t Jews there,” she said with true anguish in her voice. This infuriated me.
     “What difference would it make?” I’d challenge her. “Everybody who died on that plane was a human being.” To me, the tragedy of a plane crash was not minimized or magnified based on a Jewish presence.
    “Of course they were, but . . . ” she trailed off. It wasn’t just that Yiddish was her first language, Russian her second, and English a distant third. No words were really able to convey what she felt inside. It took decades for me to understand why my Nana felt the way she did. Of course everyone else on that plane was a precious human being, she was trying to tell me. But they weren’t family.
     As a percentage of the world’s population, Jews are statistically insignificant. Estimates range from between 14 and 16 million Jews worldwide, or roughly, 0.2% of the world’s population. In the U.S., we are no more than 2.2% of the population. Yet somehow, despite our tiny numbers, we have always had an out-sized presence in the world’s conscientiousness. Sometimes, we revel in the attention brought to our historic commitment to education and scholarly achievement. A popular email floating around Jewish cyberspace lists 175 Jews who have won Nobel Prizes (about 23 percent of all winners). When a Jew does us proud with a breakthrough in cancer research, economic theory or brilliant writing, we crow amongst ourselves: We did it again!

    But too often, the opposite happens. Someone with a name like Goldstein or Silverman or now, a Madoff, shames us through their despicable actions. We feel a little sick when we see a Jew’s face on the front page of the newspaper, accused or indicted of a serious crime. We are ashamed that one of our own has used his innate drive to debase the moral and ethical imperative that God gave us, His chosen people. We know we will be tainted by association. And why not? We can’t just expect to bask in the glow of admiration for Jews with remarkable achievements without also sharing the shame of those who have disgraced us. In addition to our acute embarrassment, we may also fear the reaction of the anti-Semites of the world: There’s another Jew making trouble. Too bad they didn’t get rid of them last time.
    I suppose most families have their black sheep, the ones from whom you can’t distance yourself far or fast enough. But as a people whose revered patriarchs were shepherds, we seem to have more than our share. Why?
    Throughout history, Jews have been known as a people whose drive to succeed is so strong, it could be part of our psychological DNA. Some of that may have evolved from a history of being outcasts, barred from many schools and from many trades. We had no choice but to innovate, create, and work very hard to survive.
    As a Jew committed to trying to uphold Torah values, I believe that God planted this energy in us not only as a survival tool, but to carry out His commandments to live ethically, morally and spiritually. It’s not an easy task. We have 613 commandments, and they are very detailed: We must ensure that we have accurate weights and measures in our businesses; that we lend to a fellow Jew in need without taking any interest; that we not only refrain from speaking any gossip, but that we refrain even from harboring thoughts of resentment or revenge against another. It’s a tall order. God, of course, knew that, so He made sure to also remind us not to lose sight of the essentials: “Do what is upright and good” (Deut. 6:18).

    When I first explored traditional Judaism, I was intimidated by the enormity of the job of becoming a great Jew. At first I thought, This is impossible! Why isn’t it enough to just be a decent person, to be kind, and to tip fairly? The problem is, human beings are very clever at rationalizing our behavior. Having a standard to aspire to not only shows us where we are now, but where we might go.
    Twenty years after I began my life as a Jew committed to spiritual growth, I fall very short of the mark, but I am undoubtedly a better person for the challenge. And in a world that is now paying the price for its reverence of material wealth, Torah has always taught that the only riches worth pursuing are spiritual, not material. Today, too many Jews – even those who are committed to Jewish teachings – lose sight of that. The problem is, they still have that Jewish drive to succeed. If they apply it toward the wrong purpose, the results can be calamitous.

    How ironic that just two weeks before the Bernard Madoff case exploded into the news, two other Jews also made world headlines for completely opposite reasons. Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, neither of them yet 30, parents of a 2-year-old and expecting another child, were gunned down by Islamic terrorists in the Chabad House they managed in Mumbai, India. Unlike Madoff, the Holtzbergs cared nothing for material gain. In fact, they ensured that the guest quarters of their Chabad House were comfortably appointed with nice furniture and new paint, while their own private living quarters upstairs were at best bare bones. The Holtzbergs personified the best of our people: committed to spiritual growth, self-sacrificing, filled with kindness, and on a mission to provide Jewish spiritual and physical sustenance and friendship to Jews traveling in Mumbai. They were killed simply because they were Jews.
    Bernard Madoff perverted the drive that God gave him to do good and caused catastrophic damage in the world as a result. But while the case of Bernard Madoff pains me and so many other Jews, we can also take heart at the far more common example set by Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, who perished spiritual millionaires.
    Judy Gruen’s latest book is The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement. Read more of her work on www.judygruen.com.

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