White-Collar Sins

Seeing the carnage wrought by the Madoff scandal is very painful. For the Jewish community the pain is sharpened by … Continued

Seeing the carnage wrought by the Madoff scandal is very painful. For the Jewish community the pain is sharpened by the fact that he was associated with a number of Jewish schools, businesses and charities. This should lead us to renew the question: What place does honesty in money matters play in the Jewish tradition? Let’s begin with a comparison: Which is more important, keeping kosher or running an honest business?

There is a long standing Jewish tradition that one should not weigh mitzvot (commandments). Since they have their origin in God it is vain for us to determine which is more important. Still, the temptation to do so is irresistible. How can we not understand that murder is more severe than, say, neglecting to pray? So how does the well known practice of eating in a prescribed manner, keeping kosher, measure up to being honest in financial dealing?

Yet it might surprise many Jews to know that, as the Israeli banker and scholar Meir Tamari points out, the Torah has 24 regulations about keeping kosher and over 100 about economic justice. What you put in your mouth says less about your faithfulness than what you take out of your pocket – even more, someone else’s pocket.

How important is it to be honest in business? When an individual comes before God, the Talmud teaches, he or she will be asked a series of questions. The very first question is: “Were you honest in your business dealings? (Shabbat 31a)” One’s daily dealings will be the very first behavioral question scrutinized before the heavenly court.

Faith is not confined to the home or the synagogue. The Jewish mission is to bring a sense of sanctity into all areas of life. When the Psalmist writes (Ps. 116:9) “I’ll walk before God in the land of the living” the Rabbis add: “‘The living’ — this refers to the marketplace (Yoma 71a).” In buying and selling, in browsing and bargaining — where we really live — is where our true character is often revealed.

The Madoff scandal, and too many like it, may be a crime, but it is certainly a sin. There are many terms for sin in the Jewish tradition. The most common, het, is an archery term which denotes missing the mark. But for deliberate, calculating and devastating actions, such as stealing millions (perhaps billions?) from charities and individuals, other terms are more appropriate – pesha, avon – terms that are closer to the meaning of deliberate, cruel transgression.

Those who trusted Madoff demonstrated the truer disposition of faith: belief in the righteousness and probity of others. It is worth remembering that around Madoff were the vast majority who acted honestly and credibly.

The Rabbis of the Talmud declare: “If one is honest in business, and earns the esteem of others, it is as if one has fulfilled the whole Torah (Mechilta, Vayassa).” Religion may begin at home, but it should never end there. If it does not move us to decency and goodness, it matters not at all what pieties we profess.

David Wolpe is a Senior Rabbi at the Sinai Temple of Los Angeles, California. He has previously taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and Hunter College in New York, and currently teaches at UCLA.

David Wolpe
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  • DavidCurrier1

    In America, and probably elsewhere, because “white collar” folks control the government, they also control the content of laws that are passed. Their crimes do pay because they pay their fine, do their time and still leave prison as very rich people.For those guilty of destroying other folks money, when they get out of prison, they should be given a small $50k home (TX rates, about 1200 sq feet) and not a cent in the bank. Let them earn their way back.

  • ravitchn

    Madoff is a Jewish swindler right out of a Balzac novel. It is interesting that most of his victims seem to be Jewish. I guess they didn’t trust a gentile swindler.

  • luyehara

    Madoff was Jewish? All the articles I read did not mention that fact. What does the Jewish faith say about greed and making an obscene amount of profit?

  • ThishowIseeit

    Twelve percent return year after year ? The proverb says: if something looks too good to be true, then it is not true. The investors got what they deserve. Did he sinned? That is an open and shut case. Will he go to the inferno? No, because there is no inferno, no paradise.

  • sparrow4

    that’s odd- I never hear someone say a Christian swindler- and assuredly there are far more of them. Thanks for adding so much to the dialogue,ravitchn. It’s always such a pleasure when someone such as yourself has so much intelligent analysis to add to the thread. Maybe they didn’t trust a gentile- probably most of them have run into someone like you too many times .

  • Farnaz2

    Truly, I can’t comprehend the point of this article. A swindler is a swindler. I mean, true, some people like born again Christian Poulson made hundreds of millions before shutting down the mortgage scam, and he won’t go to prison. I mean, true, the CEO of AIG got a humongous retirement package instead of a jail sentence.Etc., Etc., Etc.I mean, true, the lying president former secretary of defense, etc., etc., never was impeached, etc.And I mean Born Again Poulson and Bush read the Christian Testament. And what about Born Once (one too many times) Cheney, that great Christian, whose Haliburton sammed the Iraqi and American people in more ways than one.I mean all these Christian crooks not only scammed their own kind, but us J people, Muslims, you name it–seems to be part of their heritage. Check out the Indian Reservations lately? And? So? Point? Just because they scam everyone and don’t go to jail, just because they send us into a worldwide depression doesn’t mean Madoff shouldn’t.I think, indeed, he should. BUT NOT ALONE. CERTAINLY, THE SEC CHRISTIANS WHO WERE MADE AWARE OF THE SCAM IN 1999 OUGHT TO BE UP THERE WITH HIM IN COURT.And then, we have the reborn prez, vp born too many times, reborn poulson, etc., etc., etc. Yunno, the ones who scam all of us, who sent the world into a depression, who slaughter iraqis, etc., etc., etc.

  • youngj1

    I must say the question of whether Mr. Madoff’s actions constitute sin or not is moot, at best. That is for God to decide. As for crime of untold callouness and selfiness this is easy to discern. Often I find that much too much time is spent trying to label people’s actions instead of trying to understand and learn from them. Mr. Madoff was able to swindle scores of investors because of the front he presented, never mind that his claims were wild at best and easily seen as pie in the sky at worst. All those who invested with this man without understanding one of the fundamental tenents of investing; never trust a sure thing!, are reaping the bitter fruit of their greed (i.e. the Ascot Group). I’m a firm believer in the the seperation of church and state as well as church and commerce. Nothing good comes of either!

  • flyersout

    We don’t need any more rabbis orGet thee away from me SATAN !!!!!!!

  • CCNL

    As per the RCC Catechism, there are five sins that cry out to Heaven for Vengeance:(1) Wilful murder – the blood of Abel, [Gen. 4:10](2) The sin of the Sodomites, [Gen. 18:20; 19:13](3) The cry of the people oppressed in Egypt, [Ex. 3:7-10](4) The cry of the foreigner, the widow and the orphan, [Ex. 20:20-22] and(5) Injustice to the wage earner. [Deut. 24:14-5; Jas. 5:4]Madoff is guilty of 3, 4 and 5. In case there is no Hell or God, vengeance should be meted out here and now!!! All assets sold and returned to those cheated and life in prison without parole.

  • phyldav

    My daughter and her husband were victims of this terrible theft – and one of their first concerns was how was their congregation going to find the replacement money for their pledge which they cannot make now. When friends are asking them “what can we do for you?” they are telling them to contribute to help make up this loss.

  • CCNL

    As per Forbes Magazine, the net worth of the entire Rothschilds’ family is estimated to be $1.5 billion.

  • shejoy

    All of these white collar criminals are just as terrible as the “thugs” on the streets who prey on the average citizen. I just hope he and as many others like him are justly punished. I just don’t understand why they aren’t all living and eating in the same jail cells. Rotten bastards! Stealing, robbing and hustling just like the people on the streets. No difference at all. Punished by being trapped in his $7 million dollar apartment? That’s a crime in itself.

  • dunnhaupt

    I did not realize that a crook can use the stolen funds as bail. Isn’t America wonderful?

  • oslo10

    I think the authorities should check extremely carefully to see what Madoff may have hidden in offshore accounts, etc. They might find that he has a lot more than the 300 million left which could be returned to those he victimized.

  • Arminius

    As far as I am concerned, Madoff should be tied to a stake, on Wall Street, right in front of the stock market, and publicly horsewhipped. All Wall Street executives should be required to watch.May God forgive me.

  • Billy1932

    This is the second piece I have read here today. The first was calling for compassion, and here we see someone treading carefully so as no to be too judgemental of Madoff. He was calculating and intentional in his theft, which rapaciously ripped money from charitable institutions, pension funds, universities, town, cities and so much more. He is a vile man.

  • jon404

    David, maybe you can tell us: if Mr. Madoff took $50 billion from the US Jewish community, how much is left? Does this $50bn equal 1%… or 30%… or…? I can’t imagine this loss returning the community to sweatshops on the Lower East Side, but… if you can estimate it… how big a hit is this going to be?

  • Martial

    All ethnic groups have criminals among them; were this not so criminal justice systems would not be ubiquitous. Propounding ancestry or religion as causes of criminality is bigotry. Madoff’s guilt is his alone.

  • Farnaz2

    Spark1 writes:The whole money system is based on greed of few who have long monoplized this sector. On one hand rothchild holds 500 trilliion dollars while the US govt is debt ridden to approx 170 trillion to fed revs.First, I fail to see the connection between the Rothchilds and our economic crisis whereas the connection between the (Christian) Rockefeller (Chase Bank), J.P. MOrgan, etc.–all the Christian banking families is quite clear. They sold these mortgages, etc., and are now foreclosing.Christians, Muslims, Jews, Animists, etc., are all victims of these Christian bankers. Then there is AIG–Christian. Not only is the CEO not in jail, but I am paying for his retirement package, that of his, board, etc. AIG among the primary culprits–the Christian owned AIG–of our economic crisis.Then of course there was Christian Enron.Madoff and the Rothchilds have no connection. The cause of this crisis is deregulation initiated by Christian presidents, authorized by Christian Congresses.———————————–And regarding Maddoff and banking practices (since he isn’t a banker), I’d add this for Spark1 and CCNl, by implication:Thou shalt not bear false witness.Then, too, the Rothchilds might like in on violation of that commandment.

  • Farnaz2

    Martial:All ethnic groups have criminals among them; were this not so criminal justice systems would not be ubiquitous. Propounding ancestry or religion as causes of criminality is bigotry. Madoff’s guilt is his alone.In the meantime, stay tuned for more on Christian Bankers, their real estate and oil interests, their getting away with murder (literally), etc.

  • magellan1

    What’s the deal? Why is this even brought up on a religious forum. This has nothing to do with the Talmud, the Bible or the koran. This is about a common thief, a swindler and, regardless of what the judge thinks, a threat to society. Put this man in jail. If he has heart problems and can’t get his medication, too bad. If he has diabetes and needs insulin, oh well. He does not belong on the streets of New York or anywhere near a phone. For God’s sake, the next thing you know he’ll flee the country to get to the billions he has stashed overseas. Of course he’s a flight risk!Then, Eric Holder will recommend to Obama that he should pardon the b*stard in 2016 before he leaves office, like he did with that other Talmudic “scholar”, Marc Rich.C’mon folks. If he’s going to live outside the walls of a prison at least put him where he belongs – in a trailer park in New Jersey.

  • Farnaz2

    Then, Eric Holder will recommend to Obama that he should pardon the b*stard in 2016 before he leaves office, like he did with that other Talmudic “scholar”, Marc Rich.Will anyone pardon that great Christian Testament scholar Joe Ratzinger and vatican bank?Just wondering….

  • ere591

    I read an indirect call from a blogger for compassion to Maddof. How about compassion to blue collar or low class criminals? There are two sets of laws in our society at least the way they are interpreted: one for the well to do (white criminals) — pat them on the back and then will go back to whatever they were doing in no time; and the other for the downtrodden– throw the bums in the slammer and hope they die there and never to be heard from. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to predict someone who was swindled and completely ruined by Maddof’s fraud will choose not live any longer. Will then Maddof be considered a murderer? Something to ponder.

  • CCNL

    Easy there Farnaz, the comment about the RothSchilds having $1.5 billion was made to counter the claim that they were worth $500 trillion which you will find on all the crazy conspiracy group web pages.

  • Farnaz2

    RudeIsraeli Author Profile Page:ISN’T IT TIME TO RE-READ KARL MARX’S RUMINATIONS ABOUT “THE JEWISH QUESTION” IN LIGHT OF ALL THESE FINANCIAL SCANDALS?Isn’t it time you took you Sh*t for brains to church and got some holy water poured on your head? Maybe it might help.

  • ridagana

    What a long and profound discussion explaining the difference between crime and sin, Jewish believes, and (yes) “The Madoff scandal.” Smells too much like disclaimers, ich haben es nicht gewusst, and hanging out Madoff to dry. What is more interesting and I haven’t read a thing about it yet is what happened with the $50 billion. Did he pocket it, give it to the blacks in Africa, or perhaps to his kids. My guess is he gave it to the Jews in Israel since jews don’t care about Africa or their kids. He is 70 years old now and obviously is moving on, first in prison and then the graveyard. He doesn’t care. But again, where is that $50 Million!!

  • xuthoria

    While most white collar crime cannot be compared directly to violent crime, it does not mean their consequences should be any less. Rather it should be weighed on a different scale that considers different criteria.One criteria I think is the amount of consequences that one knows will be inflicted on others. You should be punished slightly differently for swindling $100,000 from a billionaire than taking the same from a middle class retired person.I do hope, however, that no leniency is given because of his involvement in philanthropy. People who pickpocket or mug $10, $100 do not have the luxury to establish family foundations and give millions of dollars to charities. People who swindle billions of dollars do. You should not be praised for giving other people’s money away, and certainly not be more praised the more money you managed to transfer away.

  • youngj1

    Unfortunately, all religions can lay claim to swindlers and cheats. So to somehow ascribe Mr. Madoff’s alleged crimes to his “faith” is disingenuos, hypocritical and comically simple.While I agree with those who hope to see him prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law I in no way believe that his Jewish heritage plays a role in his criminality.