A Rabbi's Open Letter to Bernie Madoff

Dear Bernie Madoff:

I don't think you know what you have done.

Life inevitably inflicts upon us different kinds of wounds. Very few people can live connected lives and not occasionally fail those who depend upon them and trust them. However, these are failures not betrayals. They come from trying to do the right thing and not being able to do it. A betrayal is different than a failure. A betrayal is an intentional wounding. It is born of cruelty, not ignorance. Most of us know of failures and betrayals. What you have done, however, is to radically expand the scope and viciousness of betrayal. You betrayed not just your friends, but your closest friends. You betrayed the trust of those who entrusted you with everything they had saved. You betrayed charities whose good works you have extinguished in an afternoon. These betrayals are epic in their scope and dazzling in their utter lack of remorse or responsibility. There must be some new word invented to describe the way you have redefined betrayal. The Bible calls such things a toevah, "an abomination". It means an act so alien to our values and our natures that it cannot be understood or explained. You have committed an abomination. This is what you have done.

Another thing you did was make life incredibly more difficult for people who sell real and honorable and legitimate money products. Now every stock broker and money manager and hedge-fund operator and insurance rep who has already had a tough time convincing prospective clients that what they are selling is good and honest must now also convince them that they are not like you. An entire world economy we now know is based to an immense degree on simple trust, and you have done more than any single person to destroy that trust. You are a financial terrorist. Your attack has toppled the foundations of trust in our financial markets. Although you are not by any means the only financial terrorist, you are its most reviled attacker. What has brought us down are not worthless financial instruments, but worthless people. Many business people have always known and have never forgotten that trust is all the collateral they have ever placed against a loan. Your name is on people's lips now, but the ones out there selling honest products at a fair price ought to push your name into the gutter where it belongs. This is what you have done.

One of the very worst things you did has to do with the Jews. You are responsible for reviving the "Jew game." I heard of the Jew game from a boy who became a man last Saturday. I asked him once if he had ever experienced anti-Semitism in school. That is when he looked at the floor and told me about the Jew game. The game, played by anti-Semitic kids in school, was one in which they would hide around a corner, throw a quarter down the hall, and then when somebody picked up the quarter, they'd run at the person, shouting, "You're the Jew!"

You did not cause the anti-Semitic insults about Jews and money, but you caused them to be revived. Not since Julius Rosenberg spied for the Soviet Union has one person so damaged the image and the self-respect of American Jews. I am not comfortable with the fact that so many of the articles about you specifically identify your prominent place in the Jewish community. Ken Lay of Enron shame was never identified as a "prominent Protestant energy broker." The most aggressive accusers of the governor of Illinois seldom describe him as "the prominent Serbian-American governor of Illinois." Yes, it is unfair that your Jewishness has become part of the storyline. But you just reminded the bigots who grew up playing The Jew Game that it still strikes a familiar chord. You wiped out Joe Lieberman's accomplishments. You revived ancient bigotry against our people. You gave credence to the horrid accusations about Jews being untrustworthy and greedy. One offensive paper has a column called "Jews in the News," which focuses on some Jewish criminal or other to remind their sickening readers of the legitimacy of anti-Semitism. You are not just one of the "Jews in the news" they seek. You are the apotheosis of their hate-filled world. You have given the Jew-haters material for a decade of hate gardening. You single-handedly revived the Jew game. This is what you have done.

Most of those you've deceived will learn to live and give in new and perhaps more modest ways. Unlike your evil, which has been stopped, nothing will stop their courage and compassion. Some of your victims will no doubt be more severely wounded in circumstance and in spirit, but none of them, I pray, will surrender to your assault. Their friends will not leave them. Their children and grandchildren will not refuse to hug them and kiss them. After their initial trauma subsides, they will, I believe, move on to cling to the blessings that cannot ever be stolen.

You, on the other hand, will lose everything—everything! From this day to the end of your life, there will be none who will trust you. To be mistrusted by everyone is an enormous curse and you have brought this all upon yourself, and for what purpose? You were supposed to be the master of risk and reward and you risked everything from everyone for what reward? You have not just made a bad calculation about how money works, you have made a bad calculation about how life works. You gave no value to what matters and all value to what does not matter at all. This is what you have done.

Shame on you Bernie Madoff. Shame on you.

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