Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Madoff scandal: some background

Earlier this year, Edgar M. Bronfman gave an interview with Deborah Solomon for the New York Times Magazine. Mr. Bronfman, now 79, is the former CEO of the Seagram concern, who has also served as president of the World Jewish Congress. With the assistance of Beth Zasloff, he has recently written a book entitled “Hope Not Fear” that, in Solomon’s words, “argues for a kind of neo-Judaism that loosens the rules of observance, welcomes converts and has nothing to do with synagogue.” Bronfman looks back with little enthusiasm on the dry, joyless Judaism of his youth. He maintains that the Holocaust and fear of anti-Semitism no longer suffice to drive Jewish identity and participation; only a more open, more celebratory, and hopeful communal life will draw and retain young Jews. This community must be pluralistic, unreservedly welcoming intermarried Jews and their spouses, gay Jews, and others outside the traditional Jewish mold.

I have not read the book, but I assume that the above summary is reasonably accurate. In his interview with Ms. Solomon, Mr. Bronfman did object to the term “neo-Judaism,” though.

Somewhat startlingly, the interviewee remarked “I don’t believe in the God of the Old Testament, but I am happy with my Judaism, without that.” Solomon then asked “If you take the spiritual element out of Judaism, what is left? Some would say the rest is just archaeology, bones in the desert.” To this, Bronfman replied “That’s their problem; that’s not my problem. What we have left is our ethics, our morals. It was our people who developed the Ten Commandments, and civilizations all over the world are based on the Ten Commandments. Whoever wrote that — and we assume it was Moses — had a great deal of wisdom.” When Solomon pointed out that every religion has an ethical system, Bronfman replied, “Well, they do now. But we were the first.”

For someone who has coauthored a whole book about his beliefs, Bronfman’s assertions show a shocking degree of ignorance. Apart from Judaism, only Christianity has adopted the Ten Commandments. Even in countries that are, or were Christian, it is not clear that the “civilization” has been based on the Decalogue. Contrary to popular perception, none of these countries has a system of law that incorporates the Ten Commandments. Such reliance would be contrary to the spirit of the Civil Law.

Then there is the claim that Judaism ranks as the first religion to have an ethical system. This is factually untrue since the first monotheism was established by the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, who lived several centuries before Moses. The hymns of the Aten religion founded by Akhenaten make a number of ethical statement, including an assertion of the essential unity of all of humanity. More broadly, the Book of the Dead, particularly in Chapter 125, addresses a host of individual ethical issues. To be sure, ancient Egyptian religion has disappeared. However, Zoroastrianism (Parsiism) and Hinduism, both very ancient religions that are living today, have ethical systems. Moreover, being first is not necessarily an advantage. The Wright Brothers flew the first aircraft, but who would want to go up in one now?

More importantly, Bronfman’s emphasis on ethics is typical of a good many people of his faith who have abandoned the ritual aspects of Judaism, while clinging to the reassuring belief that it is, in some remarkable way, particularly ethical. Ethical systems are numberless, and many have been sustained by religions, past and present. While it may be comforting to his nonobservant brothers and sisters, this ethnocentric claim of Bronfman’s is questionable, to say the least.

Moreover, Bronfman’s principle must now meet the challenge posed by recent revelations about Bernard Madoff, who--at a clip of 50 billion or so--may enjoy the distinction of operating the largest Ponzi scheme ever. For the record, Mr. Madoff is Jewish; Charles Ponzi, to the best of my knowledge, was not.

According to the New York Times, Yeshiva University was one of the Jewish institutions that was defrauded by Bernard Madoff. Currently, anguished discussions are going on at that university regarding the challenge to Judaism ostensibly posed by Mr. Madoff. From various parts of the country, rabbis have chimed in, asking--since by definition, they believe, Judaism is a highly ethical religion--how could this happen? And how could Madoff have cheated so many fellow Jews? Rudely, perhaps, one may ask: would he have been less unethical if he had only cheated gentiles? That seems to be the unspoken premise of what some are saying.

The underlying problem is that these Jewish authority figures are hoist by their own petard. That is, for a long time they have been advocating the view that Bronfman so confidently, and inaccurately, asserts: that there is something distinctively and superlatively ethical about Judaism. If it is so central to Judaism, this feature should have acted as a kind of fire break, causing Madoff to pull back. It did not--hence the conundrum and the ensuing anguish.

Those rabbis should recognize a simple truth. There are bad people of every religious faith. Look, for example, at Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who I assume is Serbian Orthodox.

Unless one thinks that working in finance is itself wrong (a feature of Marxist ethics, but not of most other systems), this activity itself is not unethical. Moreover, Mr. Madoff cheated Jewish investors and charities because he operated through networking, and many of his contacts were Jewish. He also cheated non-Jewish individuals and charities.

At the very least we should be grateful to Bernard Madoff for disproving the old anti-Semitic canard that Jewish swindlers prey only on non-Jews. That is nonsense, because such individuals follow the Willie Sutton principle: they go where the money is. Madoff surpassed Sutton because he had a more subtle means of prying the bank vaults open.

We can be grateful to Mr. Madoff--those of us who were not victimized, that is--for teaching a valuable lesson: avoid Ponzi schemes. To be sure, it is too late for this advice to help those who have lost out through their reliance on Madoff. At least some of them, though, ought to have known better.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ethics, or ethos (way of life), is entirely Greek in origin, it is prescriptive, teleological, situational, and rational.

Morality, or laws (like the Decalogue) are religious in origin, described as proscriptive, deontological, universal, and ideally rationally, but rarely is in actuality. Only the Greeks can said to be ethical, along with Asians after Confucius.

Righteousness and sin properly belong to religion, but ethics, virtue, and vice properly belong to philosophy.

Both are axiologies, but virtues and vices are ethical concepts not found in either Judaism or Christianity -- until Thomas Aquinas synthesized Aristotle, New, and Old Testaments in a horrible conflation in the 13th-century.

Ironically, the only moral law philosophers universally accept in the Moral Imperative of the Harm Principle: Do No Harm or Injury. Given that YHWH was the patron god of morality, how is it that YHWH never thought of it? Neither did Jesus. Hmm. Not very smart, those people.

11:42 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home