The Right Place to Talk? Sermonizing About Madoff

Like so many other rabbis across the world, I devoted my sermon this past Shabbat to the lessons to be learned from the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal. I talked about linking one’s actions in the “real world” to ethics and morality, and how, in the Jewish way of looking at things, there is no line of demarcation between the “real world” and one’s religious life. When one perverts the system and creates that dichotomy, the potential for Hillul Hashem- the desecration of God’s name- is enormous. The damage that Bernie Madoff has done to the cause of religion generally, and Judaism more specifically, is enormous.

Someone whom I respect a great deal came up to me at the Kiddush after services and said, very seriously, “Rabbi, please don’t talk about disgusting people like that in my sacred space.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that remark over the past few days, and I think it points to a fundamental tension in what the synagogue as an institution is and should be.

Since the beginning of the economic meltdown in America shortly before the High Holidays, I have had a powerful sense that people are coming to services to escape the relentlessly bad news and the ways in which it is impacting their lives. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the stock market was tanking, you could almost feel the need for people to connect to that which is of enduring value and importance in their lives. Portfolios come and go, but God is everlasting. I’m sure that my colleagues in the rabbinate felt the same thing, and that clergy of other faiths felt similar changes in the dynamics of their services at the same time.

I understand that feeling, and respect it. Synagogue services are for prayer and study. When the world intrudes on that, something precious is lost, and arguably perverted.

But at the same time, I have an equal and opposite sense that the nature of my authority to speak from the pulpit as a rabbi derives from my ability, based on study of our tradition, to consciously refract the events of the day through the lens of Torah and its values. In that sense, it would be an abdication of my rabbinic responsibility not to talk about Bernie Madoff in a sermon; not to point out the necessary nexus between a religious life and morality and ethics, not to talk about the very real damage done to our various communities by a man who so blatantly flaunted that nexus. It seemed inconceivable to me that I would ignore the scandal for the sake of having the synagogue be a safe haven from the news. Sometimes, the synagogue needs to make you think about the news, and teach you to see it in a way that leaves you with a clearer and better-defined understanding of it as Jewish tradition would see it.

I am always careful not to “overdue” the political issues. But as I see it, were we to apply a generic prohibition on addressing matters political in a religious context, we’d have a lot of explaining to do when we read Isaiah, Amos and the other prophets. I do believe they were hyper-political. And liberals, too….

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.