The Tragedies of Bernie Madoff

I’ve been a congregational rabbi now for almost thirty years, and I’ve learned lots of things about lots of things. I know a lot more about human nature and the human condition than I possibly could have known when I was new to the craft, and of course, I’m still learning.

But perhaps preeminent among the things that I’ve learned is never to be surprised, and never to believe that something “just couldn’t be possible.” Everything is possible. Even the things that you would swear are not possible- they’re possible too. Whether in personal life, synagogue life, or communal life, people are far more complex than they tend to let on. We see the outer shell, not the inner soul. And sometimes- some very awful times- we discover in the most unpleasant way that there is no inner soul. And that can be the scariest realization of all.

Like most of you, I only know what I’m reading. I have no inside information about Bernie Madoff, didn’t know him, didn’t even know that he was alive until he became infamous this past week. Someone actually asked me the other day if I had been hurt by Madoff’s alleged Ponzi scheme, and I had to laugh. You have to have it to lose it, I said. No, those are not the circles in which I travel.

But the sad truth is that almost everyone we know, in one way or another, traveled in Bernie Madoff’s circles.

City workers in Fairfield, Connecticut traveled in his circle, because $150 million dollars of their pension plan money was “invested” with his company. Beneficiaries of Jewish philanthropies on the north shore of Boston traveled in his circle, because those philanthropies literally closed down as soon as Madoff’s assets were frozen by federal authorities. Steven Spielberg’s and Elie Weisel’s charitable foundations were seriously compromised, and so were the people they helped. Yeshiva University is said to have lost more than $100 million dollars of endowment money. How many students needing scholarship are now traveling in Bernie Madoff’s circle? How many retirees, how many sick children and adults, how many charitable causes…

It’s hard for me to believe it possible that Bernie Madoff accomplished all this alleged mayhem by himself. His financial operation seems to have been so elaborate an illusion that it must have required additional hands to finesse, maybe even of regulators who appear to have been completely blind. That will come out sooner or later. But as he himself acknowledged, it was his doing, his scheme, his operation, his fraud. And like everyone else, I’m left wondering, what gene was missing in the DNA of this “pillar of the Jewish community” that enabled him- allegedly- to knowingly defraud so many, and completely destroy their lives in the process? Who can possibly answer that question? And what good would it even do to know?

The tragedies caused by the seeming “soullessness” of Bernie Madoff are of epic proportions, and they touch us all. But beyond the disastrous pain that he has caused, beyond the resulting hardship, there’s also one other dimension to his crime: hillul Hashem (the desecration of God’s name) on a grand scale. Still reeling from the Rubashkin scandal, this is another instance of a person claiming fidelity to traditional Jewish values and practices alleged to be- for lack of better words- an all-star, major league grand felon.

God traveled in Bernie Madoff’s circle too. And God was hurt badly, as was the public image of the Jewish community.

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