Monday, April 06, 2009

admiring Madoff

A Guest Post by Rafi G

The recent article by Rabbi Avi Shafran is all the rage. all the blogs are talking about it. Usually that means I stay away from such a popular topic, but I have a point to make I did not see anywhere else (except for in a comment I wrote in one of those blogs), so i will tread where many have tread before.

Rabbi Shafran recently wrote an article in which he described how Bernard Madoff, the Jewish crook who ran the Ponzi scheme scamming others, including family members and members of his own community among many others including charities and foundations, out of something in the range of $50,000,000,000, is worthy of admiration, because he turned himself in.

Shafran also described how a guy like Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who remained calm and collected while heroically landed the plane in the Hudson keeping all his passengers alive, is not worthy of admiration.

What is more, Madoff likely began his crime spree in the hope of rewarding, not swindling, investors, and by the time it became clear he wouldn’t be able to do that, he was already deeply entangled – and daily becoming more entangled – in the web he wove.

None of that, though, is to belittle the great pain Mr. Madoff caused, and is certainly no cause for affording the iniquitous investment broker respect. No, what I admire about him has to do with his owning up to his crime.

Think about it. The man knew for years that his scheme would eventually come apart and that prosecution loomed, yet he took no steps to flee, huge bribe in hand, to some country lacking extradition treaties. Idi Amin, we might recall, died of old age in luxury. Madoff’s millions, moreover, could have easily bought him a new face and identity papers; he could spent his senior years tanned and well-fed among the sunbirds of Miami Beach.

Instead, though, he chose to essentially turn himself in and admit guilt. He apologized to his victims, acknowledging that he had “deeply hurt many, many people,” and adding, “I cannot adequately express how sorry I am for what I have done.”

No one can know if those words reflect the feelings in his heart, but I don’t claim any right to doubt that they do. And facing one’s sins and regretting them is the essence of the Jewish concept of teshuvah, repentance – something we are all enjoined to do for our personal transgressions, however small or large.
No such sublimity of spirit, though, was in evidence in any of the public acts or words of Mr. Sullenberger. He saved 155 lives, no doubt about it, and is certainly owed the gratitude of those he saved, and of their families and friends. And he executed tremendous skill.

But no moral choice was involved in his act. He was on the plane too, after all; his own life depended on undertaking his feat no less than the lives of others. He did what anyone in terrible circumstances would do: try to stay alive. He was fortunate (as were his passengers) that he possessed the talents requisite to the task, but that’s a tribute to his training, and to the One Who instilled such astounding abilities in His creations (and Whose help the captain was not quoted as acknowledging). Basketball players are highly skilled, too – and heroes, in fact, to some. But I have never managed to understand that latter fact.
Sully has reportedly inked a $3 million book deal with HarperCollins, and is also planning a second book of inspirational poems; Bernie, likely for the rest of his life, will languish in jail.

That may make societal sense, but personally, I’m still unmoved by the pilot, and, at least somewhat, inspired by the penitent.

First of all, I dislike that he works to justify Madoff's crime. he suggests Madoff probably started out trying not to cheat people and make money for himself, but to help his investors. Right, I am sure Madoff started out as a real Robin Hood. Stealing from one investor and helping the other. Right. he was just trying to do the right thing all along.

Second, his lack of admiration for Captain Sully is because a) it was his job and that is all he did and b) he is going to make $3,000,000 in a book deal. Shafran saw no sublimity of spirit in Sully.

Did he forget that Sully was invited on a few talk shows being treated like a hero and practically refused to talk about himself because of what looked like humility in a simple person not looking for accolades? That is not sublimity of spirit?

And that is what he was trained to do so he does not deserve admiration for it? Does that mean Shafran does not admire the firemen of NY who were considered heroes the extra efforts they put forth to save people (many of those people being other firemen) during the attacks of 9/11? Does Shafran not admire Yeshiva students who spend the whole day learning Torah - because that is what they are trained to do and that is their job? Does Shafran not admire soldiers who valiantly fight against great odds and survive a battle, pulling out victory from the jaws of defeat and saving thousands or millions of people - just because the soldiers were trained to fight in battle? All they were doing was their job? What about great Roshei Yeshiva who conquer their desires and control their physical needs, and devote themselves to Torah - that is what they have been trained to do, so what is the big deal??

While I agree to a certain extent that Madoff deserves some sort of admiration for turning himself in - he realized he was doing something very wrong and he regretted it - albeit 15 years too late, but he regretted it nonetheless - and turned himself in knowing he was going to be in serious trouble. That fact does say something worthwhile about the person. But I still would not say I admire Madoff, let alone brush off Sully's heroic act as nothing.

UPDATE: Avi apologizes! Sort of! See the thread

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