Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bernie Madoff and the Monsey Butcher

What do the Monsey Butcher and Bernie Madoff have in common? I thought it might be interesting to compare them.

The Monsey butcher - for those who forget - was a Charedi fellow who defrauded the Frum community of Monsey, New York. He sold much of that community Treif chickens that he labeled Kosher using packaging with kosher certifications on them. The uproar when this was discovered was huge. Understandably so. The poor fellow was forced to divorce his wife and left the country in disgrace. Deservedly so.

Bernie Madoff is to the best of my knowledge a non observant Jew but with strong ties to the Modern Orthodox Jewish community. He too defrauded the Frum Community. Not that that they were his only victims. Some of the wealthiest Jews in the country were his victims too. (Most of his victims were Jews.) Names like Steven Spielberg and Mort Zuckerman are among those he defrauded. Everyone who invested with him lost every dime they gave him - to the tune of millions of dollars each. Some lost their life savings becoming paupers from being millionaires in a single moment!

But the biggest losers were charities; some of them had to close down. If I understand correctly Yeshiva University lost over 100 million dollars from their endowment fund. His pyramid scheme lost a total of over 50 billion dollars. That is wealth of epic proportions disappearing in a flash.

Two crooks, both putting their own needs ahead of everyone else’s.

Which one is worse in the eyes of God? That’s hard to say. Madoff’s fraud is so huge and so far reaching that it is impossible to overestimate the damage he’s done. It affects the entire economy of this country if not the world, not just his investors. It has lowered immeasurably the already low confidence level of investors all over the world.

So as bad as the Monsey butcher was, his impact was small potatoes compared to Madoff’s.

Which is the greater crime? Both were a fraud. One was a religious fraud and the other financial. We know which one had greater impact. But leaving impact aside which crime is greater? And which is the bigger Chilul HaShem – a desecration of God’s name? Is it a secular Jew who commits a financial crime of monumental magnitude or the Charedi Jew who sold hundreds if not thousands his fellow Jews Treif meat passing it off as Kosher?

The Madoff affair is certainly red meat for every anti-Semite who is now coming out of the woodwork. But causing anti-Semitism is not the same thing as causing a Chilul HaShem. They were both guilty of that but the Monsey Butcher was a far a greater one, in my view.

Here's why.

If one does not claim to live his life by the dictates of God as delineated by the Torah, one cannot say about his acts that they are a desecration of God’s name. One cannot claim their acts are based on Torah values if they do not live a Torah lifestyle. But when does claim to live a Torah lifestyle then his public deviance from those laws is by definition is a desecration of God’s name.

This is not to say that what Madoff did was not a Chilul HaShem. It was. By merely being Jewish his crime is seen as reflective of Jewish values - whether he is Frum of not. But the Chilul HaShem is still of lesser magnitude even though the crime itself was exponentially greater in terms of impact.

The truth is that they both have defective characters. They did not internalize ethical behavior that they may - or may not - have learned. They valued personal desires, money, power, and status over truth and ethics and cared little about the welfare of others.

That said I do not believe that either started out as an evil person. I don’t believe that they started out with a life plan to defraud people. I’m pretty sure they both started out trying to run their respective businesses honestly. And in many ways were fine people - raising fine families.

But when tested, they failed. Instead of taking their medicine - they decided that cheating a little bit was the best way out of their respective predicaments. Perhaps they thought that they could eventually work their way out of their problems by just buying some time. An ethical lapse, yes but with a little luck - back on track.

What happened instead in both cases is that instead of digging their way out, they were digging their hole deeper until one day the hole was to deep to dig their way out of and eventually it caught up with them. And now they will both pay a price.