Apr 6, 2009

admiring Madoff

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.


  1. Madoff deserves nothing. He didn't turn himself in, the feds were about to raid him. He in fact was trying to move money and personal effects out of his name to save them from seizure. Where R' Shafran gets his ideas from is ridiculous. It's like the prisoners who find "Jesus" in jail, but return to a life of crime. Madoff was sorry he got caught, that's it.

    To take away froma real mentch like "Cpt. Scully", is a poor attempt at continuing the long held yeshiva tradition that no matter what goyim do, they are evil.

  2. On top of what Shaya said, the prosecutors believe that Madoff plead guilty and refused a plea deal because he would not name his accomplices, which would be required in a plea deal.

    He plead guilty and has refused to co-operate with prosecutors about who else was involved and where all the assetts are.

    just because a rabbi wants to make a point does not mean the point is right or even logical merely by the virtuer of having been said by a rabbi, cause this one is way off base.

    Happy pesach

  3. rafi,

    i had seen your original comment and wondered then where you got the idea that he turned himself in because he regretted his actions.

  4. Maybe I am mistaken, but I seem to remember reading that from when it happened. he admitted it to his kids or something like that and had them call the authorities...

    anyways, I actually wrote about Madoff as an aside. What really bothered me about the article was his lack of admiration for Sully.

  5. Shaya G is correct. If not for the complete financial meltdown, Madoff would have hummed along with his scheme. Many other Ponzi schemes were exposed because of redemption requests (Ponzi schemes only work with new investor money, not redemptions) due to the market. Sully has every right to earn as much as he can for a book. That's called capitalism. He has something that someone is legally willing to pay for. Madoff is the scum of the earth and Shafran needs his head examined. Klal Yisroel is in bad shape with people like him at the public podium.

  6. As someone already posted here....Madoff DOESN'T deserve any admiration. Anyone who thinks he does, must be off his nut! I think he's more sorry that he got caught,
    than he is for what he did. If he had any conscience to speak of, & was really interested in doing the RIGHT thing, it wouldn't have taken
    him 15 years to do it to turn himself in. The plain truth is that
    took advantage of trusting people, all for his own personal gain. If he ends up rotting in jail, then so
    be it. That would serve him right, as that's exactly where he DESERVES to be & where he belongs. When it comes his time to leave this earth, he'll need to be screwed into the ground, & preferably head first, so
    he'll be headed in the right direction & will be able to see where he's going to end up.

    My thoughts on Captain Sullenberger....No one deserves accolades or our
    admiration more than this extrordinarially humble & wonderful
    man. I am proud of him, beyond words. In a world of pain, suffering, hatred & self centeredness, Captain Chesley Sullenberger is a perfect example of all that is right with the world.

  7. Of the things I've read from Avi Shafran, I get the feeling that he writes about things he doesn't understand, and this lack of understanding shows through.

    Madoff was not some guy who came up with a scheme to make money which happened to be illegal. The Ponzi scheme was not his invention either. It's a well known (and illegal - Madoff went to law school, he probably knew it as well) way of cheating people out of their money.

    He didn't turn himself in, either; his sons did (see the wikipedia article about him; Rabbi Shafran should have done so before he wrote the article).

    I get the feeling that Avi Shafran uses the title rabbi to pass himself off as an expert on everything. But just because the Torah is characterized with the aphorism "הפוך בה והפוך בה דכולה בה", doesn't mean that being a rabbi makes you an expert on everything.

    I understand that Rabbi Shafran was trying to make a point, and using shocking examples is a good way of doing this. But to whitewash some facts while inventing others (e.g., professing to not know what Madoff was really thinking when he apologized, but on the other hand asserting that he knew his business would fall apart some day, when there is no evidence of this) is not becoming someone who uses the title "Rabbi".


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