Thoughtful Revolution

Madoff, Rubashkin and Self-Flagellation

Apparently, there is a major ethical blight in the modern Jewish community.  Apparently, we are money-grubbing, shallow, permissive and hedonistic, and none of us even know the meaning of the phrase “human kindness.”  And apparently those gol-darned modern Jewish teenagers are the worst.

This sounds like the mindless, crazed rant of an anti-Semite (and indeed, one could argue that it is one, no matter who might be the one saying it) — but it seems to have become the line of reasoning among a startling number of respected rabbis.  The Madoff and Rubashkin scandals have been taken as incontrovertible proof, as has a slew of “anecdotal evidence” mostly involving the negative response of college students to their on-campus Jewish organizations and/or Hillels.  I believe, to put it quite frankly, that all this is bull — and, what’s more, harmful bull, that not only misdirects a thoroughly justifiable disillusionment but misdirects it in a way that echoes the claims of bigots since time immemorial.

First, and perhaps above all, it is worth noting that Madoff and Rubashkin ARE NOT BY ANY MEANS THE ONLY UNETHICAL ENTREPRENEURS OUT THERE.  They’re not even close, and to suggest anything else would be to far overestimate their importance.  They are only two of thousands who have been convicted of unacceptable business practices — and there’s considerable evidence to suggest that even many major corporations that haven’t technically run afoul of the law have dabbled in pretty cringeworthy tactics.  Few of these business heads, proportionately speaking, have been Jewish, even in the past few “ethically blighted” years (heck, look at AIG’s Martin Sullivan).  There is no question in my mind that excessive greed, exacerbated by the shocking potential for profit in the field of business, is a problem.  But to say that it is at all a uniquely Jewish problem is to subscribe to a wrongheaded and ultimately prejudiced folly.

It is also folly to say that there was some halcyon era when people (including the Jewish community) were magically more ethical.  Such visions of pastoral perfection and pixie dust are mere fantasy, buying into the same amnesiac nostalgia that leads American culture to romanticise the 1950s.  Since the development of the capitalist system, at the very least, the profit motive has been a powerful corrupter — and, from my admittedly uneven knowledge of world history, I can say that greed has always been a tangible influence on human behavior and ethics.  And, going broader, ethics themselves have been even less pure throughout history.  From the feudal lords of medieval Britain to the robber barons of the 19th and 20th centuries to the financially driven imperialism that has plagued the world for centuries (and that’s only the monetary examples), no segment of world history has emerged unscathed by “blighted ethics.”  Jewish history (being, you know, made up of human beings) is similarly imperfect.  It would be highly possible, in a number of ways, to argue that this trend has been less prevalent in the Jewish community, but there is no question that the Jewish community’s ethics have never been either monolithic or entirely untouched by human failings.

Which brings me to a fundamental, and difficult, assumption that many of these angry rabbis make: that the Jewish community must somehow make itself superior, and when it is not superior (and free of any unethical members) this constitutes an ethical problem.  Modern Judaism, particularly Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, has long since tried to minimize the “chosen people” ideology, such a difficult idea in our time; the concept in the statement above not only takes that ideology at face value but distorts it beyond its original meaning or importance.  There is nothing in Judaism to suggest that we are superhuman, or that we should be.  The idea at the base of Jewish ethics is to better ourselves to the extent we can, for the sake of ourselves and those around us, while simultaneously embracing our humanity and not trying to exceed it.  (I can think of at least one parable in which that was attempted, with dire results.)  Of course, it is unethical, Jewishly or otherwise, to extort billions of dollars or mistreat one’s workers for profit; both are actions that good people should avoid at all cost.  But to say that one’s entire people has fallen ethically because of the heartless actions of a few — not only is that completely unfair and illogical, but it assumes a certain ethical supremacy that is impossible for any community to achieve.

In conclusion, I think that we, as American Jews, have a couple of things about which we could reasonably self-flagellate — for one thing, if so many college students are turning away from on-campus organizations, maybe those organizations themselves might merit some improvement.  But some sort of greedy, amoral ethical vacuum in the Jewish community is not only fiction, it’s offensive fiction.  Borderline anti-Semitic distortions and stereotypes are prevalent enough in the world; we certainly don’t need to hear them from our own clergy.


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