Taking on Jewish Scandals

Dr. Erica Brown on how we can deal with the repercussions of devious Jews doing very bad things.

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It’s fair to say that most people were disgusted by the acts of Bernie Madoff, who lied and cheated people out of millions of dollars. For many Jews, he did something equally bad, maybe worse; he made us look bad as a people and confirmed for some anti-Semites that we are greedy and untrustworthy. The same is true when we hear of money laundering and sexual crimes committed by rabbinic leaders. We are left feeling betrayed, humiliated, and frustrated. That’s exactly why Dr. Erica Brown wrote Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond When Jews Do Bad Things (Jewish Lights, 2010), which explores the thorny issues surrounding scandals: airing dirty laundry in public, coming to terms with criminality among Jews, examining painful stereotypes of Jews and the difficult position of being a minority in society.

Could you share the personal reason that inspired you to write this book?

I was deeply troubled by what seemed to me to be an increase of Jews involved in high profile crimes. This is the first time that a former prime minister and a former president of Israel have been indicted of crime at the same time. And it isn’t just one type of crime—although too many involve money laundering or tax evasion—but also sexual harassment, the assassination of a prime minister, the manipulation of political leaders. The madness has got to stop. I can’t understand why more rabbis and journalists have not been exerting pressure on the community to look at itself in the mirror and ask one question: are these all isolated instances of crime or do they show a level of disregard for the rules that a civil society is supposed to play by? I also wrote the book because I think that most Jews are upstanding, law-abiding citizens who suffer anxiety because of Jews in high places who commit very public crimes. How should we manage the shame and disgrace that it brings us and why do we care?

Why do you think it’s important for Jews to “air our dirty laundry” in public when a Jewish person commits a heinous crime?

Historically, there have been all kinds of good reasons that we hushed up crime. But what we find is that when we turn a blind eye, the crimes get worse and more prevalent. Only when we are transparent about them and more open about the ethical guidelines that drive us do we adhere to a stronger moral compass.

Do you think Jews are right to assume that non-Jews might lump us in with Jewish criminals when they hear about a Madoff or other corrupt higher-up? Or are we being paranoid about this?

I don’t think so. We can rest upon a long reputation as good citizens and good people, but we also have to remember the profound impact of stereotypes in our society. For Jews, stereotypes involving money and power can get very tricky when you have a guy like Madoff in the news every day for months. We do worry about what other people think about us—all minorities do—and that’s one of the reasons we need to regain our sterling reputation as a light to the nations. We don’t have the monopoly on light, but right now we’re dimming. We’re each stakeholders in the reputation of the Jewish people and we have to take that responsibility very seriously, especially at times like these.

In your book, you state that Madoff “took away, in some small measure, the reputation we worked for so many centuries to achieve in larger civil society.” Could you explain what exactly he took from us?

I think the minute someone questions your honesty because they read about Madoff’s strong connection with the Jewish community at large, you know that Madoff stole something from you too. Money isn’t the only currency in the world. Arguably, a reputation is.

You mention that in the Bible there is a commandment that the king must write a Torah scroll and keep it on his person at all times. He is never to forget that he is subject to the law and bound to the same standards as everyone else. Should we have something comparable to this for Jews in high power positions?

Sounds good. Not sure what it would be. I can say that I know leaders, Jewish and non-Jewish, who take a quote—or several words that inspire them and keep them on the straight and narrow—and keep them in their wallets or close to their desks as a reminder of who they are and what they stand for. We all need reminders every day of what our core values are so that when they are potentially compromised we make the right decision, the ethical decision. The higher you climb, the fewer the people to keep you in line, and the greater the fall. I think too many Jewish leaders don’t operate within a checks-and-balances system of power.

There is a sense of rage that comes from Jews who try to live a life of social justice when we see the Jewish bad guys grabbing all the media attention. What can we do with that rage?

Turn it into positive energy for good. Anger is such a strong force. If we could harness it and turn it into social action that gets attention, then we are doing something powerful and proactive to mute the voices of those who do evil in the world.

Many people are no longer shocked when they hear about a priest molesting children, but are shocked when they hear about a rabbi who commits the same crime. Why?

We have fewer rabbis who engage in these kinds of crimes because sexuality is sacred and permitted within the Jewish tradition. Abstinence is a terrific driver of sexual crimes, and hypocrisy abounds in very painful ways. Yet, we can’t be naïve enough to think that it does not happen in our circles. It does. And this is not only about sex; it’s predominantly about power and the thrill of getting away with a crime because you’re regarded as above the law. I am immensely distressed that not every rabbi employed by a congregation has an annual performance review and an official way to get feedback. It doesn’t solve every problem, but is an important feedback mechanism that tells every rabbi, you are our leader but we have a voice in how you lead.

You say there are “fine nuances that must be detailed and understood between a legal category of Jewish behavior and a sociological one.” Could you give us an example?

Nachmanides, a medieval Spanish commentator, said that to try to purify oneself while holding on to something impure is like trying “to immerse in a mikveh (ritual bath) with a rat in one’s grasp.” You can follow every letter of Jewish law and still search for ways to circumvent its meaning. Here I refer to people who try to find a Jewish legal loophole, for example, to get out of paying taxes. It doesn’t matter what your rabbi says if the IRS says something else.

If you could advise our readers on any one thing about how to deal with modern scandals of Jewish criminals, what would it be?

Being Jewish isn’t about who you are when you’re in a synagogue pew; it’s about who you are in your office, on a basketball court, and in a carpool lane. If we’re going to be noticed as Jews anyway, let’s make it a positive affirmation, day after day. Small kindnesses hold up the world, as it says in Psalms. They are also the surest way to a reputation for goodness.

About the Author

Dr. Erica Brown
Dr. Erica Brown, a leading voice on subjects of current Jewish interest, consults for Jewish federations and organizations across the country. She is the author of Inspired Jewish Leadership: Practical Approaches to Building Strong Communities (Jewish Lights, 2008), a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award; Spiritual Boredom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism (Jewish Lights, 2009); and coauthor of The Case for Jewish Peoplehood: Can We Be One? (Jewish Lights, 2009).

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