On December 23, 2008, Rabbi Marc Gellman published and open letter to Bernie Madoff, railing at his indecency, the harm he did to the financial markets and to the image of Jews in the world. (See, http://www.newsweek.com/id/176821) My response to the rabbi is as follows:

Whilst I do appreciate the learned rabbi’s righteous indignation, his analysis is both wildly off of the mark and naïve.  So let us all step back for a moment so as to able to discern the forest for the trees.

Let me begin by pointing out that I refuse to be a victim.  Indeed, I am here today because my ancestors did not believe that Hitler would never do what was written in Mein Kampf, or that the German people would never allow such things to happen; nor did they believe that “arbeit macht frei.”  Unlike most of the sacred six million who stayed and walked meekly with foolish hopes into oblivion, my ancestors put their trust in themselves and their analysis of the facts, and not in the hands of evil.  Israel was founded and lives still today, only because the surviving remnant of European Jewry decided that they would no longer seek to entrust their survival to others, but would instead take full responsibility for it themselves.  As George Bernard Shaw observed, “Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.”

Similarly, no con game can ever succeed without the voluntary complicity of the target, and to obtain that complicity the con artist preys upon a serious character flaw in the other. Usually this flaw is hubris or greed; in the case of Bernie Madoff, both were present.  But for his “victim’s” complicity, no fraud could have been committed.  Have we never heard the expression that if it sounds too good to be true it probably isn’t?  That is why you cannot cheat an honest man.  Many people did not invest with Mr Madoff who had the opportunity to do so.  Did the good rabbi ever consider why those people did not?

The answer of course is that Madoff required blind trust in his omniscience, and would reject those who wished for logic.  This, of course, is the essence of idolatry which is abhorrent to our religion.  And I am not an idolater.  Those who chose such worship obviously forgot Jefferson’s admonition that we should “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, then that of blindfolded fear.”

Of course idol worship has been a constant source of temptation to the Jewish people throughout our history, although in more recent times it has been the deification of tangible men or institutions above intangible ideas or the intangible notion of Emmet, of Truth.  Keep in mind too that historically we have been a “stubborn and stiff-necked people;” we want to feel important, that we belong, that we are among the “knuckers.”  Why else would one abandon reason when Madoff consistently paid one a “profit” on our investments when everyone else saw their portfolios devalue fifty to sixty percent?  I personally never invested in WorldCom simply for the reason that I couldn’t figure out how they were making money, so I assumed that they weren’t.  It was that simple.  And it is always that simple.

Put your trust and faith in the Almighty; not in man.

The idealistic rabbi continues this naiveté, however, by blaming Madoff for besmirching the reputation of those “who sell real and honorable and legitimate money products.”  Please, dear rabbi, have you been asleep for the past seven years?  Let me make a short list:  Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Global Crossing, the banks and financial institutions that had to pay out billions of dollars in lawsuits because they knew of and participated in the fraud of the foregoing intuitions; Arthur Anderson; Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac; AIG, Lehman Brothers, Bear Sterns, Morgan Stanley; hedge funds, special purpose vehicles, sub-prime mortgages; oil going from $35 per barrel to $160 and back again.  Need I go on?   Hello, rabbi:  there’s no there, there.  Caveat emptor is as important a maxim today as it was in Caesar’s time.  Recall Ecclesiastes (i. 9) observation that “there is nothing new under the sun.”

Finally, Mr Madoff did not cause any revival of insults relating to Jews and money.  They have always been there.  Take a quick look at the watch-dog reports issued the past few years by the ADL and you will quickly see that anti-Semitism has been on a frightening rise.  You cannot make a man hate a Jew if he admires them merely because of Madoff.  Those that hate us now did before as well; the only difference may be that now they have something new to whine about.  Further, let us not forget that being Jewish does not entitle one to sainthood.  Is Madoff any worse that Michael Milken?  What about the fact that Jews were a major arm of the Mafia?  The truth is that because we are frightened of being conspicuous for being Jews, we hold ourselves to a higher standard.  This is, of course laudable and likely why we tend to excel as a group, but let us not take ourselves so seriously.  It is only we Jews who invented the phrase of “a shande vor de goyem!”  We will always stick out; we shall always be thirteenth at table.  And no matter what we may do to hide it, there will always be a gentile around to remind us that we are Jews.  Deal with it!

In closing, I must also give a piece of bad news to the rabbi:  Madoff will not have lost everything and he will eventually be trusted again.  I suspect that there likely is a billion or so dollars hidden somewhere to which he will have access.  Perhaps like Milken he will “repent and find God” and then be forgiven.  Then, too, we have yet to hear his defense which will portray him as a victim who really meant well, foolishly believed in his abilities to turn matters around, and thought that if he could only have stuck it out a little longer the corner would have been just around the corner and no one would have been hurt.  No, rabbi, all will be forgotten, and only too soon.

My advice to the rabbi is to focus on what he could have done to have prevented his complicity in this scheme; find the fatal flaws within his own character that Madoff took advantage of.  Forget about revenge; or, if he cannot, begin by first digging two graves.

Kind regards,

Richard L Wise

Richard L Wise

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