Bernard Madoff's Deception

Bernard Madoff and his Ponzi scheme have upended the Jewish community's philanthropic efforts. Whether you are a Jew in New York, Cincinnati, Israel and everywhere in between there have been moments of rage and sadness that have come from this breaking news. It is difficult to understand how someone claiming to serve the Jewish people in the financial arena could have committed such a crime against his own people.

How could someone so integrated into the Jewish community do something like this? In Shawn Zevit's Offerings of the Heart he provides wisdom from an early 18th century mystic, Moshe Chayim Luzzatto. Luzzatto's teaching might have an answer for us from his work saying, "most people are not outright thieves, taking their neighbor's property and putting it in their own premises. However, in their business dealing most of them get a taste of stealing whenever they permit themselves to make an unfair profit at the expense of someone else, claiming that such a profit has nothing to do with stealing." Madoff may never have thought about himself as stealing, but just making a profit in a way that worked. We all know that technically he was stealing, by taking older profits and giving them to other clients as dividends. He was basically reworking the money from one hand to another without investing it, as he contractually should have. He got that taste of stealing and unfortunately for the Jewish world, he liked it. We are not sure exactly how he felt about all of it, but we can imagine that at some point he felt a sense of entitlement that allowed his conscience rest while he was dealing so poorly with other people's money.

A sense of entitlement to something that does not belong to us is present in our own historic narrative. Our own forefather Jacob took advantage of his brother at a moment of vulnerability for his own financial gain. Esau claimed to be starving, and Jacob provided him with soup at an exorbitant expense: his birthright. This original act of dishonest dealing lead Jacob to commit the ultimate crime; he deceived his father and stole his brother's birthright. We are critical of Jacob for his outright act of theft and trickery, but we fail to recognize the insidious nature of his acquisition of the birthright in exchange for lentil soup.

Jacob was the father of twelve tribes of Israel. We admire Jacob despite his unethical behavior and forgive him his wrongdoing. Bernard Madoff however will not benefit from such a pardon. Luzzatto teaches from our tradition that both of Jacob's acts were unethical but Jacob's crooked dealings deserve as much criticism as his outright stealing. In Luzzatto's words, "It is not merely the obvious and explicit theft with which we have to concern ourselves, but any unlawful transfer of wealth from one individual to another that may occur in everyday economic activities." Our communal failure to heed these words is evident in our misplaced trust of Madoff. The tragic loss of our philanthropic monies is the unfortunate result of complacency. Let us hope that this dark event in our history will bring us back to the teachings of our tradition so we more diligently monitor those who handle our community funds.


Zevit, Shawn Israel. †Offerings of the Heart: Money and Values in Faith Communities. Alban Institute, Herndon, VA, 2005.

(Developed By: Lisa Delson, HUC-JIR, Cincinnati)