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Madoff and the Golden Calf


 21 December 2008

By Yisrael Ne'eman

It is all about greed, and it does not matter whether the system is capitalist, socialist, communist, mixed economy or whatever. Self-aggrandizement, ego centrism and narcissism all rolled into one will lead someone like Bernard Madoff to steal from everyone (but not anyone, since there were those sums of money not great enough) representing substantial wealth in his Ponzi scheme. The problem is he is not alone. He stole from everyone – schools, hospitals, private investors and in particular Jewish clients and Jewish philanthropies as he embezzled from the needy, his own friends and his own community. He betrayed America, exploiting its freedoms to reign havoc while devastating the Jewish community who trusted him with their money and future.

His $50 billion rip-off is a catastrophe of unparalleled proportions. There are those who invested all or almost all there savings with him and today face financial ruin. But certainly far worse are those charities destroyed. The more unfortunate will go hungry or without an education or without medicine or medical care because Madoff stole the monies earmarked for such philanthropic ventures. Madoff and others like him are only out to win the game, they care not about those incinerated in the process. As a bottom line there will be those who die due to his actions, which are "only" economic and "white collar". The truth is that Bernard Madoff is a murderer and should face the death penalty.

The greater issue is that Madoff is not alone. He did not quite manage to take his Ponzi scheme to the grave because the economy tanked and investors needed their money returned. His game plan was to take it all with him to the grave and emerge the ultimate winner. One should not be fooled, with today's greed, he has many secret admirers. As one commentator in The New York Times mentioned this past week, US financial markets became one encompassing Ponzi scheme. Worshipping the Golden Calf began thousands of years ago and unfortunately is alive and well.

Many people mistakenly consider the great Wall Street disaster (and any other stock markets) as the ultimate in boorish capitalism. It is certainly piggishness and greed at the highest level. The question is whether it is capitalism. Such material exploitation of the laisse faire system for personal wealth and gain to the exclusion and at the expense of everyone else is not what capitalism is about. A capital driven society is meant to ensure stability through the market place and in essence avoid abuses. The idea is to have full employment and encouragement for the best brains to take the economic lead. One is to produce and supervise production while the market regulates itself. Owning stock meant a loyalty and concern for the well being of the company invested. Playing the market shows no social consciousness. Here the only loyalty is to one's pocket and if everything crashed, who cares. If the individual made money he is a "success" as anti-societal behavior is raised to unexpected new heights with ego centrism becoming the new deity of worship.

But high unemployment and socio-economic instability are failures for all. In the end he who makes the financial killing will be shorn of his material well being or live in constant fear of losing all. The lack of a social consciousness can damn any system. The great Russian communist revolution turned into Stalinism (a form of fascism) and eventually came crashing down. Entrenched dead wood socialism where labor unions protect their own interests and no one else's eventually lead to economic stagnation and reversal and is also swept away - as happened in the Israel of the 1980s. Even benevolent dictatorship, call it fascism, is expected to have a social responsibility whereby the leadership guarantees the well being of the people. Spain and Portugal of the 1970s are the best examples of regime change after such leadership failure. Plato, the great Greek philosopher was certainly an elitist but demanded responsibility of that same entrenched power elite whose sole responsibility in life was to care for the good of society. Should they only be in power for their own good, instability would result and collapse the system.

The basic issue is one of morals and ethics and none should know better than the Jewish People as our covenant at Sinai is rooted in social justice. Unfortunately, many Jews chose personal gain over societal well being. This may well bring the downfall of the community and the Jewish State. Worship of the Golden Calf nearly led to the complete destruction of the Children of Israel in Sinai and did bring the demise of those who refused to follow the moral code. In the meantime however, all would suffer from plague. Let us consider the illicit behavior of King David in his desire for Batsheva. God warned him through the Prophet Nathan that what he had done "was a blasphemy to the Lord" and in the end he, his family and the Israelite tribal confederation paid the price of never ending war. Or take the later Maccabean kings (Hasmonians), in particular Alexander Yannai, who cared only for power, slaughtered the rabbinical scholars who dared challenge him, engaged in civil wars and foreign conquests, all in the name of his own glorification and material gain. Not long after his death the Hasmonian independence came to an end despite the best efforts of his wife who succeeded him.

Immoral actions, even if done behind the scenes can lead to the destruction of a nation. Lust, the ultimate lack of self-control for the material and the pursuit of "what feels good" leads to the unraveling of community and social breakdown. The illusion of power brings individuals to believe in a certain personal invincibility. Whether seen publicly or not, immorality, lust and greed radiate outward and the people follow suit as there lives are permeated with selfishness until there is no reason to behave morally at all. Here society disintegrates, usually with much chaos and violence until a new order is formed.

Bernard Madoff and those like him are symbols of our most evil inclinations (yetzer harah). Such behavior and values must be liquidated while those like Madoff are banished from our midst and treated as the outcasts they are. They have no place amongst us if we as a nation, people and society want to survive.