Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Mercy has its limits -

Vengeance & Bernie Madoff


When Bernard Madoff's attorney, Ira Lee Sorkin, appealed to US Federal District Court Judge Denny Chin to go easy on his client just before the Ponzi-scheme king was sentenced on Monday, his argument was: "Vengeance is not the goal of punishment."

There is no way of knowing what the judge thought of that. What we do know is that after labeling Madoff's 20-year crime spree an "extraordinary evil," Chin sent him to prison for 150 years. Granted, Madoff showed - if not remorse - then self-awareness, admitting that his $65-billion racket had caused "a great deal of suffering and pain… I live in a tormented state now… I've left a legacy of shame." Indeed, his wife, who absented herself from the courtroom, claims to have known nothing of the plot which left her "embarrassed and ashamed."

Just as "Quisling" has become synonymous with "collaboration"; "Churchillan" with "eloquence" and "Freudian" with "analysis," the name Madoff will henceforth, as The New York Times aptly put it, "become synonymous with greed and fraud."

It will be years before the Nobel Prize winners and baseball heroes; the foundations, hospitals and yeshivot; the universities and charities - and the thousands of pensioners and civil servants (who didn't even know their savings had been funneled to Madoff's operation by the firms they invested with) - know whether any of their losses can be recouped.

The number of lives Madoff shattered will never be known; nor the total number of potential medical breakthroughs his crimes aborted. The harm he caused to countless, anonymous individuals is incalculable.

From a Jewish perspective, Madoff has brought shame upon our people and disrepute to Judaism. He has desecrated God's name - a hillul Hashem. That the religion and ethnicity of non-Jewish criminals is seldom made an issue of is beside the point. It is our tradition, and not what the Gentiles may say, that makes Madoff's Jewishness pertinent.

THIS BRINGS us back to the issue of vengeance. Avraham Feder, rabbi emeritus of Beit Knesset Moreshet Yisrael in Jerusalem, notes that in the 1790s, after European Jews were emancipated, various ancient Hebrew ideas fell out of favor. With modernity, vengeance came to be seen as unethical and even un-Jewish. Jews began to embrace the Christian tenet of turning the other cheek.

In fact, in Jewish tradition, going back to ancient times, vengeance is closely associated with justice. The Psalmist calls upon the Creator: "Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge you, on the kingdoms that do not call on your name; for they have devoured Jacob and destroyed his homeland."

Feder points out that while vengeance is the Lord's, the collective is occasionally empowered to exact retribution or vindication, as in Chapter 8, verse 13 of the Book of Esther, when the Jews are told to be ready "to avenge themselves on their enemies."

Rabbi Jacob Chinitz, a noted Jerusalem educator, has argued that vengeance is justice by another name - and justice is vengeance, so long as it is carried out lawfully, and sanctioned by society. Vigilantism by individuals is not justice and, if rampant, would send civilization back to a Hobbesian state of nature.

Elwood McQuaid, a leading Protestant clergyman and Christian Zionist, cites Romans 12:19 in defining his tradition's attitude to vengeance: "Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath: for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord."

McQuaid: "What's interesting, and I believe clarifying here, is that the passage bases its authority on Deuteronomy 32:35. In the following passage, Romans 13, the justice/vengeance issue is left in the hands of the 'governing authorities,' with a strong admonition to obey and support those laws. Therefore, in cases like the Madoff fiasco, Christians would support whatever terms of justice/vengeance the law imposed. The prohibition is against executing personal vengeance, but supportive of the law of the land - justice."

So to attorney Sorkin, we say: Vengeance is indeed an acceptable goal of punishment, certainly in such a case. You might more credibly have appealed for mercy, which the Judeo-Christian tradition, and American jurisprudence, provide when justice makes a petitioner undeserving of leniency.

But even mercy has its limits.

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