The question of how the actions of a handful of corrupt Jews reflect on the community at large is a tricky one—naturally, most of us don’t want to take personal responsibility for Bernie Madoff and his ilk, but there’s no denying the fact that sometimes the rest of the world, and even some of us, are bound to make that connection, especially given the long history of negative associations between Jews and money.
Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University, is frank about the situation, saying that we’ve “been embarrassed” by Bernie and the July arrest of several rabbis for money laundering. He’s also blunt about the opportunity afforded by the High Holidays to drum it into congregants heads that this is not how Jews are expected to behave: “[T]he rabbis of America have a lot of Jews trapped in synagogues this weekend, and it’s a wonderful time to focus on who we are and how we are.” Joel, along with Rabbi Moshe Kletenik, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, and two others have signed a letter urging rabbis to talk to their congregations about ethics during Rosh Hashanah services.
Their letter raises the question of whether ideas of Judaism should be proscriptive or descriptive: are we what we think we should be, or are we, well, who we are? Of course, in this case it may be a simpler matter, of the annual need for especially poignant material for the one time of year many Jews actually attend synagogue, and a year that has handed rabbis an obvious choice.
Hadara Graubart was formerly a writer and editor for Tablet Magazine.