The Pity of Bernie Madoff

Opinion

By Louis E. Newman

Published March 25, 2009, issue of April 03, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Bernard Madoff is in prison. All indications are that he will spend the rest of his days there, which is surely where he belongs.

Still, many express concern that he will get off too easy, and urge that he be made to suffer as his victims have suffered. Some would have him assigned to clean toilets in prison. On the Internet one can find comments calling for Madoff to be hanged on Wall Street or arguing that, had Dante known him, he would have been assigned to the lowest circle of hell.

GETTY IMAGES

There is indeed something viscerally satisfying in seeing the person who has caused such harm subjected to the harshest possible treatment. I certainly understand the impulse behind calls for Madoff to rot in hell. My family was among the victims of his massive fraud. His crime has dramatically reduced our resources, diminished our capacity for charitable giving and derailed our plans for the future.

But this is a time to hold our baser instincts in check. Vengeance may bring emotional relief, but it does nothing to redress the wrong that has been done. Public cries for humiliation are the verbal equivalent of putting someone in stocks in the public square and throwing rotten fruit at him, a practice we have long since abandoned. In our desire to vilify the offender, we actually demean ourselves.

The morally appropriate response to gross misconduct is grief, shame and renewed resolve. We should grieve for the victims of this fraud, of course, but also for Madoff himself. When a man of such intelligence and stature uses his gifts in such evil ways, we should all feel pained at the tragedy of a life thoroughly ruined and a family forever disgraced.

In Proverbs we read, “If your enemy falls, do not exult; if he trips, let your heart not rejoice.” Judaism reminds us that even our enemies are human, and the disgrace of another person is never cause for celebration. As Passover approaches, we should consider that most powerful ritual moment, when we symbolically reduce our joy by spilling some of our wine as the suffering of the Egyptians is recounted. When we consider the Madoffs of the world as a window into the dark recesses of the human soul, we should respond with pity and anguish, not anger or delight.

Make no mistake — I am glad that justice will be done, that Madoff will never be able to defraud people, as he has cheated my family and so many others. And I hope that his sentence, when it comes, will be a deterrent to others. But there is a profound difference between sober affirmations of the need for justice and gleeful, hate-filled calls that he suffer to the greatest extent possible.

Madoff’s fall is a human tragedy. It gives us an opportunity to look squarely at the worst of what humans are capable of doing to one another. As this enemy falls, let us pause, reflect on the lessons we can learn and weep at the painful tragedy of it all.

Louis E. Newman is the John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies at Carleton College.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.