From George Clooney to Orthodox rabbis, the list of those who have scathingly denounced Jack Abramoff seems endless. Given the admission of guilt by this Orthodox Jew and former super-lobbyist for Indian gambling tribes, is it possible to discover any grounds for sympathy with him?
But first a disclaimer. As I wrote in the Forward back in May, I am not unbiased. I’ve met Abramoff on two occasions, including 10 years ago when I was a guest in his home for Sukkot. I once worked for Toward Tradition, the conservative Jewish group for which, before my time, he served as board chairman and which he manipulated to give a job to a congressional staffer’s wife. The FBI found nothing to suggest that Toward Tradition knew of Abramoff’s intentions. Yes, I think he performed a valuable service to the Jewish community by supporting causes like Toward Tradition, two Orthodox schools, two kosher restaurants, and through private gifts to the needy. He’s a complicated guy.
Please note, however, that Abramoff’s critics never admit their own biases, the most common being a transparent delight at seeing the GOP humiliated by the revelation that Republican congressmen accepted favors and gifts. (So did some Democrats.)
This month, Abramoff appeared in federal court, detailing his crimes (mail fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy) in a plea agreement. Expressing regret before the judge, he spoke in the most plaintive terms: “Your Honor, words will not be able to ever express how sorry I am for this, and I have profound regret and sorrow for the multitude of mistakes and harm I have caused. All of my remaining days, I will feel tremendous sadness and regret for my conduct and for what I have done. I only hope that I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and from those I have wronged or caused to suffer.”
When I interviewed him for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, he reiterated his regret. (That article may be read online.) Yet the Abramoff bashers keep bashing away. Clooney’s swipe at him during Golden Globes ceremony is too vulgar to repeat. In Salon, Joe Conason deployed all the standard anti-religious clichés: “white sepulchers,” “pious hypocrites,” “moral rot,” “religious cynicism,” “bogus religiosity.” And so on and on.
But I’m more interested in the Jewish world. As I’ve found through conversations and e-mails, some Jews are enjoying the spectacle of an Orthodox Jew brought low by the admission of crimes. That is an ugly response. But it troubles me less than does the reaction from Orthodox Jews like myself, including Jeff Jacoby in The Boston Globe (his column was also posted on the Aish HaTorah Web site, later taken down) and Rabbi Eliyahu Stern in The Jerusalem Post.
Both expressed elaborate revulsion at Abramoff’s chilul Hashem, the “desecration” of God’s name. Rabbi Stern, scholar-in-residence at Manhattan’s fancy Park East Synagogue, harshly berated me for not being willing to condemn Abramoff, that “failure as a Jew.” Scholar-in-residence Stern misidentifies Abramoff’s rabbi and inaccurately charges Abramoff with using a yeshiva to launder money. Yet he can see into the man’s soul and rule on what kind of Jew he is at heart.
The key point to keep in mind is simple: Whatever laws Abramoff broke, he has now publicly repented. He will suffer a severe penalty, perhaps a decade in prison. To denounce him to the world at this point is to violate one of two severe dictates of Jewish law. Because of Judaism’s high regard for repentance, merely reminding a penitent sinner of his past sins is forbidden. So the standard Jewish law code, the Shulchan Aruch, rules (Choshen Mishpat 228:4). On the other hand, if the attackers deny his sincerity as a penitent, they fall afoul of the obligation to judge charitably, or dan l’kaf zchut (Rashi on Leviticus19:15).
Consider too that Abramoff acted not in order to amass wealth for himself — as the absence of any reports of an excessive lifestyle demonstrates. Rather he did what he did to help causes, Jewish and Republican and other, that he believed in. Not that this fact gets him off the hook, obviously. That’s why he is going to prison. But motivation surely counts for something.
And Abramoff has asked for our forgiveness as well as God’s. What kind of Jews are we if we withhold our mercy?
Probably just the sort of people King David had in mind when he prayed, “I am exceedingly distressed. Let us fall into the Lord’s hand for His mercies are abundant, but let me not fall into human hands” (2 Samuel 24:14).
Like Abramoff in one respect, David knew all about cruel reversals of fortune. He had been King Saul’s favorite, then suddenly he had to flee for his life from the very same man. Could it be only four years ago that Jack Abramoff was being fawned over on the front page of The New York Times (April 3, 2002)? In that article, we met the chief of one of those poor unfortunate Indian casino tribes Abramoff is accused of ripping off. The chief declared, “Definitely we get our money’s worth, or we wouldn’t be doing it,” namely paying Abramoff’s firm $1 million in the previous six months. The vice chairman of another tribe agreed: “I call Jack Abramoff, and I get results. You get everything you pay for” — in his tribe’s case, $1.76 million in the same period.
Abramoff says he committed serious breaches, so I assume he did. But, really, what moral purpose does his continuing public degradation serve? How about a bit of sympathy?
David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author, most recently, of “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).