New York – Shmuley Boteach On The ‘Ganef’ Madoff: Rancid Materialism is Corrupting Our Community

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    Ganef MadoffNew York – The Jewish community better get serious about the cancer that’s growing inside it. The devastation on Wall Street carries a lot of Jewish names, from firms like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers to individuals such as Bernard Madoff, whose $50 billion Ponzi scheme collapsed over the weekend, and lawyer Marc Dreier, arrested last week for defrauding investors of hundreds of millions of dollars.

    On the Internet more and more people who don’t like us are beginning to connect the dots, pointing out that there are an awful lot of Jews who bear responsibility for Wall Street’s fall. But that’s not what bothers me. Anti-Semites will always find something to hate us for, and I’m way too busy to worry about what a bunch of bigots think anyway.

    Rather, what worries me is this: what if some if it is true? What if our community has become too obsessed with money? What if our values have become about wearing the most expensive Cartier watch and driving a suped-up Mercedes? What if a disproportionately large number of young Jews are running to work on Wall Street and never even considering jobs like teaching, the rabbinate, or doing outreach because the compensation, comparatively, stinks?

    FOR TOO long the Jewish community has excused all manner of material excess so long as those who sported giant jewels and enormous gold watches also gave lots of tzedaka (charity). It is true that Judaism has always said that riches are a blessing because they enable one’s resources to be used for the benefit of others. We reject the New Testament statement that the rich will find it harder to get into heaven than a camel passing through the eye of a needle. But tzedaka is not the only Jewish value. So is modesty, humility, and baal tashchis – a commandment not to indulge in excess and waste. Indeed, the only personal characteristic in the Bible about Moses, the greatest Jew who ever lived, was that “he was the most humble man who walked the earth.”

    And yet the materialism in our community has become rancid. I was sitting with a group of rich Jewish businessmen the other day who were talking about a friend’s son’s bar mitzva in which an NBA superstar made a guest appearance for which he was paid an insane amount. Indeed, bar and bas mitzvas have become for many a game of million-dollar one-upmanship. Now, what kind of values are being communicated to these young people on the occasion of becoming responsible members of our community? That life is about showing off? Do we want our kids ending up as the insecure social climbers who joined the exclusive Jewish country clubs where word went out that being part of Bernard Madoff’s investment fund was a privilege reserved for a chosen few and that they better beg to be admitted?

    I SEE a lot of Jewish people walking around these days with a red string on their wrists. Popularized by the Kabbalah Center, it’s supposed to ward off the eiyan ha’ra, the evil eye. The original Jewish concept of the evil eye was based on the idea of not flaunting wealth so as not to incur the jealousy of those less fortunate. It was based on the beautiful Jewish value of human dignity, of not making people less successful feel bad about themselves. What was once a message of humility and simplicity has now been transformed into one in which it is permitted to sport a ten-carat diamond so long as it is accompanied by a silly piece of string.

    And the coarsening of our values isn’t only about money. I attended a modern orthodox bas mitzvah not long ago where the boys and girls, all of 12 and 13, began to ‘grind’ their genitalia against one another on the dance floor. The parents watched from the sidelines. One father was appalled and wanted to complain to the Jewish day school that allowed it, but was discouraged from doing so because of the social censure his son might face.

    And where are the rabbis through all this? Why aren’t they preaching the time-honored Torah values of modesty, humility, and sincerity? Tragically, many of us rabbis are either afraid to speak out or have been bought off. We’re don’t want to incur the wrath of our congregants and boards by criticizing these corrupt values, or we’ve been bought off by wealthy donors who support our organizations and who will turn off the spigot if we dare decry their excess. In orthodoxy, the problem is often an emphasis on meticulous adherence to rituals without a concomitant commitment to the values these rituals are meant to inspire. In more secular circles the problem is often a lack of emphasis on either.

    FOR YEARS now I have been passionately arguing the need for the Jewish community to serve as a light unto the nations by promulgating our values to the non-Jewish world. We ought to be known primarily not for the billions of Wall Street but for the warmth of the family dinner table. It was for this reason that I launched ‘This World: The Jewish Values Network” with its first national program being a campaign to have all American families “Turn Friday Night Into Family Night.” Non-Jewish families from all over America have begun to commit to Friday dinners at our website, FridayIsFamily.com. But just as they are doing so, I heard that our local JCC, an outstanding facility which I use all the time with my kids, is considering opening on Shabbos. Come on. Our community is supposed to stand for something, like the idea of sacred time. There is one day a week devoted to family and community rather than swimming and soccer. One day a week when Mom gets to be a wife rather than a chauffeur, and Dad gets to be a father rather than a coach.

    Let me confess that I am just as materialistic as the people I criticize even as I lack the resources to indulge their more expensive tastes. But when I forget that Judaism demands the heart over the wallet, I feel ashamed of having lost my way. Perhaps it’s how we all ought to feel as this economic meltdown exposes the betrayal of the very values that have ensured the spiritual integrity of our community for millennia.

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    60 COMMENTS

    1. You are right in a way but there are lots of hard working jews that work real hard and putting in numeros hours …of course there was the fast real estate deals the dream that crashed and the same on wall street but there is still a percentege that works hard …what I don’t under stand is when I go to DEAL NJ and FLATBUSH the orthodox sfardic and the secular russians drive around BMWs and MERCEDES are they all so sucsessfull ?or what I don’t get it I don’t have an explanation for that

      • What does Madoff- an ashkenaz- have to do w/ Deal or Sephardics buying nice cars? An sy’s first priority is their childrens extensive Torah education!! Doing Hesed and giving charity are next. There is nothing wrong with being well kept while serving Hashem! after tuition and charity if theres money left over for a watch or a car what’s the problem??

    2. Rabbi Boteach says: And where are the rabbis through all this? Why aren’t they preaching the time-honored Torah values of modesty, humility, and sincerity? Tragically, many of us rabbis are either afraid to speak out or have been bought off.
      Rabbi Boteach, with all due respect I must say that I indeed HAVE heard Rabbis speak out about these problems; perhaps you have just placed yourself in the wrong circles.

        • The BIG Rabbis will never speak out for fear of losing thier bread and butter from his rich congregants who will be all broigaz for telling his balleibatim about how and when and where to spend there money . The rabbis are all toungue tied in this area among many other areas as well.

          • we do not have any big rabbis -for that matter we have NO RABBIS –ANYMORE–ALL THEY ARE A KOVAD SEEKERS –THEY WANT THE OLAM TO WAIT FOR HASHEM ELOKACHEM EMES

            • There are still gedolai yisroel out there. You need to know where to look and where not to bother looking.

              B’derech klal, the fancier the shul or yeshiva the less likely you will be able to find true gadlus there.

      • unfortunately the rabbis are the ones that need all their supporters–usually the wealthy! They also tend to live very comfortable along with all their married children which without outside support they couldn’t afford. How many rabbis don’t own their own homes?? With whose money??

      • Speaking about materialism and acting on materialism are very different. When the Rabbi who speaks against materialism can be seen pandering and giving great respect to the very people his sermon was directed to, than that sermon was worthless. Case in point, when the rabbonim a few years ago annnounced limitations on wedding extravagances, but I only know of one Rosh Yeshiva from a non major institution who did not attend a wedding if the rules were not followed. The others all did. Why, because they are all desperate for the money with lack of betochen that the money would come anyways, then the prinicples fall to the wayside.

    3. Well said but one caveat – we are all obsessed with money, because it is VERY expensive to be shomer mitzvot and put your kids through yeshivah and then support a married couple for a few years.

    4. A man that can criticize himself can criticize others, I must say very well said

      Did an NBA superstar really get paid to show up at some kids bar mitzvah? What is wrong with parents today? HELLO AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO SEES SOMETHING WRONG WITH THIS?

    5. as is often the case the best part of the article is towards the end , where the writer admits that he isn’t free from these evil materalistic temptations described in the article , rather he lacks the ability to execute them . reminds me of my mashgiach in yeshiva who kept telling us how much we will regret not listening to him just like he regrets not listening to his mashgiach . chazal already told us the secret , ” d’vorim hayoitsim min haleiv nechnosim l’leiv ” . mechanchim yirei hashem who practice what they preach do succeed in raising talmidim who are not all after money and the high life . in the whole article , examples cited are all from the modern orthodox community , for good reason

      • Rabanim are giving hechsherim to the stock market now. This is great news!

        If you do not see at least four kosher symbols aside from the regualr symbols of the company you are researching the stock will not be kosher.

        The certification will cost 1 million per company.

    6. WHAT SHMULI FOTGETS IS HE AS A RABBI PROMOTED WEALTH AND MATERIALISIM THRU HIS ASSOCIATION WITH CELEBERTIES HE IS OBVIOUSLY A SMART INDIVIDUAL LET HIM BE A EXAMPLE OF HUMILITY BY PREACHING SOME HUMILITY,INSTEAD OF PROMOTING HIMSELF

    7. Years ago when my husband and I decided to leave Brooklyn for Long Island, I was with a realtor driving through a town we were considering moving to. We passed a high school and I noted the expensive cars in the parking lot. I said to the realtor, look at those cars, they must pay their teachers well. She said the cars belonged to the students, not the teachers.

      I went home and related the story to my husband. We were very disturbed. B”H we were able to afford to move to that town but did we want to live there? We decided that whether we could afford to live there, we were afraid that such pervasive wealth would have a very counter-productive effect on our children. Who wants to fight with your kids about what you need versus what you want to keep up with the neighbors.
      We moved to a middle class neighborhood with both teachers and wealthy businessmen who had the same ideal – a committment to the ideal of tzinus. It is hard to differentiate between the “haves” and “have-nots” here. As it should be.

    8. Shmully Boteach is part of the problem. While what he is saying is true, he doesn’t impress with his ridiculous reality show on tv or his self-promoting and embarrasing need to be seen with celebrities. Without a change of behavior, his mea culpa in his last paragraph is meaningless.

    9. The answer to all this is said in certain seforim. Before Chazal burrried the yetzer heru of avoda zara one could ask how come so many jewish people were able to believe in a stone or a piece of wood. The same today money became the biggest avoda zara. You coud ask quesions why, The fact is it is hard to understand and hard to fight.

    10. #4,

      You’re so right, the Syrians in Flatbush and Deal are so flashy, unlike run down, dilapidated Boro Park, Long Island, and Lawrence which have only simple, unmaterialistic yidden.

      Bottom line is EVERY circle has their fair share of showy people (yes, even “chassidim”, believe it or not). And no, #2, Rabbonim do NOT speak out against it.

      As usual, when it comes to hard hitting, penetrating topic, Shmully Boteach is hitting the right spot.

    11. i clearly remember being at the agudah convention, years back, and marveling at how many people chuckled when the Noviminsker spoke about curbing the ridiculous spending that goes on for simchas. i remember looking around the room at the mink coats and later at the display of lexus, infiniti and jaguar in the parking lot and wondering if he really thought he could make an impression on such a gaudy, materialistic, lot. i agreed with him then as i do now, but do we really get it? or is “frumkeit” just another vehicle to keep up with the joneses.

      • “the Noviminsker spoke about curbing the ridiculous spending that goes on for simchas. “

        Does speaking about mean much. Was there any action to follow up on his words. The Agudah convention itself is one great festive glutonous occasion for jews to get together to indulge and still feel good about it, no guilt. I doubt the Chofetz Chaim would ever show his face at the convention. Did he stop going to simchas where they spent fortunes??

    12. In the 1980’s, when Drexel Burnham was financing all of the Jewish “raiders” in hostile takeovers, using “junk bonds”, Larry Tisch Z”L, the Jewish billionaire, warned these Jewish businessmen that what they were doing was bad for the Jews and, inevitably, would bring upon us a great deal of anti-semitism. Today, we are not seeing any such leadership in our community. It is clearly naive to think that the gentiles haven’t noticed that a disproportionate amount of these scandals involve Jews.

    13. I have heard that there are frum schools in Monsey where children from materialistic homes are not excepted as students. Maybe there are readers here that could verify if this is still, or ever was true. I am not sure what anyone expects of rabbis. If rabbonim assur something, they fall into ridicule. They would be going out on a limb to say that a make or model of car is too materialistic for a Jew to own. I remember hearing that the Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke against “Hollywood kitchens and wall to wall carpets.” Some communities obviously assur computers and put takanos on simchas. Basically, when the dust settles from the downward spiral of recession, many families, both Jewish and otherwise, will have to adjust their priorities accordingly. If frugal becomes the vogue, more people will accept it. Maybe we will soon see ads for a frugal Purim and Pesach.

    14. Shmuely’s comments may be ok but they don’t belong in this topic.

      The vast majority of Orthodox people follow the Torah’s rules and are not swindlers. Maddow is not Orthodox and he doesn’t follow Torah ethics. We should not be associated with him. There is enough baseless slander without this.

    15. I think that the author is confusing two very different concepts. What Bernie Madoff did was wrong, because he STOLE money. Stealing is wrong.

      I am not wealthy. And I can’t say that I haven’t envied the wealth of others, simply because I envy their lack of struggle. It’s hard to earn a living. But I do not presume to dictate what others should do with their money. I think that doing so is allowing your envy to take a vicious route, and allowing it to morph into self-righteousness.

      Yes, perhaps the fur coats and jewelry and fancy cars affect YOU, but it shouldn’t. Honestly, what does it have to do with your life? It doesn’t. You’re envious, and taking it out on them. You shouldn’t. It isn’t someone’s fancy cars that’s spurring someone enough to steal – it’s acting on our envy that’s allowing one to do so.

      The message should be: Don’t steal. Don’t be envious. Period.

    16. I will tell you at least 2 Rabbonim that have spoken out about overspending.
      Rav Efraim Wachsman in Monsey and Rav Simcha B. Cohen in Lakewood. Just because people don’t listen dosen’t mean that the Rabbanim don’t speak.
      Don’t forget that the Agudah made a takanah for chasunahs and no one listened.
      Shmuli, ASK MECHILA OF EVERY RAV NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    17. sad to say but there are an awfull lot of hopelss dupes in this world who falll for such stupidity as seen in this madoof situation there is this beutifull teaching in pirkei avat
      eizehu ashir hasumeach behelko and this is what it all boils down to greed is the culprit

    18. He’s out on bail and will soon be under house (“mansion”) arrest – and Rubashkin who employed illegals and may have misrepresented assets in a loan, is languishing in jail like one of the worst criminals in history.

      And the Y.U. holds a forum to discuss “ethics” (with “Rabbi” Yanklowitz besmirching Rubashkin), and their very own business school chairman is accused of committing the biggest scam in U.S. history.

      • Stop with the nahrishkeit. He was a figure head at best and no one in YU had any idea of what he was up to, just as the SEC had no idea.

        To their credit, YU didn’t circle the wagons and defend one of their own and send him off to hide in eretz yisroel as we have seen all too often in the charaidi world. YU even cut Merkin who is not accused of being part of Madoff’s fraud.

        As for your childish “quotation marks” around Rabbi Yankelowitz’s title, well, what can I say? It was just so, so……Childish.

      • You are right – this certainly puts rubashkin in perspective. And poor Alan Hevesi – what did he really do – have a state driver drive his sick wife. Please give me a break. Look at this nutty Illinois gov.

    19. This is not a problem of Chassidim or Modern Orthodox – or ANY individual group. It is a problem of an entire generation reared in relative affluence. We, and our children, have lost the ability to distinguish between necessity and luxury. We have lost respect for self sufficiency and fiscal responsibility, in the pursuit of maintaining appearances and satisfying unrealistic expectations. Children who were showered with every toy they desired, without earning them, grew up to REQUIRE material rewards and to look for shortcuts to obtain them. Many Rabbis have spoken out, but many, from all factions, have been all too human and fallen prey to the prevailing attitudes. The “gifts” of expensive jewelry at a chasana have become obligatory. The concept of “Hiddur Mitzvah” to justify the purchase of an insanely expensive esrog or Yom Tov cloths has outweighed the concept of modesty. We will all be forced, now, to readjust our attitudes.

    20. Go Shmulie… you are telling us what we need to hear… The “American Dream” is to have a nice house, 2-car garage, and a white-picket fence…. not to be honest, a good family man/woman and a mensch … this country is founded on materialism, has a “consumer-driven” economy, and pushes us to spend, spend, spend…. ad infintum….
      No American Leader gets up and tells us to BE RESPONSIBLE and SAVE for a Rainy Day…. instead we get “stimulus checks” and are told to go out and spend it…..

      The muslims hate us (among other reasons) for being so materialistic (at least that’s what they claim…. it could be they are jealous..)

    21. Inappropriate versus prohibited.

      It is inappropriate to show off your wealth. It is not prohibited.

      It is inappropriate for a person who considers themselves chasidish or yeshivish to go to movies, blog on the internet. It is not prohibited.

      Prohibited should be left for matters that are assur according to halacha.

      The appropriateness or inappropriateness of various matters lies within the individual. Many of us think it is inappropriate to have a star athlete attend a religious function. For others perhaps not. Remember what is appropriate for one is not neccessarily so for another.

    22. By the way, Since when do jews celebrate BAS mitzvos? its no mitzva. Rabbi M Feinstien says that it is wrong and should be stopped. P.S. he says that he would even stop BAR Mitzvos if he had the power to do so

    23. There is nothing inherently Jewish in becoming a big swindler. These people had the same cultural and educational background as the others in their profession. If anything , it is the caused by the temptation to which anyone is liable to succumb. If there happens to be a larger number of Jews in finance, there is statistically a greater number of Jews who will fall to the temptations of their occupation.
      We find abuse of power in the police. Many policemen are from Italian families. Unavoidabley there will be a number of policeman with Italian names who will have been found guilty of overstepping their power in arrests etc. This has got nothing to do with their Italian ethnic background. The yezer hora is color blind.

    24. Oh some of you need to get a life. Its soo obvious you are jealous of shmuley. Hello, what part of what he said don’t you understand? It hits home and is true. Those that just posted otherwise are guilty of these very issues if not worse, I promise you are.
      You know who you are, for shame!

    25. Rabbi Boteach lives in one the nicest house, in a weathy neighborhood ( Englewood NJ ), on a ritzy avenue.. purchased by one of his ultra rich friend..
      Excellent example…
      Ich Main Zich Example..

    26. Shmuly Boteach is a columnit – lo pachoth velo yother – and his pronouncements
      and insights in our comunal ills receive more attention than they deserve.
      Lavish chassunos and excessive consumption are social evils like many other negative social customs and practices which it is the resposibility of our religious leaders,Gedolim, Roshe Yeshiva and Rabbis to point us to us and to castigate and to do their best to inspire us, thru droshes, books articles and whatever, to better our ways. This has got nothing to do with the individuals who engage in the most despicable criminal acts which are due to people giving in to financial or sexual temptations, as long as these are not as a result of a general laxitude
      in these areas and condoned by the community. We are still am Am Kodosh, but very much subject to the influence ot the surrounding culture and, as the old saying goes, with es christelt zich -yiedelt zich – except that our enemies don’t make that distinction and that causes a Chilul Hashem. But this confluence of bad publicity is also Min Hashomayim and should lead us to sincere heart searching and looking for ways to improve our image in the world.

    27. It’s an excellent article. Rabbi Boteach always writes very intelligent, thoughtful articles, but here’s my problem. First of all, we can complain about kids and they way that they “grind” at a Bar Mitzva, but a book called “Kosher Sex” isn’t that great either. Second, as someone pointed out, fraternizing with celebrities etc.. as Rabbi Boteach does, certainly doesn’t seem to promote the values that Rabbi Boteach is right now. So, it’s easy to say after the fact, but in retrospect, perhaps more of us were guilty than we thought.

    28. If our yeshivas, shuls, rabbis and such were not bleeding us financially, maybe the “need” for money would not be as great. However, I find that keeping kosher inside and outside the home, paying for yeshiva where $ 25,000.00 a year for high school per child is not uncommon, shul dues where rabbis get paid exteremly well, and still expected to donate to various charities, school and shul dinners, mikva, eruv, vaad appeals, etc. can be a bit much. Add to that the fact that in order to go to shul, be near Kosher stores and mikvahs, etc. we must live in a Jewish area where the prices of houses and taxes seem to be higher than the norm. The rabbis tell us “after” some scandal where Jews are involved that it is wrong to do these things but when the checks written previously cleared, there was no problem. The problem lies with our institutions and so called Rabbinical “leaders” who are hypocrytical at best. Heaven help us because our Rabbonim sure won’t.

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