Monday, January 09, 2006

Judaism and the Abramoff Scandal

For those of you who are not aware of it, Jack Abramoff, at the center of a conservative lobbying scandal, is an orthodox Jew. Or describes himself as such, at any rate (and I am not qualified to judge the depths of another persons religious beliefs). Two authors have taken on what this aspect of the Abramoff story means, Jeff Jacoby at the Conservative website Townhall and Stephen Hirsch at the Liberal website Salon. Both are quite interesting.

Hirsch spends his article discussing how Abramoff's outfit in his court appearances reflected his beliefs, and explaining those beliefs.
The picture of Jack Abramoff walking out of a federal courthouse on Tuesday wearing a distinctive fedora is by now iconic. And chances are, like Howard Fineman and Maureen Dowd, you thought he looked like a gangster. But that wasn't my reaction. What struck me was that Abramoff was wearing my hat, a Borsalino, the ne plus ultra of Yeshiva boy caps.

. . . By wearing the Borsalino to court, I imagine that Abramoff was emotionally retreating into the safety of our insular world.
Hirsch spends the bulk of his article explaining what the clothing that observant Jews wear means to them. Well worth understanding.

But Hirsch comes to the conclusion that Abramoff's piety after such corruption is, at best, a mixed blessing.
That the world saw Jack Abramoff wearing this hat for the first time while admitting to such grievous transgressions, that much of the world will now associate this symbol of piousness with the gangster look, is a Chillul Hashem -- an act that shames the name of G_d.
And this is where Jacoby picks up the thread. Jacoby is also extremely upset with the Abramoff scandal.
Honesty in financial dealings is not optional in Judaism; it is mandatory. The Talmud teaches that when a person is brought to judgment in the world-to-come, the first question the heavenly tribunal puts to him is: "Did you conduct your business affairs in good faith?" A Jew who takes the values of his religion seriously must be scrupulous in his transactions with others. To be sure, even the saintliest people -- not to mention the rest of us -- sometimes fall short of the values they profess. But Abramoff's criminal deeds and sleazy manner are a lot worse than mere lapses in judgment. One who behaves so unethically and illegally drags more than his own reputation through the mud. He is an embarrassment to his religion and his community, and that comes close to being unforgivable.

Far from disguising his Orthodox Jewish identification, Abramoff paraded it publicly, as if that would cleanse his unkosher activities.
I don't really know what to make of this side on the Abramoff scandal. Neither author is writing a partisan article particularly; both deal with Abramoff as an Orthodox Jew, not as a Conservative Lobbyist. It's tempting to suggest that Abramoff's religion is largely feigned, given his corruption. There are and will be many willing to argue that. I'm not as comfortable making that connection for reasons mentioned above. I suspect it's enough to note that Abramoff's actions have hurt a lot of people, many of whom he never knew.

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