January 15, 2009
The numbers are not just staggering. They are heartbreaking. While the method and extent of Bernard Madoff’s alleged swindle is not yet fully known, the essential human truth of it is. Charities have taken a massive blow. Some foundations have been completely wiped out. Their employees have been thrown upon an already lean job market. Recipients of wounded organizations’ services wait with bated breath to see where they stand. The Madoff scandal is a communal heartbreak.
But out of heartbreak comes lessons learned. Our learning is our prayer. It is the way we sustain a dialogue with divinity, especially in times of distress. We learn through passionate, participatory debate, which yields clarification and direction. In moments of social trauma, an open communal conversation is the best therapy and the most productive exercise.
This is no typical public debate. This is a conversation that strikes at the central meaning of tzedaka. After all, tzedaka does not translate as mere charity. It implies making things right and the forging of justice where there was none before.
The character of any community’s standards of social justice begins and ends with how its most meaningful interests are looked after by its gabbaim — stewards. If our communal stewardship of tzedaka is lacking, then so is the strength of its remedy as an instrument of social justice.
Numerous questions regarding philanthropic stewardship have emerged in the wake of the Madoff scandal. Asking these questions offers no absolution to Mr. Madoff. They are simply put forth in a healing effort to frame the lessons of this communal heartbreak.
From the institutional side, why were nonprofits accumulating and investing such large funds? Isn’t there a fundamental public expectation that they spend what they raise on administering programs? Understanding the need for nonprofits to have some reserves, either in the form of endowments or simply some funds readily on hand, how can oversight of those reserves be more tightly managed? From the communal side, what shall donors now ask of our philanthropic system so that its governance is more democratic and transparent?
Ultimately, public and private sector institutions reflect the values of society at large. America itself is trying to gain some handle on an economy instinctively correcting itself after a period of unbridled privatization. The Madoff scandal was the year-end cap to a seemingly endless financial crisis emerging out of unheard-of gluttony. We need to ask ourselves what in our culture allowed for such presumptuous behavior in the first place.
Theologian Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that “utilitarian individualism” has “replaced the earlier biblical and republican traditions” that nurtured American society. Our founding fathers dreamt that commercial fulfillment in a liberal economy would provide a floor for the realization of individual and collective aspirations, not a ceiling. Jewish tradition fully agrees. The Torah mentions only in passing the business success of the patriarchs. The focus is on their spiritual lives. Accumulation of wealth is not an end in itself; it simply enables society to provide a stronger personal fulfillment for its citizens. I suspect those who signed the Declaration of Independence felt the same. The way we channel our resources reflects our deepest values.
Tzedaka is an open communal ledger on the real, daily institutional administration of programs that implement the commitments our faith demands. Accountability is the key word in the discipline of public administration. It must also be the key word in the discipline of our communal network of tzedaka. It is exactly that foundational ingredient that seems absent in the emerging narrative of the Madoff scandal. There is a civic responsibility incurred through a combined commitment to Torah and the American democratic ethos. That responsibility must characterize our philanthropic stewardship, or else the very purpose of our tzedaka is diminished.
Rabbi Dr. Abraham Unger is campus rabbi and assistant professor and director of urban programs in the Department of Government and Politics at Wagner College in Staten Island. He lives in Westfield.