An Edah Editorial
By Rabbi Eliyahu Stern
Jack Abramoff: Not Kosher
The New York Times and ABC News just could not understand why
Jack Abramoff, a master of public relations, would walk out of a courtroom -where
he pleaded guilty to three felony accounts - wearing a Mafioso styled black
fedora. Whose sympathy exactly was he after? While the Times could not understand
the bizarre dark spectacle, Jews recognized Abramoff headgear all too well as
a sign of Orthodox piety.
It is far from ironic that Abramoff would be wearing an Orthodox
hat to court. From start to finish his lobbyist carrier and his cover-ups have
been cloaked in religious garb. Perhaps the best example of Abramoff religious
antics comes from a story reported in the Times Magazine in 2005. Abramoff was
nominated for membership in the Cosmos Club, an exclusive Washington insiders
Abramoff was flattered by the nomination, but knowing all too
well just how newly cool he was in Washington circles, he feared the club would
realize the emperor had no clothes. He needed some serious moral and intellectual
credibility quickly. So he called his "rebbe" and long-time supporter
Rabbi Daniel Lapin, head of the right-wing fringe Jewish organization Toward
Tradition and asked him if he could patch together some award in his honor--"something
like Scholar of Talmudic Studies," Abramoff wrote in an e-mail to Lapin.
While Lapin was at it, Abramoff asked Lapin if he could make it appear "that
I received these in years past." Lapin assured him it was no problem.
The story only touches the surface of the disturbing symbiotic
relationship between Abramoff and his rabbis. Abramoff founded the Eshkol Academy,
an Orthodox Jewish school in Maryland. David Lapin, Daniel's brother, served
as the dean. According to emails revealed during U.S. Senate hearings into the
Abramoff-Ralph Reed Indian gambling scandal, Lapin was paid $20,000 a month
through Abramoff's Capital Athletic Foundation. The Eshkol Academy closed in
2004 after questions were raised in the press about Abramoff's financial dealings
with Indian tribes. In 2004, 13 former Eshkol employees sued the academy for
back salary and claiming that the Capital Athletic Foundation "was used
to launder funds from the tribes to Eshkol."
Federal tax records show that various Indian tribes donated more than $1 million
to the foundation, which in turn benefited the school.
Behind every corner of this investigation there is another
right-wing rabbi or "observant Jew" ready to "kasher" Abramoff's
actions. If it wasn't one of the Lapins, it was every evangelical's favorite
Jew David Klinghoffer, a writer who along Michael Medved was part of Lapin's
group 'American Alliance of Jews and Christians' geared towards the goal of
promoting morality in American public life.
Yet with all his "moral" fiber behind him, Klinghoffer
as late as May 13, 2005, was still defending Abramoff in The Forward. In the
article, Klinghoffer praised the lobbyist in Robin hood terms, castigating his
readers and telling them, "I'd like to see Abramoff left alone in large
part because, instead of spending the millions of dollars he raked in on Ferraris
and yachts, he lavishly spent it on causes that I think are good and important:
an Orthodox high school he founded in the Washington, D.C., area, headed by
a rabbi whose taped lectures I have long listened to with admiration."
Using biblical metaphors and justifying Abramoff's actions
as "mundane" Klinghoffer asked his readers to sympathize with poor
Abramoff. "His humiliation is nearly complete," wrote Klinghoffer,
"yet who among us would not be humiliated if a decade's worth of our e-mail
were leaked by Senate investigators to be dissected by journalists eager to
carve us up like a Thanksgiving roast?"
In an article that recently appeared on beliefnet.com Klinghoffer
justified his words by arguing that Judaism required him to give Abramoff "the
benefit of the doubt." Furthermore, he exclaimed that as an Orthodox Jew
he was in no way embarrassed by Abramoff's actions.
While kind of serious journalist writes op-eds under the assumption
of giving people the benefit of the doubt? (I do not think Mr. Klinghoffer gave
Bill Clinton the benefit of the doubt.). Klinghoffer seems to have fallen into
a far more dangerous trap. That is, being lenient when it comes to crimes committed
between human beings and being stringent when it comes to ritual laws between
God and man. If Abramoff kosher restaurant had substituted pork for beef, you
would not be justifying him. I am sorry, but no matter how much you keep kosher
and castigate Americans about sexual morality, if you support corrupt power
and act unethically to other human beings you are a failure as a Jew.
Abramoff's hat signals the extreme lack of self reflection
in his religious life. Before the Bible says anything about, black hats, abortion
or kosher restaurants for Washington insiders, it says "Do not steal."
what can be more Jewish than that?
Hypocritical moralizing treats the public as a fools and does a disservice to
all those who take Judaism seriously. Being a frum Jew entails being an example
for humanity. It means that we hold ourselves to a higher level of ethical correctness.
I am sorry Mr. Klinghoffer. If using an Orthodox yeshiva to launder ill-begotten
money does not embarrass you, then what does?
Rabbi Eliyahu Stern is scholar-in-residence at Manhattan's
Park East Synagogue and is a columnist at beliefnet.com.