Sermon given April 27, 2001, by Rabbi Barry H. Block
Rockland County, New York is beautiful, with lovely woods, rolling hills, and well-manicured suburban lawns. Though the Jewish population is not enormous there, the county boasts several nice Reform Temples, and a few more Conservative Synagogues. It is also home to scores of Hasidic Jewish communities. Entering one of these towns, one will often see a sign that one expects to see only in certain sections of Jerusalem: Women are requested to dress modestly. Bathing suits and shorts are prohibited in public. Driving on Shabbat is discouraged, if not legally forbidden.
Visitors in these communities could quickly forget that they are in America. The dress and coiffure are in the style of medieval Poland. The language on the street is sometimes Yiddish, and at other times a dialect of English, spoken as though it were a second language. And yet, each weekday, the residents pile onto commuter buses and travel into New York City to work. They often davven, or pray, on the bus, with men and women sitting separately.
The residents of these communities are our brothers and sisters, American Jews like you and me. Like us, they are practicing Judaism, as they know best. Like us, they work hard to make a living and to take advantage of the opportunities America has to offer. Sometimes, they live in poverty. They usually have large families, in keeping with their religious beliefs, with lots of children to feed. Many in the community are dedicated to Torah study, with no income. Public schools may not meet their religious needs. Providing private education is expensive, even as it is deemed absolutely necessary. Like us, almost all of these Rockland County Hasidic Jews are honest, hard working men and women, grateful for the ability to live as Jews in a free country. More than most of us, they must struggle to get by.
These communities also have political habits that are foreign to us. As American citizens, these folks vote in elections. As tightly knit as these communities are, we should not be surprised that their vote tallies are almost always virtually unanimous. In the last Presidential election, most of these municipalities voted 99% Republican, both in the race for President and in the election for United States Senate. However, a few voted Democratic, for Vice President Gore and for Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Senate race. One of these Democratic towns was New Square, home base of the small Skverer Hasidic sect.
The leaders of this New Square community are unfortunately not as honest as their neighbors. Four of them had been “convicted of robbing the government of $11,000,000, by setting up a fictitious yeshiva to receive federal student aid money.” The school did not even exist. The convicts and their attorneys justified their actions “on the grounds that . . . the funds were channeled back into the community[, and not] for personal gain.” (Yoffie)
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of our Union of American Hebrew Congregations, has written that, “for Jews, this is not simply another case of fraud and embezzlement. This is a case of religious people inventing an imaginary Torah institution to steal from the government, using the funds for other activities of their religious community, and then defending their actions on the ground that the money did not go into their own pockets. There is an implication that in some way, [their actions were] religiously acceptable. But of course [they were] not. Their actions are nothing short of a hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. Jews who break the law in God’s name and turn Torah into an instrument of thievery are bringing Judaism into disrepute.”
The truth be told, though, you and I and most Americans would never have heard of these criminals, were it not for former President Clinton. In the final days of his tenure as President, Clinton commuted their sentences, permitting them to leave prison early.
Were these commutations explicitly bought with votes? Probably not. Did these thieves receive special treatment because of their town’s overwhelming numbers of ballots for Senator Clinton? Perhaps. Did President Clinton think he was being a friend to the Jewish people when he commuted these sentences? Probably.
We can be certain, though, that the Torah does not permit thievery, even for the sake of a community. Our Rabbis teach us that committing a crime in the name of God shames the Jewish people, dishonors the Torah, and desecrates the Name of God. Though President Clinton surely intended no harm to the Jewish people, he did us no favors when he publicized the crime by granting pardon to the unrepentant sinners of New Square, New York.
The case of Marc Rich is much better known. In some ways, it may seem to be less of a Jewish problem, per se. Rich’s alleged crimes, tax evasion and breaking an embargo against Iran, are shocking. Unlike the crimes of New Square, though, Rich’s actions were not committed in the name of Judaism, God, or the Jewish people. Bill Clinton is the one most often charged with wrongdoing in the matter of the Rich pardon, not the Jewish people.
And yet, the pardon of Marc Rich had a very great deal to do with the Children of Israel.
Ehud Barak, then Prime Minister of Israel, intervened on Rich’s behalf by calling Clinton twice. Rabbi Irving Greenberg, Chairman of the Holocaust Memorial Council, pled for the Presidential pardon in a letter written on the stationery of the sacred organization he heads. Calls went out to Clinton from Mayor Ehud Olmert of Jerusalem; from Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti Defamation League; and from dozens of other Jewish and Israeli leaders and philanthropists.
Why did all these Jewish leaders ask the President of the United States to pardon Marc Rich? In the words of Rabbi Yoffie, “the answer is plain and simple: they were bought. Mr. Rich contributed generously to Jewish causes and charities around the world, and then, in a carefully orchestrated campaign, called in favors to put pressure on the President. . . . Beneficiaries of his largesse responded with calls and letters.”
Certainly, Judaism instructs us not to punish an innocent man. Did the Jewish leaders who sought Rich’s pardon believe him to be innocent? Perhaps, but they utterly lack the expertise to make that determination. Judaism also teaches us to seek forgiveness when we have sinned. Our tradition instructs that pardon is appropriate, when a sinner has confessed his guilt, has completed acts of sacrifice, has prayed for forgiveness. Did Marc Rich confess his guilt? Did he repent? Did he make sacrifices that in any way equal the heinous crimes for which he was charged? No, no and no. In fact, instead of standing trial, Rich lived in luxury in Switzerland. And he gave lavishly to Jewish charities and to Israel. Certainly, tzedakah may be an appropriate part of seeking absolution, but it does not stand alone.
Now, the truth is that the State of Israel would be in bad shape without philanthropy. All Jewish causes rely on the generosity of wealthy donors. This congregation, too, could not accomplish its mission without charitable giving. We certainly would not be able to contemplate the sacred historic preservation of our historic Sanctuary in the months ahead.
The solicitation of funds, though, need not require the selling of our souls. If Marc Rich had given $1,000,000 to our Temple, would I have written to the President? You bet. And I would have written to the President if he were a member who contributes one dollar each year. I would tell the President that I had been asked to write. I would tell the President good things that I know about him, including the fact that he is charitable. And I would also tell the President that I am in no position to judge this man’s innocence or guilt, or his worthiness for a pardon.
And how do I know that I would not have succumbed to the temptation to write a more generous letter, and that Rabbi Stahl and Rabbi Bergman would not? Because we have been in similar situations in the past, albeit less dramatic and less public, and we have responded in the way I have described. Your rabbis would not play fast and loose with our own reputations, or with the integrity of this congregation, or with the reputation of the Jewish people, or with the honor of the Torah, and certainly not with the holy Name of God. Would that the same could be said for all of our Jewish and Israeli leaders.
Our rabbis teach us that a penitent sinner is considered even more righteous than one who had never sinned. Pray with me, please, for the repentance of the convicts of New Square and of Marc Rich. May they seek forgiveness, from the American people whom they harmed, and from God. Let us hope the same for former Prime Minister Barak, for Mayor Olmert, for Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, for Abraham Foxman, all of them honorable men of great achievement on behalf of our Jewish people, and for the others who wrote on Rich’s behalf. May they seek and find absolution of their shameful acts on behalf of Marc Rich, and may they be forgiven.
In a moment, our Cantorial Soloist and choir will intone the majestic anthem, Tzaddik katamar. Its words mean, “A righteous person shall flourish like a palm tree.” May all of the sinners of our Jewish people seek pardon from God. Then, may they be called righteous. Then, may they reach toward the heavens like the tallest palm tree.