Saturday, March 14, 2009

He Madoff with all the cash.....


Bernie Madoff has been in the news for some time now. For those of you who don't know who he is, he has apparently been running a $65,000,000,000 (that's 65 billion dollar) ponzi scheme, an enormous shell game, a con of monumental proportions. In the process, he swindled a huge number of people and organizations, including many charities. I doubt he single-handedly created the economic turn down we are now experiencing, but I have a feeling he made a big contribution to the cause.

(It seems, from what I've been able to glean, this was originally designed as a small con, but it's been going on almost 20 years and mushroomed....)

In any case, it's hitting a bit of a crescendo with Madoff being sent to prison, away from his "house arrest" in his gorgeous, expensive penthouse apartment. Legions of "fleecees" (people who were fleeced by the billionaire swindler) were in the courtroom or trying to get into the courtroom when the judge sent him to prison.

But, despite my anger at this man, despite my embarrassment that he's Jewish, despite my strong feelings that he committed not only an enormous crime, not only a sin, but a huge Hillul Hashem (loosely, a black mark on the name of G-d by not reflecting G-d as good), despite all this, I get very little joy in sending Bernie Madoff to prison for the rest of his life.

Why? Well, probably because sending him to prison, from my perspective, accomplishes nothing except pure punishment. The Tora, in my opinion, supplies the appropriate response to this.

While I don't want to go into a long halakhic (Jewish legal) discussion about the ins and outs and specifics, Jewish law calls for the repayment to the victim of anything stolen, often having to repay double or up to 5 times the amount stolen.

I much prefer this as a solution for two reasons -- firstly, it takes the needs of the victim, someone largely ignored in the justice system, into account and makes those needs paramount. Secondly, this system makes robbery, thievery, burglary, a potential loss of income. How many movies, TV shows, books, plays have we all seen where someone makes a big "hit", was sent to prison, but hid the money and came out of prison to live well on the money "socked away". In Jewish law, however, this couldn't be.

In Jewish law, where the stolen money or goods end up is irrelevant. It's not THAT money that needs to be "returned" -- the perpetrator is required to PAY the victim. Part of the problem with the whole Madoff pyramid scheme is that different people got some money and who gets to keep what when. In the halakhic system, this would be irrelevant. All that would matter is who Lost money and how much they lost. That would be what Madoff would have to make good.

Selling Mr. Madoff's extravagant possessions might go a long way toward raising the money to pay the victims. But so would having him work to pay off the victims. I prefer having him work for money and having this money (or at least a huge chunk of it) go to pay his victims for what he stole from them. I prefer having him repay what he stole with interest.

Unlike a murderer, who can never compensate for the loss he has caused, Bernie Madoff can. He can return his ill-gotten gains to Hadassah, Yeshiva University and the scores of other people and organizations who swindled. I would feel as though justice had been done if Mr. Madoff can be in a different kind of prison, one where he works hard and earns money to repay his victims' losses. That is justice. Having him sit in prison with murderers and rapists may assuage people's feelings of vengeance, but it does nothing toward helping the people he swindled to rebuild their lives. And that, in my opinion, is a travesty of justice.

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