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An ocean of articles have already been written about how Jack Abramoff, the shamed Republican lobbyist, was an “orthodox Jew,” and indeed, the term has become so common in describing Abramoff that one conjures up images of a man with flowing sidecurls and tzitzis fringes running around Indian reservations collecting bags of money.
Indeed, Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe, himself an orthodox Jew, wrote a piece saying that Abramoff had committed a chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, because he had undertaken his criminal enterprises as an observant man of the Mosaic persuasion.
But what Abramoff’s Judaism, or indeed his Jewishness, has to do with any of this is the real question.
There is an enormous difference between, say, a priest who molests a boy in the course of working as a priest, vs. a lay Catholic who molests a child, in the course of living his life as a lay Catholic. In the first instance, we may rightly point out the religious hypocrisy of an ordained cleric who abuses his religious station to take advantage of those charged to his care, thereby bringing his church into disrepute. But if a lay Catholic molests the next-door neighbor’s child, why is that the fault of the Catholic Church? The Church’s teachings against such abominable behavior is well known, and just because a lay person who happens to call himself Catholic acts in the most sinful way does not make the sin that of the church.
The same is true of Jack Abramoff’s orthodox Judaism. Not only would Judaism never condone the kind of corruption that Abramoff engaged in, more importantly, Abramoff never acted in any official capacity as a Jewish religious representative. He is not, nor has he ever been, the chief rabbi of the Jews. He has never held any Jewish religious position, whatsoever.
So why is Abramoff’s Jewishness even a factor? After all, aside from the most ardent political pundits, is there any American that even knows the denominational affiliation of Richard Nixon’s Protestantism, or is such information not common knowledge because it had nothing whatsoever to do with his criminal behavior in the Watergate scandal?
I suspect that the real reason that we keep on hearing about Abramoff’s orthodoxy is not anti-Semitism, but a gleeful joy on the part of secularists to point out the hypocrisy of the religious. Every time anyone claiming to be religious does anything wrong, we hear a chorus on the part of secular people of just what huge hypocrites these religious phonies are. So Abramoff is a faker, as is Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, who helped him make a fortune off all those unsuspecting Indian tribes, so much of which went to the coffers of the mother of all religious impostors, Tom DeLay, who has the gall to call himself a religious Christian.
Not even the greatest Americans are immune to the accusations of religious hypocrisy. Taylor Branch, in the third installment of his magisterial biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68,” cannot help but recount to us in vivid detail the extramarital affairs that King had and how it alienated his devoted wife. See? Even the greatest modern prophets are full of baloney.
And why is it so important to point out the hypocrisy of the pious? By demonstrating that no one is virtuous, and even the most devout are scoundrels, we remove the obligation for any of us to lead a righteous life. By lowering the bar, none are required to live of a life of moral purpose.
I still recall hearing from my secular Israeli friends – while studying to be a rabbi in Jerusalem – that I should wake up and give up all this rabbi stuff because all religious people are fakers and that half the rabbis in Israel can be seen secretly visiting the brothels of Tel Aviv. Indeed, the prostitutes, they claimed, are so familiar with Hassidic clientele that they don’t even object to them keeping their tzitzis on during the act.
In truth, the religious man or woman who preaches one thing but practices another is not a hypocrite. Rather, they are deeply inconsistent, which is another way of saying they are human. The hypocrite, rather, is the man or woman who preaches something and does not even believe it at the time of the preaching. In other words, they are making religious pronouncements simply to impress the masses and preaching morality to falsely impress their followers.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was a truly great man and the greatest American of the second half of the twentieth century. And when he preached the importance of family and marriage, he meant every word, even if he didn’t always practice it. I have no doubt that he loved his wife and loved his children and wished to inspire others to do the same. The fact that he then went and dishonored his wife and his marital commitments by being unfaithful is not proof of his hypocrisy, but of the fact that even men strong enough to bring a corrupt political system to its knees can still be weak enough to succumb to their own elicit passions.
Jack Abramoff is not a great man. But that is not because he engaged in criminal activity. After all, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and it doesn’t get much more criminal than that. Rather, Abramoff is not a great man because he did not devote his life to a great cause the way that Washington, Jefferson and King did, even if they were flawed.
The great man or woman is not he or she who has never made huge mistakes. Indeed, most great personalities have. Rather, the great man or woman is the one who can point to having pushed mankind forward closer to a great and noble goal.
But this does not mean that ordinary, or even criminal, people cannot still do great things, and insofar as Jack Abramoff undertook large charitable projects in the name of his religious convictions, like building a Jewish day school and sending money to needy Israelis, than rather than point out what a faker he was, let us instead applaud the good he did, even as we condemn the bad, recognizing that all of us are inconsistent, and few of us are true hypocrites.