I am Jack Abramoff

For me, the story of Jack Abramoff is not the story of a corrupt DeLay catspaw finally brought to justice, ultimately bringing down DeLay himself. Nor is it a celebratory tale of the hypocrisy of those who profess religion while behaving corruptly. For me, it is a tragedy and cautionary tale that raises fundamental questions about the viability of Modern Orthodox Judaism and one of its central tennets: that a one can fully embrace modernity while fully embracing the teachings of our sages and leading a life dedicated to God. Quite literally, “there but for the grace of God go I,” and may yet. What then is my moral duty to myself, my family and my God?

By now, the world has heard the tale of Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist whose influence peddling has sparked a new interest in lobby-reform and highlighted what Democrats call the “culture of corruption.” Many progressives have taken a particular delight in Abromof’s downfall because he appears to embody everything that is wrong about the conservative movement: arrogance, greed, disregard for the law, disdain for those he purported to help, even a whiff of racism in his referring to Indian clients as “monkeys” and other derogatory names while seeking to milk them for more fees.

And, above all, the apparent hypocrisy of his professions of religion while engaging in morally reprehensible conduct, not least his sudden repentance and contrition now that he has been arrested. “Sure, it’s easy to discover God and remorse when the feds have the goods on you. Where was all your religious piety when you were breaking the law and robbing widows and orphans, hmmm?”

But for me there is no joy. Not because I defend Jack Abramoff. Whether or not his repentence is sincere, he must certainly suffer the consequences of his actions. Repentance without consequences is meaningless. Nor is my discomfort merely tribalism –although I cannot rid myself of that as well. Jack Abramoff is not merely Jewish, he is modern orthodox same as me, and for many years we lived in the same neighborhood.

My problem is that Abramoff and I are part of a debate within the small world of Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Judaism is the general term for Jews that embrace the traditional Jewish law and practice as set forth in the various religious codes. (Orthodox is different in this manner from Reform Judaism in that Reform Judaism maintains that Jewish law and practice are continually evolving, and from Conservative Judaism which regards some parts or practice still open to interpretation).

Within the Orthodox community in the U.S. we have a debate. To what extent should one participate in the modern world? “Modern Orthodox” Jews hold we should embrace modernity as a good thing in its own right, and that living fully in the modern world is completely consistent with living a life in the manner God intended. Accordingly, Jews should participate in modern society in the same way everyone else does. We should go to college, join civic clubs, see popular movies, etc., etc.

Others maintain that the modern world is a necessary evil. Yes, one must live in it to make a living. But certainly one should not seek it out from choice. If one must go to college to get a degree to make a lviing, o.k. But certainly one should only live in communities of other Jews, avoid corrupt influences in modern culture, and generally “stick to our knitting.”

Jack Abramoff was a champion in the modern Orthodox community. He believed fervently that Jews could, indeed should participate fully as Americans in our culture. Most especially, he believed we needed to participate as religious traditional Jews in politics and civic discourse.

And he put his money where his mouth was on this. Some may have heard that he started a Jewish school and a kosher restaurant, and assumed these were part of Abramoff’s hypocrisy. After all, one can find dictators, drug lords and other mafiaosi who are regular chruch goers and donate regularly to religious causes.

But Abramoff’s religious activities, his restaurant and his school, were not about sucking up to religious authority. It was about defying it. Abramoff started his school because he thought the local yeshivas (religious schools) did an awful job of secular education and pushed children away from the secular world (a criticism with which I agree). He started his own restaurant because the only decent kosher restaurant in DC closed and it is impossible to be fully integrated into political life here if you can’t eat with people.

And the corruption of this goal, for example using the restaurant to provide free meals for members of Congress in violation of the law, raises troubling issues. A real problem, needing a kosher place to eat, becomes through rationalization a tool for violation of the law and wielding corrupt influence.

Abramoff’s fall from grace appears to substantiate every criticism of the modern Orthodox movement. Is the act of embracing the modern world — particularly the policy world — inevitably corrupting? If so, what does that say for myself and my chosen profession?

For I am Jack Abramoff. Yes, I have made different choices in the details. I left private practice to work on policy issues I think are important. I embrace a philosophy of progressivism rather than conservatism. But I do not deceive myself that I am somehow more moral simply because I believe my causes are just.

While I do not think it likely I will engage in federal crimes, the realm of temptations are more subtle. But, from a religious perspective, just as potentially corruptive. I often travel to places where kosher food is hard to obtain. Do I make compromises? Am I still in observance of the law? The literal law, or the intent of the law? I am often away for Sabbath. This causes me some distress, as Sabbath is not merely a time away from work, but a time to spend with family. How much of that will I give up for my professional advancement and for the sake of the social causes I believe so important? Do I, little by little, rationalize away my observance, diminishing my religious self and stunting my relationship with God? On the other hand, is a refusal to use the gifts God has given me to engage the modern world itself a betrayal, or a failure of nerve that retards spiritual development?

These are not idle questions or abstract philosophies. For the religious person, God is not an abstraction. God is not a silo distinguished from other activities in daily life. My personal relationship with God is as central and meaningful in my life as my relationship with my wife and son. A betrayal of that relationship by violating the sabbath or the laws of kashrut is as much a corruption and a tragedy as a willingness to defraud clients.

I do not believe Jack Abramoff intended to become corrupt. I do not believe the Jack Abramoff of 1995 would have engaged in the boat fraud that Abramoff found easy enough to participate in in 2004. Corruption is rarely a single Faustian moment. It is more often a series of little steps, each one made easier by the last, that gradually but inevitably carry one to a wholly unexpected place.

I do not believe that meddling in politics or policy inevitably results in corruption. I also think it is a good a noble thing, fully in accordance with what God intends for us to accomplish on Earth, to strive to make a better world for everyone through the political process. But I cannot watch the fall of Jack Abramoff without feeling the same sense of chill that many see when passing a terrible automobile accident. “That could have been me. And some day, it could be me.”

I hope not. One of the purposes of cautionary tales is just that, to caution. But if you wonder why a progressive such as myself is not celebrating with my friends today, now you know why.

“This only serves as a conclusion: observe the commandments and pay heed to the word of God, for this is all of man’s duty.” –Eccl.


  1. Harald, rarely are you so wrong.

    Temptation to do evil or bad, does come in a million little moments – and those moments are not inevitably modern or religious. They just are.

    Abramoff failed to use his religion as his moral compass, which is something I cannot ever see you failing to do.

    I don’t know Abramoff – I just know you.

  2. What the last comment said.

    The temptation to evil comes in a lot of tiny steps. You refuse each of those steps better than anyone else I know. If Abramoff is the failure story of Modern Orthodoxy, you’re its success story, and I think the combination is clear evidence that the philosophy is not as important in causing good or bad results as the specific people are. Some people can go out “into the world” and not lose their moral footing, some can’t. Some people can live entirely surrounded and sheltered by their own kind without losing their moral footing and some can’t… evil is hardly unknown in the more secluded Orthodox communities. Some people can live without a religious foundation for their principles at all and be good people and some can’t. It doesn’t seem about the route but about the individual. As individuals, you and Abramoff are different, as demonstrated by what you *do* with those little partway-wrong judgment calls. I don’t see you in real danger of going that route, similar circumstances or no.

  3. I see your point, and I think it’s well-written. I particularly enjoyed how you came around to explaining “I am Jack Abramoff.”

    But you’re wrong. You, I suspect, are what Jack Abramoff set out to be, and failed. You, Harold, have embraced Modern Orthodox Judaism in a way I’ve never seen anyone else manage. Yes, you embrace modernity, but never have I seen you stray from the moral/religious compass that was handed to you on your eighth day. Everyone falters. Jack Abramoff faltered and continued down a path doomed for failure. I’m sure you’ve faltered (though I’ve never seen it), but you get back up and continue along the path that you know is right.

    I don’t see you *justifying* the evils of politicking. I don’t see you getting down in the mud with them. I don’t see you doing something so far from the tenets of your faith that you even HAVE to justify it.

    I am not rejoicing in Abramoff’s downfall. I am sad. I am disappointed. I am concerned for the future of Modern Orthodoxy. But I am not rejoicing.

    The fact is that Jack Abramoff did NOT speak for all of Orthodoxy, though outsiders certainly view him as the model of what we must be about. That’s what worries me. That’s what disappoints me.

    You? I have no such concerns about you. I don’t expect I’ll ever have this amount of sadness or disappointment about YOUR actions.

  4. Harold,

    I took the liberty of correcting a few typos (you spelled “restaurant” 3 different ways, all non-standard. Why, that is an almost Sundmanian accomplishment!).

    I’m obviously not competent to pronoune whether Abramoff’s politics were inherently in conflict with the moral teachings of Orthodox Judaism. But it certainly SEEMS that they were (are).

    His so-called “conservativism” is nothing but a ruthless scheme to make the rich and powerful more rich and powerful, and to, not incidentally, disempower and empoverish those at the lower end of the totem pole. Of course conservatives don’t use those terms to describe their philosophy. They say that their motive is to restrict the power of government and thereby unleash the power of the market to promote posperity, democracy, motherhood, apple pie, and ponies for everyone. But I don’t believe them. I think that’s just part of the con job. The Delay/Abramoff philosophy is, at its heart, pure mafia-ism. Can this be consistent with Orthodox Jewish teaching? I don’t see how. But as I said, I’m not even a Jew, much less a member of the Orthodox community, so I can’t say.

  5. John apparently knows a few things when he says “Of course conservatives don’t use those terms to describe their philosophy. They say that their motive is to restrict the power of government and thereby unleash the power of the market to promote posperity, democracy, motherhood, apple pie, and ponies for everyone.”

    Consider this note from Dick Armey, once a politician and now a paid mouthpiece, and whose words I received in email today via the Politech mailing list: “What net neutrality really does is allow the government to run all over
    basic property rights in classic, Kelo fashion. It expands regulation in
    the telecommunications arena and allows the government to dictate to
    businesses how they offer service.”

    And if that was all there was to it, he’d be right. Any government regulation tells someone what to do, or not do.

    The real question is not whether the government is telling others what to do – it is whether what those others were already doing is better for all of us, or not; compared to whatever it is the government would have them do.

    It is true that sometimes government regulations are stupid and worse than no regulation or free market at all. But, sometimes, not so much.

  6. Wow. I don’t see Abramoff’s story as having anything to do with modern orthodoxy. There are ultra-orthodox Jews who stray into immorality and corruption. Ralph Reed is a conservative Christian who was the same flavor of corrupt as Abramoff. Bernie Ebbers was a Baptist. Andrew Fastow was apparently a Conservative Jew. Ken Lay was a religious Christian. The vote-buying early Kennedy’s and Daley’s were Catholic.

    People of every religious and political persuasion are tempted by the evil inclination, and some of them cede to temptation. It’s a human thing.

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