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.