BY HIS own admission, Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff is a crook. But that isn't the worst that can be said about him.
He defrauded his clients of millions of dollars, bribed public officials, cheated on his tax returns, and deceived lenders to qualify for a loan. But that isn't the worst that can be said about him, either.
He made himself at home in and contributed to the swamp of corruption that fills Washington with its stench. His e-mails to cronies, with messages like "Can you smell money?!?!?!" and "I'd love us to get our mitts on that moolah!!" oozed greed and boorishness. Behind their backs, he crudely mocked those who hired him, calling them "morons," "monkeys," "troglodytes," and "the stupidest idiots in the land." He played fast and loose with what were supposed to be charitable funds. But not even that is the worst that can be said about him.
The worst is that Abramoff is a Jew. Not only a Jew, but an Orthodox Jew -- someone who claims to be committed to strictly observing Jewish law and faithfully adhering to the Torah's ethical standards. But instead of upholding those ethical standards Abramoff trampled on them, and a "religious" Jew who behaves so corruptly disgraces not only himself but all religious Jews. He brings his faith into contempt. He is guilty of what Jewish tradition calls, with disgust, "chillul ha-Shem" -- a desecration of God's name.
For me -- also an observant Jew -- that is the worst thing of all.
Honesty in financial dealings is not optional in Judaism; it is mandatory. The Talmud teaches that when a person is brought to judgment in the world-to-come, the first question the heavenly tribunal puts to him is: "Did you conduct your business affairs in good faith?" A Jew who takes the values of his religion seriously must be scrupulous in his transactions with others. To be sure, even the saintliest people -- not to mention the rest of us -- sometimes fall short of the values they profess. But Abramoff's criminal deeds and sleazy manner are a lot worse than mere lapses in judgment. One who behaves so unethically and illegally drags more than his own reputation through the mud. He is an embarrassment to his religion and his community, and that comes close to being unforgivable.
Far from disguising his Orthodox Jewish identification, Abramoff paraded it publicly, as if that would cleanse his unkosher activities. He produced a violent, expletive-filled movie (1989's "Red Scorpion"), then turned around and created the Committee for Traditional Jewish Values in Entertainment. He fired off gross and insulting e-mails, but fastidiously rendered "God" as "G-d." ("This is a Jewish tradition," he explained to a reporter for The New York Times, "to not write out God's name in something that might be destroyed.") As the legal stormclouds gathered over his head, he cloaked himself in piety. His "political activities, like everything in his life, were informed by his religious beliefs," his spokesman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. "While he did not always meet the standard of his faith, he certainly aspired to do so."
For his appearance in the US District Court in Washington last Tuesday, Abramoff made a point of wearing a black fedora -- an element of attire that is de rigeur for men in certain Orthodox Jewish circles. But his show of devoutness was lost on those who looked at that black hat, and the black trench coat he also wore, and saw something considerably more sinister.
"He looks like if he would open that raincoat, he's got half a dozen machine guns inside," Newsweek's Howard Fineman commented on MSNBC.
"He looks," replied Chris Matthews, "like the guy in 'Godfather II' going after Hyman Roth."
Within the Jewish community whose values he so dishonored, there is little sympathy for Abramoff, who is likely to receive a prison sentence of 10 or 11 years. But Jewish tradition also teaches that it is never too late to repent, and that God's hand is always extended to the wrongdoer who is genuinely contrite.
"For all of my remaining days, I will feel tremendous sadness and regret for my conduct and for what I have done," Abramoff told US District Judge Ellen Huvelle last week. "I only hope that I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and from those I have wronged or caused to suffer."
By themselves, those words will not undo the damage Jack Abramoff has done. But they make a good start. Right now, that is the best that can be said about him.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His website is www.JeffJacoby.com).
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