abramoff, jack 88.
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The New York Times and ABC News just could not understand why Jack Abramoff, a master of public relations, would walk out of a courtroom - where he pleaded guilty to three felony accounts - wearing a Mafioso-styled black fedora. Whose sympathy exactly was he after? While the Times could not understand the bizarre spectacle, Jews recognized Abramoff's headgear all too well as a sign of Orthodox piety.
It is far from ironic that Abramoff would be wearing such a hat to court. From start to finish his lobbyist carrier and his cover-ups have been cloaked in religious garb. Perhaps the best example of Abramoff religious antics comes from a story reported in The New York Times Magazine in 2005. Abramoff was nominated for membership in the Cosmos Club, an exclusive Washington insiders' organization.
Abramoff was flattered by the nomination, but knowing all too well just how newly cool he was in Washington circles, he feared the club would realize the emperor had no clothes. He needed some serious moral and intellectual credibility quickly. So he reportedly called his "rebbe" and long-time supporter Rabbi Daniel Lapin, head of the right-wing organization Toward Tradition, and asked him if he could patch together some award in his honor - "something like Scholar of Talmudic Studies," Abramoff wrote in an e-mail to Lapin. While Lapin was at it, Abramoff asked him if he could make it appear "that I received these in years past." Lapin assured him it was no problem.
The story only touches the surface of the disturbing symbiotic relationship between Abramoff and his rabbis. Abramoff founded the Eshkol Academy, an Orthodox Jewish school in Maryland. David Lapin, Daniel's brother, served as the dean. According to e-mails revealed during US Senate hearings into the Abramoff-Ralph Reed Indian gambling scandal, Lapin was reportedly paid $20,000 a month through Abramoff's Capital Athletic Foundation. The Eshkol Academy closed in 2004 after questions were raised in the press about Abramoff's financial dealings with Indian tribes. In 2004, 13 former Eshkol employees sued the academy for back salary and claimed that the Capital Athletic Foundation "was used to launder funds from the tribes to Eshkol."
FEDERAL TAX records show that various Indian tribes donated more than $1 million to the foundation.
Behind every corner of this investigation there is another right-wing rabbi or "observant Jew" ready to "kasher" Abramoff's actions. If it wasn't one of the Lapins, it was every evangelical's favorite Jew, David Klinghoffer, a writer who, along with Michael Medved, was part of Lapin's group American Alliance of Jews and Christians, which was geared towards promoting morality in American public life.
Yet with all his "moral" fiber behind him, Klinghoffer as late as May 13, 2005, was still defending Abramoff in The Forward. In the article, Klinghoffer praised the lobbyist in Robin Hood terms, castigating his readers and telling them, "I'd like to see Abramoff left alone in large part because, instead of spending the millions of dollars he raked in on Ferraris and yachts, he lavishly spent it on causes that I think are good and important: an Orthodox high school he founded in the Washington DC area, headed by a rabbi whose taped lectures I have long listened to with admiration."
Using biblical metaphors and justifying Abramoff's actions as "mundane," Klinghoffer asked his readers to sympathize with poor Abramoff. "His humiliation is nearly complete," wrote Klinghoffer, "yet who among us would not be humiliated if a decade's worth of our e-mail were leaked by Senate investigators to be dissected by journalists eager to carve us up like a Thanksgiving roast?"
In an article that recently appeared on beliefnet.com, Klinghoffer justified his words by arguing that Judaism required him to give Abramoff "the benefit of the doubt." Furthermore, he exclaimed that, as an Orthodox Jew, he was in no way embarrassed by Abramoff's actions.
I do not think Klinghoffer gave Bill Clinton the benefit of the doubt. Klinghoffer seems to have fallen into a far more dangerous trap. That is, being lenient when it comes to crimes committed between human beings and being stringent when it comes to ritual laws between God and man. If Abramoff's kosher restaurant had substituted pork for beef, he would not be justifying him.
I am sorry, but no matter how much you keep kosher and castigate Americans about sexual morality, if you support corrupt power and act unethically to other human beings, you are a failure as a Jew.
Abramoff's hat signals the extreme lack of self-reflection in his religious life. Before the Bible says anything about black hats, abortion or kosher restaurants for Washington insiders, it says "Do not steal." What can be more Jewish than that?
Hypocritical moralizing treats the public as fools and does a disservice to all those who take Judaism seriously. Being a frum Jew entails being an example for humanity. It means that we hold ourselves to a higher level of ethical correctness. If using an Orthodox yeshiva to launder ill-begotten money does not embarrass us, then what does?
The writer is scholar-in-residence at Manhattan's Park East Synagogue and a member of Edah, an advocacy movement for modern Orthodox Judaism.
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