Is there any good in Jack Abramoff?

Maybe we should not be so quick to label him a religious hypocrite. (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
An ocean of articles have already been written about how Jack Abramoff, the shamed Republican lobbyist, was an Orthodox Jew. Indeed, such descriptions have become so common that one conjures up images of a man with flowing sidecurls and fringes running around Indian reservations collecting bags of money. Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe, himself an Orthodox Jew, wrote a piece saying that Abramoff had committed a hilul 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 a enormous difference between, say, a priest who molests a boy in the course of working as a priest, and a lay Catholic who commits the same sin. 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 a child, why is that the fault of the Catholic Church? The Church's teachings against such abominable behavior are 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 Abramoff engaged in, more importantly, Abramoff 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 who 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 we keep hearing about Abramoff's orthodoxy is not anti-Semitism, but a gleeful joy on the part of secularists in pointing 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 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. If we lower the bar, none are required to live a life of moral purpose. I still recall, while studying to be a rabbi in Jerusalem, hearing from my secular Israeli friends that I should wake up and abandon all this rabbi stuff because all religious people are fakes and half the rabbis in Israel secretly visit 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 men or women who preach one thing but practice another are not hypocrites. 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 preaching: in other words, making religious pronouncements simply to impress the masses and preaching morality to falsely impress one's followers. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the greatest American of the second half of the 20th 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 passions. JACK ABRAMOFF is not a great man. But that is not because he engaged in criminal activity. Rather, Abramoff is not a great man because he did not devote his life to a great cause the way King did, even if King was flawed. The great man or woman is not he or she who has never made huge mistakes. History is replete with great personalities who have. Rather, the great man or woman is the one who can point to having pushed mankind closer to a great and noble goal. What is more, ordinary and even criminal people can still do great things. Jack Abramoff, for example, undertook large charitable projects in the name of his religious convictions, like building a Jewish day school and sending money to needy Israelis. So rather than point out what a fake he was, let us instead applaud the good he did, even as we condemn the bad, and recognize that all of us are inconsistent, and some of us are true hypocrites. The writer, a rabbi, author, and talk show host, has received the American Jewish Press Association's Award for Excellence in Commentary.