Just for Hanukkah fun, here's another quiz.
Which is worse: lying to a lot of people about
a) whether another country poses an immanent threat,
b) whether a product is addictive and will kill you, or
c) whether your money is safe.
No peeking, but if you said "c", you get to be in both the Atlantic and the New York Times.
Look, I'm not carrying a brief for Madoff; he's a liar and a thief on an unimaginable scale, and has hurt many, many people. But I find the idea that he's beyond the possibility of atonement, well, bizarre. First of all, I'd have thought that that kind of judgment involved an insight into the mind of both God and the sinner that's beyond most mortals. But let's get technical. This is probably a reflection of my own ignorance, but I'm not familiar with the text that says that God's forgiveness is dependent on making full restitution. The Talmud, after all, explicitly discusses the possibility of atonement for murderers, and even Maimonides talks about the possibility of effective deathbed repentence (when it's probably too late to make any kind of real recompense).
And if it were true that you could only gain forgiveness for what you've repaired, think of how many of us would truly be without hope. I know that there are people I've hurt whom I'll never see again to reconcile with; am I, too, beyond forgiveness? And wouldn't the "pay it all back first" clause privilege the rich over the poor? I mean, if rich man Deevies takes poor man Lazurus' one sheep, he can pay it back, but if Lazurus takes Deevies' Lamborgini to the chop shop, that could be well over a lifetime of earnings right there.
But of course this is silly. Real repentence isn't about what you do, it's about what you become. Of course, that has to lead to action, but the classic Jewish teaching is that teshuvah has to do with a rejection of the kind of self you were for a better kind of self. That begins with an honest appraisal of what you've done, an ownership of your actions and their consequences, and an honest attempt to repair the damage you've done to the world.
What would it be like to look on a life of lies and theft, on the wreckage of private lives and public institutions, to grieve for the choices you've made and pain and loss you've caused, and to know that it's up to you to try to bring healing to the pain you've caused. Near impossible to do, perhaps, but not to imagine. In fact, it's important to try to imagine it, because in that way we get an understanding of what repentence really requires, and what we have to do to deal with our own faults. And is it really unbelieveable that if Bernie spends the last years of his life as a true penitent, learning about the people he had hurt, trying humbly to good works, that God would have room for him?
After all, did subvert the Constitution? Did he promote torture? Did he teach hatred or inspire violence? Did he abuse children? It seems to me - again, without trying to mitigate the severity of Madoff's crimes - that if we're to have a focus for moral outrage that Bernie is a bar too low. After all, he will spend the rest of his life disgraced and in jail, while men like Kissinger and Rumsfeld will live out their days free, wealthy, and in the company of sycophants. And that is unforgiveable.