- The former Republican superlobbyist may have fleeced clients such as Indian tribes of millions of dollars, but Abramoff often donated half or more his income each year to charities and community projects, religious leaders told the court.
Abramoff was “driven in a material world yet sought to find some balance and channel his considerable energy and creativity for a more noble purpose,” Rabbi Kalman Winter wrote U.S. District Judge Paul C. Huck, who will sentence the lobbyist in the Florida case.
Ignoring for a moment the laws of mitzvah haba’ah b’aveira (fulfilling a commandment through a sin), I am wondering exactly what type of message this sends and what is really the appropriate “Jewish” response. Mr. Abramoff committed several felonies which challenged the very fabric of our legislative system, but then again the man isn’t completely evil and isn’t motivated entirely by avarice as evidenced by his numerous “good deeds.”
This case is actually a very good example of a much larger problem in Modern Jewish Ethics. When previously respectable people have their transgressions publicized, it is not uncommon to hear the “but he did so much good” defense to somehow mitigate the offense. In its most extreme form, the “good deed” defense can actually lead people to overlook or even deny the offense itself. For one extreme example, see the case of Baruch Lanner where his devoted followers ignored even the most damming of evidence to support their leader.
Naturally, our perspectives of the ethics involved would be different if we knew the people involved. It’s quite possible that if we met Mr. Abramoff in shul he would be cordial and maybe invite us for lunch. If we have known someone well for a longer period of time, and we have found that in that time this person has always acted with integrity, we would be disinclined to believe accusations which challenged our empirically reinforced perceptions.
But when our friends or acquaintances fall from grace, what should the reaction be? Paraphrasing Shel Silvertein’s poem The Zebra, are they good people with bad traits or bad people with good traits?
I suggest that the good and bad need not be contradictory, but rather necessary parts of a person. Kohelet 7:20 says that no one is entirely righteous such that he will not ever sin – i.e. no one is perfect. As such we would need to evaluate what was done (assuming it can be proven) and remember that even good people can make significant mistakes. It is unfair and unethical to simply characterize people as being entirely good or entirely evil since no one can live up to those standards.
But we must also remember that consideration for good deeds does not necessarily exempt someone from facing the consequences of his/her actions. To his credit, R. Winter is not asking for exoneration, but clemency in the form of a lenient sentence. I have not read the letter in its entirety, but it’s likely R. Winter explains Abramoff’s actions without actually justifying them. This difference is crucial in that the good and the bad are taken as a unit in a complete context as opposed to the simple dichotomies which many of us prefer.
Mr. Abramoff’s role in developing Red Scorpion or Red Scorpion 2 is a separate matter entirely…
UPDATE: The sentence was just announced at 5 years, 10 months, but that could be reduced pending cooperation in other cases.