The New York Times has been relentless in its front-page coverage of the Madoff scandal. $50 billion is a lot of money, and it’s a New York story, so I can’t blame them. But they’ve also been unstinting in pointing out, repeatedly, the fact of Madoff’s Jewishness. A couple of reactions:

1. This morning’s article about Yeshiva University’s response is actually a wonderful piece, and reflects well on the Jewish community in general and YU in particular. Madoff was on the board of YU, chaired the Sy Syms School of Business, and was in bed with another board member, Ezra Merkin. So the scandal has hit YU particularly hard, and it is heartening to see the university reacting in the classroom.

(At the same time, I have to believe that the Times’s portrayal is inaccurate: Of course we all react most strongly when events hit us in the face; but why does it have to take an event like this for people to realize that Jewish life is not just defined by ritual, but, just as importantly, but ethics and behavior? While I would have liked to see YU and the Rabbinical Council of America taking a stronger lead on, say, the Rubashkin’s scandal, there is no question that YU has publicly promoted discussion and reflection on ethics and morals beyond ritual in recent years. I particularly remember the busloads of YU students at the Darfur rally several years ago on the national mall. But I digress.)

2. This letter from David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, published Saturday, tugs at my American (and Illinoisan) heartstrings and makes an important point to the Times:

To the Editor:

In “Standing Accused: A Pillar of Finance and Charity,” your Dec. 13 Business Day article about Bernard L. Madoff, arrested in a major fraud scheme, there was a striking emphasis on his being Jewish. It was not just once, or twice, but at least three times before the article continued inside. Why?

Yes, he is Jewish. We get it. But was this relevant to his being arrested for cheating investors, or so key to his evolution as a businessman that it needed to be hammered home again and again?

I have read several accounts in The Times of the shenanigans of Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois, yet have no clue what his religion is, nor, frankly, do I care. Why should I? Unless he was acting in the name of his faith, which I assume he was not, what difference does it make? And if a profile is warranted and the governor’s faith matters to him, mention it and move on.

But to refer to the “Jewish T-bill,” “the clubby Jewish world” and the “world of Jewish New York” within four paragraphs near the top of the article on Mr. Madoff was over the top.

David A. Harris
Executive Director
American Jewish Committee
New York, Dec. 13, 2008

3. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik is reported to have said that Jews in the New York area should not read the Times on Shabbat, since, in essence, the paper is a Jewish paper, printed for Jews. If someone has work done expressly for them on Shabbat, it is forbidden to benefit from that work on Shabbat. (I have other halakhic reasons for thinking that reading the paper on Shabbat is a bad idea, based on the principle of dober davar, that we are to talk and think about things on Shabbat that are different in style and substance from the things we dwell on during the week. For news junkies like me, the paper is a quintessentially weekday thing.)

Of course, the Times isn’t a Jewish paper. But one has to wonder, given the way it has approached this story, as well as the regular curiosity pieces it runs on Jewish life, what its Jewish nature really is. I’ve always thought that New York Jews’ obsession with the Times was a bit overblown, as when some rabbis during the second intifada called on Jews to cancel their subscriptions in protest at the Times’s coverage. But watching how it has responded to Madoff–which brings in not just the New York section, but the business and front page sections as well–I’m starting to think differently.

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