02/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

God Vs. Madoff

The Madoff scandal hit Toronto this week, and like our American friends south of the border, we are enraged at Madoff's greed, selfishness and narcissism.

Jews, in particular, are shaking their heads and murmuring "a shande, a shande!", as the bad news continues to pore in. The New York Times printed a piece last week about the betrayal felt by the Jewish community at Madoff's behavior. Shame by association is the quintessential Jewish characteristic. We are taught young that we are representatives of our family and that what we do reflects on them, so we better damn well behave or we'll never hear the end of it.

Rabbi Wolpe said, "Jews have these familial ties. It's not solely a shared belief; it's a sense of close communal bonds, and in the same way that your family can embarrass you as no one else can, when a Jew does this, Jews feel ashamed by proxy."

Right. But. What Wolpe leaves out in his analogy is that family can always come home, no matter what they have done. The wayward son has a place in the community if he does "tshuva" or repents. Not so, according to Rabbi Wolpe. "It is not possible for him [Madoff] to atone for all the damage he did and I don't even think that there is a punishment that is commensurate with the crime, for the wreckage of lives that he's left behind. The only thing he could do, for the rest of his life, is work for redemption that he would never achieve."

Madoff can never achieve redemption? He will never be able to make amends? Does Rabbi Wolpe get to decide this? Does The New York Times? The arrogance of this statement irks me and it goes against some of the basic principles of the Jewish tradition.

To be clear, I, like pretty much everyone else on the planet, thinks that Madoff's behavior is reprehensible, disgusting, and selfish to an unprecedented degree. In fact, the scandal is so clear-cut, it's almost boring. There is no grey area. What Madoff did is very, very bad. When it comes to sins between people, Madoff takes the cake. End of story.

But when Rabbi Wolpe speaks about redemption, he is talking about the ability to repent and make amends with God. And it is here that I say, "not so fast, Wolpe."

On Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, Jews are asked to make amends and atone for two kinds of sins. The first is for sins against humanity, or sins against other people, and the second is for sins against God.

The way you repent for sins against others is by asking for forgiveness and receiving an absolution from those who you have harmed. There is action involved. Often it comes in the form of an uncomfortable conversation and the risk that the other person may not forgive you. It's hard work, this atoning business, and it doesn't always go your way. Madoff falls into this category. He hasn't asked for forgiveness, and it is unlikely that anyone is going to accept his apology even if he offers one.

The second kind of atonement, however, is trickier. The word "repentance" in Hebrew means "to return" and it comes from the idea that we can return to God at anytime. The tradition teaches that one should repent a day before one's death. While the lesson here is that since we don't know when we will die, we should always live in line with God's will for us (i.e., ethically, morally, spiritually etc.), it also reminds us that it's never too late, and that it's always possible to atone and make amends for our sins.

The Talmud also teaches that God has thirteen attributes of mercy when it comes to sin. They are as follows:

1. God is merciful before someone sins, even though God knows that a person is capable of sin.
2. God is merciful to a sinner even after the person has sinned.
3. God represents the power to be merciful even in areas that a human would not expect or deserve.
4. God is compassionate, and eases the punishment of the guilty.
5. God is gracious even to those who are not deserving.
6. God is slow to anger.
7. God is abundant in kindness.
8. God is the god of truth, thus we can count on God's promises to forgive repentant sinners.
9. God guarantees kindness to future generations, as the deeds of the righteous patriarchs have benefits to all their descendants.
10. God forgives intentional sins if the sinner repents.
11. God forgives a deliberate angering of Him if the sinner repents.
12. God forgives sins that are committed in error.
13. God wipes away the sins from those who repent.

Clearly, there is some room for discussion here. God, according to the holy texts, not only forgives sins if there is repentance, but will wipe them away completely if one atones with a whole heart. This is a powerful lesson in compassion, forgiveness, and mercy. I am not a religious person and struggle with my belief in God. Nonetheless, this text inspires me and reminds me to be open, non-judgmental, and compassionate towards others. That is to say, if God can forgive, who I am to argue?!

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Judaism teaches that personal and spiritual growth is an individual matter when it comes to judgment. There are certain standards of communal ethical living and there is a code of conduct that we should all be striving towards, but how far you have come, and how much you have repented cannot be judged by others.

You are not compared to your brother, your best friend, or your boss in God's eyes. You are responsible for being the best version of yourself and at the end of your life, you will be judged on how you did based on your own potential and hardships. For example, an alcoholic who stays sober may be more lauded than a researcher who discovers the cure for cancer. The achievement itself is less relevant than how challenging it was for you to get there. Only you and God know how far you have moved along your own personal trajectory. Madoff is no exception to this rule.

Rabbi Wolpe may never forgive Madoff, but he has not right to imply that he can never return to God's graces. It's not for him, or for any one of us to decide if, or how much he has repented.