Do Jews want Jewish criminals to repent?

Here is the latest column from the Evangelical leader Richard Mouw, president of Fuller theological. He asks why we do not do outreach in prisons? And why we do not worry about the souls of our sinners? Any thought?

Why Don’t Jews “Evangelize” Jews?
from Mouw’s Musings – The President’s Blog by support

Bernie Madoff finally gave a public interview of sorts recently. Basically, he argued that bankers and others in the financial world were complicit in his crimes. I have nothing interesting to say on that subject, but the very occasion of his speaking out raised an important question for me: Who is talking these days to Bernie Madoff about the state of his soul?

My Jewish friends—especially rabbis and others who are serious about their faith—resent the way evangelicals go about “Jewish evangelism.” This is a big subject, and one we don’t often address calmly in our interfaith dialogues. And while I have my own criticisms of the way we evangelicals have sometimes gone about our witnessing about Christ to the Jewish community, I also have serious questions for my Jewish friends about their own views about “Jewish evangelism.” To put it bluntly, I wonder why they are not showing a deeper concern for the souls of those folks in their own community who by any Jewish standard are clearly wandering from the paths of righteousness.

Bernie Madoff is a case in point. He has done horrible things, engaging in a long-term deceptive project that has brought misery to many Jewish lives. It seems to me to be clear from a Jewish perspective that Bernie Madoff should repent of his sins and make a public confession. And—even if he cannot do the Zacchaeus thing, making restitution by repaying his victims fourfold—he can at least let them know that he is profoundly sorry for his sins and is praying for his victims’ well being.

Is anyone in the Jewish community talking to him about such things? Am I wrong in thinking that this kind of “prison ministry” is as much a Jewish obligation as it is a Christian one?

Here is my challenge to the Jewish community: If they don’t go after the likes of Bernie Madoff… do they have any objection to our doing so? Can’t we agree on at least this minimal attempt at “Jewish evangelism”?

7 responses to “Do Jews want Jewish criminals to repent?

  1. Do most orthodox Jews see a Jewish thief in prison as significantly more wayward than your average pork-eating, sabbath-desecrating American Jew? So for either cynical or practical reasons they choose to focus “kiruv” on the latter.
    That said, I think lubavitch does have something of a prison ministry, most prominently in the “aleph institute.” (cf The emphasis seems to be on doing more mitzvos and bringing people back to the roots (that is, a lot like other chabad kiruv) rather than on helping inmates do teshuvah for the specific thing that landed them in jail.

  2. Well, there is a group that works with Jewish prisoners.

    Excerpted from

    “Directed by Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, the Aleph Institute regularly provides Jewish inmates with ritual items such as prayer shawls and books. In sends out care packages in advance of major holidays and coordinates counseling for the family members of those behind bars.”

    This is not to say in any way that we shouldn’t do more: of course we should. But there are dedicated individuals at the Aleph Institute working hard to do Jewish outreach.

  3. It’s such a great question, and so illustrative of the gulf between evangelical Christian and Jewish religion.

    If evangelical Jews “converted” Madoff and he began putting on tefilin every day, my reaction would be: Wait, you mean Madoff was goniff who didn’t wear tefilin?

  4. “To put it bluntly, I wonder why they are not showing a deeper concern for the souls of those folks in their own community who by any Jewish standard are clearly wandering from the paths of righteousness.”
    Here is my challenge to the Jewish community: If they don’t go after the likes of Bernie Madoff… do they have any objection to our doing so? Can’t we agree on at least this minimal attempt at “Jewish evangelism”?

    What is great about the reverend’s comment is that he assumes there is a thriving competition in the soul market. I am unaware of a soul market. Most Jews who are preoccupied with questions of belief are generally concerned with affiliations rather than the soul’s beliefs that lie beneath the surface. The question is whether you are Republican or Democrat, which synagogue do you pray at, do you shop at banana republic or J Crew, American Idol or Dancing with the Stars, give money to AIPAC or the Met. Jewish clergy for the most part couldn’t care less about how your soul is doing. Furthermore, when it comes to a figure as infamous as Madoff it pays little to associate oneself with him in any conceivable way. Especially under the guise of helping gain back his soul. Whoever wants the ugliest soul at the dance might be disappointed the next morning. This is not a case of a random criminal known to a select few and with something to perhaps offer society at a later date or some money to offer society at a later date. Madoff is not the black swan, he is the skunk.

    On a theological note, the pastor seems to indicate that you can claim a soul for your side. If you can get someone to follow your path then that person is thereby acquired by your church. As I understand, to be Jewish all you need is to be born Jewish. Whether you believe it or not, socially you are usually stuck as a Jew because of this belief in a “nation” or “people”. When anyone tries to convert a Jew, even to save their soul and even when left for dead by their own people – to other Jewish people you have poached from the wrong mystical stream. Jews don’t say this because you are claiming a soul but because you are abducting a member of the whole.

    Even if Jews find it useful to articulate their beliefs using “soul” talk, it doesn’t mean the same thing. Although most 20-21st century Jews seem to believe that they all have souls, it isn’t in terms of something that is in a state of saved or unsaved. The soul is some fuzzy thing Jews are usually told they have and is rather important. You can be a bad soul, a good soul, a lost soul. It isn’t a vital organ but a metaphor. If someone tells you “you are a bad soul”, it’s an opinion about you, not a state of your being. Someone is calling you a bad person, not telling you about your spiritual being.

    Most Jews are far less concerned with what you believe in your soul – than the material and status ties you have to your religion. Who you end up marrying and whether you continue to live in the same community and perhaps send your children to overpriced schools, pay synagogue fees and support local charities. When you poach a Jew from prison or anywhere you have poached away dollars. Souls are cheap and where one’s soul truly belongs, or where someone may find their inner light doesn’t mitigate the loss of dollars and peoplehood pride.

    On another note I find what Mouw’s focus on the soul reveals how cheap the soul really is and more precisely because it can so easily be forgiven. Although Mouw talks about saving souls he in fact is engaged in a market which trades in a commodity which everyone has. This commodity known as a soul can be damaged and fixed with some prayers or simply doing your best to become a better person. If a soul is actually worth anything perhaps it should be something you can lose and not gain back with some post fact mutterings. Some crimes perhaps do not deserve to be forgiven. Some crimes have no reason to be forgiven. And I think that many Jews truly believe this.

    With regard to the clergy forgiving someone: It’s very easy to say that the clergy should save Madoff’s soul. What makes this very difficult in practice is firstly what I think is a lack of interest in his soul. But secondly, to value his soul and give him comfort would definitely violate the desires of the majority of the community and the clergy’s other parishioners. People do not want to forgive Madoff and they certainly don’t want his apologies. They want blood. They want their money back. Madoff already apologized in court. I don’t think this did much for his case.

    I certainly do not want to disparage evangelical Christians and any of their beliefs, however, Jews are far less concerned with forgiveness. It is not a part of the everyday discourse but is a useful tool at a specific time of the year to rally the troops and fill the coffers. Its an awe inspiring tactic, not a part of the everyday ethos. Beyond the specific time centered rituals of the Rosh Hashannah – Yom-Kippur miracle, Jews are generally wholly unconcerned with attaining forgiveness. The far more prevalent narrative is one of understanding that horrible things happen and its one’s job to move on. Although this is a horrific oversimplification, most stories of evil are followed not with moving on by forgiving the transgressor but by an eventual triumph. Moses never forgave the Egyptians, Jews never forgave Haman, Jews will never ever forgive Hitler. Find me a member of the clergy absolving Hitler and I will show you a defrocked Rabbi. Jews seem plenty comfortable leaving their souls to rot. Yes I know these are not cases of Jews forgiving Jews, but it does speak to how mythical and real Jews deal with soul-wrenching tragedy. And I think this makes fundamental sense.

    What is there to gain by way of forgiveness? Will anyone get their money back? Will people who have lost everything feel better? Will God sleep better at night?

    Nothing. No. No. Who Cares.

    The reverend seems to think that most Jews want an apology from Madoff. What people want from Madoff is blood for his sins and green in their wallets. The state of his soul is about as interesting to most Jews as 3:51 in the Guide.

    I do think that Madoff will be reclaimed by a prominent Jewish institution of sorts. Madoff is primed for a great documentary or a Hollywood remake. I believe the Jews in the film industry will reclaim their forlorn son “Social Network” style. My guess is Robert De Niro butchers another role as an elderly Jew ( See – “What Just Happened”).

  5. This article does reveal a very interesting difference between Christian and Jewish assumptions about the role of worldly religion, however I don’t think that Mouw is arguing that Jews should fight to keep Jewish inmates “on their team.” Rather, from a Christian perspective, he is sympathetically concerned about the individual fate of Bernie Madoff’s soul and those of other criminals. From an evangelical point-of-view the crimes one commits have a bearing on ultimate reward and punishment in the afterlife. The Lubavitchers mentioned above have a very different interest in outreach. They are primarily concerned with the holy project of repairing the world. In other words, Lubavitcher outreach is about the common good while the Christian outreach is about the individual good. Both approaches assume a holy mission on earth that should dictate behavior, however, the motivations are considerably different. Jews are much more concerned with the affairs and effects on this planet (and their abstract spiritual consequences) while Christians are concerned about each person’s individual fate in the heavenly realm.

  6. I think you are absolutely right doctrinally about the team point. On paper saving souls is an individual game and not about souls. My point relates more to the social consequences of different values placed upon soul-speak. By valuing soul-saving, you have created an opening for institutional growth and maintaining your base. By devaluing forgiveness and the individual soul, you are filtering your base and refining its class to exclude certain people.

    I think Mouw is annoyed at certain critiques leveled at evangelical Christians who attempt to convert Jews. This is what I refer to as poaching. The reverend’s goal is to save the individual soul, but this translates into trying to maintain and establish a large and powerful base of support which extends well outside of the already established base. Your point directly relates to questions of doctrine upon which I agree. My interest in the reverend’s comments relate directly to how these doctrinal tidbits fuel social initiative.

    In the case of outreach while Lubavitchers and Evangelicals have different doctrinal motives for emphasizing a soul roundup, they have similar sociological and cultural consequences. A more diverse base and greater influence in different societal circles.

    Where they differ greatly are the target audience. Firstly, Lubavitchers stress outreach to all Jews while evangelical Christians extend their message to all people. Lubavitchers act in the name of changing the world but at the end of the day they target a very specific demographic suceptible to their teachings and influence. This may stem from a theology of tikun olam but manifests itself specifically in college campuses, prisons, tourist hot spots and very busy subway platforms. The whole world may be the lofty goal but it certainly is not the method. Evangelicals want to extend their base far beyond the college campus into any corner of the world.

    While your critique is understood on a theological level I think that you are not taking into account many of the social and economic motives behind the differences in the religious discourse. I think the pastor has laid down the challenge for Jews to reclaim their sinners from their exile. And if Jews wont take these souls back then what is the problem if a Christian comes in and takes that soul away. I think the point runs far deeper than Madoff and has little to do with his own individual soul. I don’t think that the pastor is all that concerned with Madoff individually but is asking the fundamental question of why Jews leave their worst sinners for dead.

    In terms of a stress upon the next world I am not certain that there is as fundamental a difference between conceptions of heaven between Christians and Jews except for which glowing deity greets you at the gate. I think both Jews and Christians would like to know that they are going to heaven and meeting their relatives for brunch. I am not certain that popular beliefs about the afterlife so dramatically differ. The shared cultural space of 21st Century America has a strong sense of olam haba and heaven.
    Saving souls is a business of this world. Both Jews and Evangelicals use the threat and promise of the next world to achieve very similar things in this world. The prevalence of next-life discourse and its manifestation are clearly different but I think both Evangelicals and Jews are focused mainly on how to use next-life discourse to shape the community in this life. I am not sure evangelicals are more concerned than Lubavitchers or other Jews about securing the right amenities in heaven.

    There is most definitely a different value in articulating one’s everyday life using soul talk. The main point is not that Jews or Chabad have a different understanding of souls; but because they use soul speak differently there are profound differences which play out in each groups attempts to establish, grow and maintain their own respective bases of power. Each side manipulates soul talk for very different purposes despite both looking forward to a magical mimosa on a warm spring morning for eternity.

  7. To leave a too short comment, I think that the difference is primarily cultural. Rabbis tend to focus on denominations and to reach out to those within their own denominations & most Jews in prison are not part of their communities.

    There are Chassidic organizations catering to the needs of Chassidim in prisons.

    Orthodox Kiruv groups tend to recruit those who would easily fit within their upper-middle class Orthodox Judaism (e.g. MJE or Gateways) and avoid people who would not be a great accomplishment to recruit (e.g. ex-cons).

    Chabad who for theological reason are open to all, do actively evangelize in prisons.

    So the difference is primarily sociological not ideological.

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