I'm late to the game on this one but I do want to add my two cents (Canadian) to the ongoing lashing that Rav Avi Shafran is being given over his most recent column. The gist of the column is quite simple:
Something tells me I won’t make any new friends (and might even lose some old ones) if I confess to harboring some admiration for Bernard Madoff.
And to make things worse, I can’t muster much for Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed a full commercial airliner in the Hudson River back in January.
Well, not making any new friends is an understatement on this one. While Rav Shafran has come under criticism in the past for denying that any abuse of significance exists in the Agudah Jewish community, or that Agriprocessors is a model business run to the strictest levels of business ethics, this time he seems to have completely lost it.
It is, after all, one thing to try and keep the blanket pulled over a dirty family secret. It's quite another to write a column justifying positive feelings for one of the worst criminals in America today while simultaneously discounting the deeds of a true hero. Here's how he does it:
Think about it. The man knew for years that his scheme would eventually come apart and that prosecution loomed, yet he took no steps to flee, huge bribe in hand, to some country lacking extradition treaties. Idi Amin, we might recall, died of old age in luxury. Madoff’s millions, moreover, could have easily bought him a new face and identity papers; he could spent his senior years tanned and well-fed among the sunbirds of Miami Beach.
Instead, though, he chose to essentially turn himself in and admit guilt. He apologized to his victims, acknowledging that he had “deeply hurt many, many people,” and adding, “I cannot adequately express how sorry I am for what I have done.”
No such sublimity of spirit, though, was in evidence in any of the public acts or words of Mr. Sullenberger. He saved 155 lives, no doubt about it, and is certainly owed the gratitude of those he saved, and of their families and friends. And he executed tremendous skill.
But no moral choice was involved in his act. He was on the plane too, after all; his own life depended on undertaking his feat no less than the lives of others. He did what anyone in terrible circumstances would do: try to stay alive. He was fortunate (as were his passengers) that he possessed the talents requisite to the task, but that’s a tribute to his training, and to the One Who instilled such astounding abilities in His creations (and Whose help the captain was not quoted as acknowledging).
In other words, Madoff is a great guy for saying sorry. But what's the big deal about Sullenberger? (Note he even discounts his title: Captain, calling him Mr. instead) He was just doing his job.
To melamed some z'chus to him, I tried to think this through. Yes, the essential point is correct. Madoff could simply have disappeared with his millions. The financial outcome for his victims would have been essentially the same. Could we not see it as a positive thing that he apologized and accepted his fate?
And the answer I came to was: No. Yes, I know teshuvah accomplishes amazing things but Madoff's sins were ben adam l'chavero and until he actually goes and makes up the terrible damage he has done to each of his victims, he really hasn't done teshuvah. Feeling bad you ate chometz on Pesach or didn't wait the full six hours after that last burger before you have that piece of pizza, might carry some currency in Heaven but no one thinks that saying "I'm sorry" after you've destroyed someone's life means the matter is concluded.
What's more, even though Madoff faced the music, as it were, one must remember an annoying little fact: The only reason he needed to apologize is because he was such a huge criminal in the first place. It's like saying "Well, you're an arsonist but thanks for pointing out that fire hydrant. I guess you're not such a bad guy after all".
As for Sullenberger, as a physican I am also trained to handle disasters. As anyone who works in the ER knows, 99% of the training we get is to handle 1% of the patients, the ones who are really, really sick. But all that training doesn't guarantee success when the patient actually finally arrives. Perhaps the drug won't work, perhaps an important piece of information isn't available. One can do everything right and still lose the patient. Similarly, Captain Sullenberger, with his extensive training, could have panicked, or still not managed to succeed. That he did points out his ability to keep his head together under pressure. That isn't something one can be taught in school and does make him a hero.
There is no question Rav Shafran lives in a different reality than the rest of us but he does his organization and masters a great discredit by allowing this kind of junk to be published.