On Greed, Religion, and Ethics
As reported in news outlets, William Rapfogel, the former CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, a non-profit social service agency, pled guilty to stealing more than $1 million from that organization; funds that were meant to help the poor and unfortunate. On reflection, I think there are several important lessons to be learned from this sordid episode.
It is shameful and sad the degree the degree to which greed has run amok in our country. Mr. Rapfogel was paid a salary of $400,000 a year by the Metropolitan Council. His wife made over $100,000 a year as a top aide to Sheldon Silver, the Speaker of the New York State Assembly. Keep in mind that the median household income in this country is about $50,000 a year. And still Mr. Rapfogel willingly participated in a scheme that resulted in his being found with hundreds of thousands of dollars in ill-gotten cash stuffed into bags in his several residences, money that was meant to alleviate the plight of impoverished New Yorkers. In the movie “Wall Street” the character Gordon Gecko famously said “Greed is good”. Is it really? Does this sound like a good thing to anybody? Lesson No. 1: Greed is not good. It warps our society and ruins lives.
The second lesson we should learn from this episode (and other instances too numerous to mention in all their irrational glory) is that a high level of religiosity, or “faith” as it is usually referred to these days, in no way correlates with moral and/or ethical behavior. Mr. Rapfogel is a highly observant Jew. I’ve never seen a picture of him where he wasn’t wearing the traditional yarmulke, and according to an article in the April 24 New York Times, “Mr. Rapfogel quietly read passages from a well-thumbed copy of the Torah” while he waited in court to enter his guilty plea. And yet this highly religious man, who made what by any reasonable measure would be considered a very handsome living, stole over $1 million that was earmarked for the poor. Can’t get much less moral than that. But despite this, most of our society continues to believe, as a given fact that few would even consider to challenge, that strongly held religious beliefs and observance are strongly indicative of a person’s good character. This even after highly devout Muslims murdered thousands of innocents by flying planes into skyscrapers. This even after scores of Catholic priests are found to have sexually abused young children in their charge, such abuse having been hidden and therefore abetted by the hierarchy of the Church. As a society and as a culture, it is past time for us to outgrow this nonsense. People should be free to practice (or not practice) religion if they want, but neither religious people nor religious institutions should be presumed to act in moral/ethical ways. Having a particular view as to how the world came into being, or, in fact, whether God exists at all, really has very little to do with a person’s kindness or decency. It is reasonable to wonder if Mr. Rapfogel’s outward piety allowed him to get away with his nefarious scheme for longer than he otherwise would have, because people just assumed that a man of faith would be inherently trustworthy. So Lesson No. 2 that we take away from this situation should be that we need to judge both individuals and institutions by their actions, and not just blindly assume that a religious person is an ethical person, and a religious institution is inherently a force for good. History, not to mention our own eyes, should tell us that this is not necessarily the case.