The Company We Keep
Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, billionaire Bill Gates, former Harvard President Lawrence Summers, ex-presidents Clinton and Trump, filmmaker Woody Allen, international lawyer Alan Dershowitz, leading left-winger Noam Chomsky, Bard College president Leon Botstein: a veritable cholent of the rich and famous. What do they all have in common?
What they have in common is that each of them has evidently appeared in the appointment book of the infamous Jeffrey Epstein. Suffice it to say that his life is a morality tale ranging from the pinnacles pf money, power and fame, to indictment and imprisonment for a variety of seamy and sordid crimes, and finally to the ignominy of an apparent suicide in a New York City jail.
To have an appointment with a hugely wealthy man is not per se suspicious, and we are not suggesting that any of the above was in any way involved in his malefactions. But why did they have appointments with him? Many claim that they had wanted to see him for innocuous matters like support for educational institutions, for philanthropic causes, or for personal loans. But to seek him out – as some of these celebrities did – after he had been indicted for unsavory and sleazy offenses is at best a reflection of poor judgment. Similarly, to accept favors from him, such as visits to his private island or free trips on his personal jet, was not very prudent – as it is likely that just as they were attempting to use his influence and wealth for their own causes, he was simultaneously manipulating them to legitimize and burnish his own reputation.
One fact is clear: even prior to his incarceration, Epstein did not quite bear the kosher imprimatur of the OU or the Badatz or the Better Business Bureau. Thus, associating with him in any way did not enhance one’s own reputation. But this is a risk people are often willing to take for worthy causes, in the hope that some of the largesse will blow their way.
In any case, this story contains a lesson. Not only that of Proverbs 16: 18 about the toxic mix of wealth, power and arrogance as precursors of destruction, but a much more subtle one: about being circumspect about whom we socialize with, and whom we befriend. For one good way to assess a person’s values is to look at his friends and associates.
The Sages constantly declare that a crucial element in a person’s life is to find a good friend, as in Avos 1:6, knei lecha chaver. Associating with unsavory people could result in some unsavoriness rubbing off onto one’s own self. This is why parents are very careful with whom their children associate, and rightfully so (Bava Basra 16b). But parents and all adults would be wise to have identical concerns about themselves as well. For good reason is Halakha explicit about the dangers inherent in associating with the wrong people. Avos 1:7 urges us to “keep your distance from a bad neighbor.”
But a word of caution to our Orthodox Jewish readers: A non- observant Jew is not synonymous with a bad person. The vast majority of such Jews do not neglect Torah out of a disdain for G-d and mitzvos, but rather because of a lack of serious learning and exposure to Torah life. To disrespect or spurn such people would be a huge error. Rather, it is important to walk the narrow ridge between being friendly and understanding, while at the same time building personal guardrails that will ensure that our Torah values are admired (by example and not by preaching) and not vice versa. (See Berachos 43b.) As in all of life, common sense and old-fashioned sechel are key. It does not take a master psychiatrist to discern the difference between the pedestrian, non-observant Jew who never knew there was another way, versus the one who deliberately rejects Torah in hostile rebellion against any Divine authority.
Maybe those rich and famous who hobnobbed with a man of ill repute because of his money, are embarrassed enough to learn a lesson. Then again, maybe not. Many people equate great wealth with general superiority, and the lure of unlimited wealth and power is hard to resist — although I have known great Roshei Yeshiva who refused to accept support from disreputable sources. And obviously, there are many extremely wealthy men who are models of rectitude, generosity and morality.
For those of us who are neither rich nor famous – which might include a few of the readers of this essay – the rush of these prominent folks to explain away their association with a famous miscreant is itself a moral fable: follow the advice of the Sages about the company you keep, and you won’t have to explain anything.