This is a dilemma. I loved Good Will Hunting, the Harvey Weinstein-produced movie that made the very young and then-unknown Ben Affleck and Matt Damon instant stars and Oscar winners. (Of course, watching it again not too long ago, the sexist tropes bothered me more than they did back then. Perhaps the topic for a different post… or maybe it is the same topic. Not sure.) Now that we know the truth about Weinstein – that he is likely a serial rapist, among other things – does that mean we can’t watch his movies anymore? Or The Cosby Show? Or anything by Dustin Hoffman? Or House of Cards? Or Woody Allen (whose latest flick actually idealizes a pedophiliac relationship?!) Or Ben Affleck by the way? (When did he stop being cute?)
I think of this as the Wagner dilemma. It’s the question of whether we can still appreciate great art even if it comes out of terrible people. Wagner was a Nazi-precursor, beloved by Hitler himself, whose music is apparently brilliant despite his unapologetic anti-Semitism. (I’m not much of a judge of classical music, but I did take a few course in music appreciation over the years, and I can recall a class at Barnard where the lecturer likened a particular Wagner opera to an orgasm. I am not making this up.) Anyway, this is the dilemma. Is there a way to still hang on to the art even if the person who made it was a big, big creep?
This question came up in synagogue this morning in a discussion about the Torah portion. The rabbi, Philip Nadel, asked us whether, despite everything that we know about Abraham’s life, we can still appreciate that he might have been a great leader? His question was met with boos and hisses – well maybe not literally, but that was the sense of it. To remind you, as Osnat Eldar mentioned in the sermon that I posted here last week, Abraham did some pretty awful things in his life. He pimped out his wife in order to acquire material goods and maybe influence. More than once. He was willing to sacrifice his son because God said so. He never seemed to apologize for any of it. And we call him “Abraham Our Father.” It’s a little nauseating.
We do this often in our tradition. Think about David, Father of the Messiah. He raped Batsheba after pulling a Freundel by secretly watching her immerse in the ritual bath, thus impregnating her; then had her husband, Uriah, killed to cover it up by creating a battle out of nothing and placing the husband on the front line. Yes, he really did that. At least David, as opposed to Abraham, apologized, and was punished. Although he at least one son who was also a rapist. So there’s that. But, come on, Messiah! Like that.
So what do we do with our misogynistic tradition? It seems like our rabbis were very willing to so easily forgive sins committed against women and then men who loved them, and even put these offenders on a pedestal for all of eternity. But, you know, nobody ever asked Sara what she thought of that. The play God’ Girlfriends that I saw last year painted a phenomenal portrait of what Sara might have been thinking. But it’s guess work. Our tradition doesn’t care much about the victims, at least not when the perpetrators are Very Important Men. We know this narrative.
Think about this. For several millenia now, we have been keeping a fast day to mark the political assassination of a guy named Gedalia. The whole nation tonight is marking a more recent political assassination. It's good we're doing that. And yet, we do not have a fast day to mark the ruined lives of Batsheva and her husband, who did nothing wrong other than to be accidentally caught in the crosshairs of a misogynistic king. We do nothing for Sara, either, or for any of the other women in our history whose lives were sacrificed for the advancement of Big Men or The People. It's like women are just collateral damage. Always have been.
You could argue that western culture has been doing the same thing. Until now. Maybe this is a moment. Maybe after Trump become president despite admissions of groping, women have finally had enough. Maybe it’s time.
Personally, I’m not up for letting it pass and getting back to movies-as-usual. I certainly don’t think that we should be asking Weinstein’s victims if they mind if everyone continues to love the art. I think the whole idea of victims being expected to forgive their abusers is fraught with spiritual and moral problems. This article explains quite well how awful the prospect of forgiving abusers is, and how pressure to forgive can create brand new scars.
And yet, doesn’t it seem cruel to deny the world access to great art? That is, actually, what the Israeli philharmonic argued when they included Wagner in their concert tour a few years ago. Yeah, like that.
If our entire society – western society as well as Jewish history – is suffused with rape culture that has gone mostly unchecked, then the decision to stay away from tainted artifacts may leave us with very little culture left.
Even saying that says so much.
The idea of letting go of all tainted art and tradition may be a good thing, even if it feels like a big sacrifice. Maybe it’s time to start recreating culture. Based on entirely different assumptions.
Let’s not sweep under the rug events in which one person purposely and cruelly abuses another. Let’s not let that just go.
That’s where I am at the moment.
What about you? Would love to hear your dilemmas and thoughts about this.