The dramatic downfall of Harvey Weinstein is not a specifically Jewish story, and those who have tried to draw broad cultural connections, comparing this moment to, say, the publication of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” have failed miserably. Nonetheless, this is a teachable moment, albeit a disturbing one, for we’ve reached a true cultural watershed. So it is worth looking at some key messages emerging from those creepy massages.
We have reached the point of zero tolerance for SSPs (Serial Sexual Predators) in our society, which is a major evolutionary leap that needs to be recognized and applauded. This is an enormous social moment, one that would, once upon a time, have been made into a stellar Miramax film. But when this film is made, despite his starring role, someone other than Harvey will take home the Oscar.
The degree of shame has become so absolute and the outcry so universal that this crime now transcends political, social, and economic boundaries. What’s true for the Catholic church is also true for the rabbinate (and regrettably, there is no shortage of rabbinic SSPs who have betrayed the trust of their communities). What’s true for a Jewish producer (Weinstein) is also true for an African American icon (Bill Cosby), an Amazon exec (Roy Price) and a media mogul (Roger Ailes), and what’s true for Democratic leaders like Bill Clinton is also true for the current Republican SSP inhabiting the oval office. Israel also has its share of powerful predators, like Moshe Katzav. And just as the perpetrators cut across all demographic lines, so do the victims – they are women, men (and everything in between) and, most especially, children.
What might have been acceptable a decade ago simply no longer is. You might escape conviction, and you might even get elected, but the marketplace will decimate you, your accusers, newly emboldened by this cultural shift, will never give you a moment’s rest and you will be universally reviled.
Civilization as we know it has been around for about 6,000 years (the Jewish calendar is spot on, this being the year 5778), and my best guess is that SSPs have been around for about, oh, 6,000 years. But the point of zero tolerance was just reached last week. Equality for women is still a very new concept, and according to a new Pew survey, a majority of Americans feel that we have yet to have fully achieved it.
As Nechama Goldman Barash of the Pardes Institute noted this week, the Bible is not immune to stories of sexual violence and objectification. She cites examples, including:
- Sarah who is forcefully taken without permission into the harems of Pharaoh and Avimelech without protest from Abraham (God is the protestor in both cases)
- Dina who is taken without consent by Shechem
- The beautiful captive woman who is taken into the home of the Israelite
- The concubine of the Givah who is gang-raped as her indifferent husband is nearby, within the safety of a house
- Bathsheba who is sent for by David, taken into his bed and returned by his messengers afterwards
- Tamar who is brutally raped by Amnon
- Vashti who is the first objectified woman to say no
Using rabbinic source material, Goldman Barash then demonstrates how the (male) scholars of the Talmud struggle to control their own sexual desires. Occasionally they succumb to blaming the victim, but more often they speak of a man’s responsibility to control his “male gaze.”
“Women are not expected to stop their normative behavior,” she writes citing a source where doing laundry exposes a woman’s arms and legs to capitulate to the male gaze. Rather, she adds, the male gaze is expected to restrict itself.
There are Talmudic stories of rabbis like Elazar ben Dordia, who couldn’t pass a single brothel without stopping in. He learns a hard lesson and is treated somewhat sympathetically in the end, for while he objectifies women and is a sex addict, the transactions are consensual and he is not considered a predator.
It is one thing to struggle with sexual desire – most people do. It is quite another to be an SSP. I emphasize “serial,” because, while every single incident is horrible and it only takes one abuse of a power relationship to ruin a victim’s life completely, Judaism does offer the possibility of teshuvah for the person who slips up once and then sincerely makes amends. We need to take true remorse and corrective action seriously, especially in a world where one single slip up from decades ago can be looped eternally on social media and worn by the perpetrator like a scarlet letter/emoji.
And let’s not forget the third party to each incident. There’s the predator, there’s the victim… and there’s the enabler. What is interesting about the Weinstein case is that more attention is now being given to the enablers, those “yes” men who, more than the predator himself, create a climate of acceptance and acquiescence. Those who did nothing to stop Weinstein’s abuses are no better than the host who offers a drink to an alcoholic or the bartender who allows a drunk to drive away from the bar. Anyone who truly cared about Weinstein had to know that this day of reckoning could come.
This week’s portion of Noah contains an obscure anecdote in chapter nine of Genesis. After the family leaves the ark and the earth is dry, Noah plants a vineyard, and wine becomes the balm that soothes his post-flood PTSD. In this incident, Noah becomes so drunk that he is lying around naked – undoubtedly wearing Weinstein’s bathrobe. His sons respond not by encouraging him to drink more or allowing him to become a laughingstock. They “cover the nakedness of their father,” and, in the most dignified manner imaginable, they back away from Noah without staring at him in his shame. No posting selfies with drunk old Dad.
If only a few people had cared about Weinstein as much as Noah’s sons cared about their father, it might have made a difference in the lives of so many, including Weinstein himself.
We may be witnessing the fall of the serial predator, but as with ISIS, the fall does not mean the end. Abusive power relationships will metastasize into other, less grotesque but equally malignant forms, subtler than “Mad Men” but every bit as manipulative.
As long as I have something you want – e.g., a career-defining role – and you have something I want – e.g, a body – and I have the power to make or break you, there will be ways to make it all look quite consensual and transactional, even when it isn’t. As David said to Bathsheba — or was it Harvey Weinstein who said it, to Ambra, Angelina, Ashley, Cara, Emily, Kate, Mira, Rose, Rosanna and Gwyneth – “I’ll scratch your back and you scratch mine.”
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