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...
Crossposted from the Lilith Blog
I recently investigated the following question: Does the Bible pass the Bechdel test? You know, this is the test about how pro-women a dramatic production is. The test is simple, and sets an admittedly low bar. In order to pass, the film, show, or play has to have at least two named women as characters, and the two have to talk to one another about something other than a man for more than 30 seconds. I was curious how the Bible fares.
The answer? Out of the 24 books of the Bible, only one book passes: The Book of Ruth. The relationship and conversations between Ruth and her widowed mother-in-law Naomi are the sole example of named women talking to each other about something other than a man. These exchanges are also among the most poignant in the entire Bible, and present such a compelling model of compassion and care that they are credited with initiating the lineage for King David, and hence the Messiah. There is much to adore about the Ruth-Naomi relationship, and women—especially feminists—have been claiming this story as their own for some time. At all my daughters’ bat mitzvah ceremonies, I invoked these passages as examples of what I see as core Jewish values. When Naomi was left destitute in the foreign land of Moab following the deaths of her husband and sons, Ruth dropped everything to stay with her m-in-l. Ruth’s signature declaration of loyalty—“Wherever you go I go; your people are my people and your God is my God”—continues to inspire a vision of love, care and compassion, as well as a deep abiding friendship between women.
I was very surprised to learn that there is a midrash suggesting that the two women were secretly lesbian lovers. I discovered this recently at a phenomenal play, “God’s Girlfriends,” which presents a dramatic, feminist interpretation of three key women’s stories in the Bible; one of which is the Ruth-Naomi story. The play presents these stories—the other two being Sarah and The Concubine on the Hill—entirely from the point of view of the women. This did not strike me as a radical premise, until I realized that the female perspective is completely absent from the Bible.
Certainly women appear in many riveting biblical stories. The story of Sarah is a shallow aside to the narratives of her husband Abraham and their son Isaac, whom she birthed when she was 90 and whom Abraham was willing to sacrifice on the altar for his God. We never really know what her experience of motherhood was like under those circumstances. Similarly, the little-known story of the concubine on the hill is one in which we are told nothing of the woman’s thoughts or feelings. The unnamed concubine decided to leave her husband/master, only to be dragged back home through a contract between her father and her husband. On the way home, they pass through a village in the tribe of Benjamin, where her husband...