‘How can we continuing singing his tunes when we know Shlomo Carlebach sexually harassed women,” my twelfth-grader wondered during Rosh Hashana (before the latest sexual harassment scandals broke). His question triggered intense holiday-table debates that elicited wise words from one feminist friend. “I consider Reb Shlomo a tsinor, a conduit,” she said, “of things greater than himself. Listening to his melodies,” she explained, “you hear echoes of thousands of years of Jewish liturgy.
I welcome that godly spirit.” Besides, she added, “his sins remind us we’re all flawed” – challenging us to improve and not judge everyone so harshly. (“I’m not sure where I stand,” another friend added. “But it’s great your son is asking such questions!”) “How can you include Ari Shavit in your new Zionist Ideas book,” another friend recently challenged me. “He’s a sexual harasser.” I bristled in the 1990s when feminists cynically excused Bill Clinton’s sins because he was pro-choice. I don’t like watching liberals today excuse Al Franken because he’s anti-Trump.
But Shavit’s been penalized, apologized, and has a unique voice. All sexual harassers deserve punishment.
Do they all deserve total professional death penalties? I know too many intellectuals to equate being smart with being good. Just as I don’t grade students’ work by their characters, we should assess intellectual statements on their merits, not the writer’s character – within limits: generally we exclude rapists, racists, Nazis and felons, unless we’re studying their perversions.
When writing a biography, everything personal counts, offering keys to explain just what shaped a particular statement. Beyond that, personal stories provide some context, but we judge statements by importance and impact.
These latest sexual harassment scandals once again spotlight society’s distorted gender power dynamics which breed sexual assault. The scandals should trigger critiques of popular culture’s mass-produced prurience, in libertine songs, explicit movies and vulgar Internet chats. All urge constantly: “if it feels good, do it.”
I wish the conversation went wider. What we really need is a restored – and updated – discourse about how to treat each other kindly, ethically.
I confess I feel somewhat vindicated. Without discounting my own inevitable blind spots, in 1998 I denounced Bill Clinton’s sexual harassment of Monica Lewinsky. Although the relationship was consensual, I said the power disparity was too great and the president had created a “hostile environment” judging women by their looks, not their work. Critics called me “prudish,” “Republican,” “conservative,” in ways that probably harmed my academic career (but toughened me to absorb harsher attacks when I defended Zionism).
The shift from the media-dictated groupthink then to now is striking. But this new sensitivity may disappear.
Those of us appalled by these abuses should worry about this #MeToo movement falling too short – or going too far. The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas confrontation in 1991 also spotlighted sexual harassment and men who “don’t get it.” Still, it couldn’t prevent Clinton’s rise a year later – despite treating some women, like his wife, as peers, but most as prey. At the opposite extreme, in the 1950s, McCarthyism purged Communists so aggressively, its excesses now obscure Communism’s attempts to infiltrate America.
Looking ahead, the movement must do what few movements do well: balance. Demand zero tolerance for serial predators like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. But just like the courts follow sentencing guidelines, the court of public opinion should assess accusations in three dimensions, plotting the crime’s severity, whether there’s a pattern of behavior; and how recently incidents occurred.
This more cautious analysis doesn’t minimize the harm women endure even when they aren’t physically assaulted by promiscuous predators. But tempering this backlash with some criteria might pre-empt a counter-revolution dismissing this important social consciousness-raising moment as a witch hunt.
Similarly, while I condemn lecherous bosses, handsy celebrities and all piggish pursuers, today’s zeal to wipe away alleged sexual harassers’ work – or trash everything they’ve produced – scares me as historian and citizen. Totalitarians purge blindly; democrats punish proportionally. As appalling as Jeffrey Tambor’s behavior apparently was while filming Transparent, his textured performance as the transgender “moppa” remains moving. Actually, respect for his acting skills grows when juxtaposed with his sexism.
Similarly, I will continue quoting Leon Wieseltier’s memorable insights mourning the ignorance of American Jews – the “spoiled brats of Jewish history”; celebrating Hebrew as the key to Jewish culture; and toasting Zionists as “bitzuists” – job-getter-doners. I will continue learning from Ari Shavit’s patriotic, critical, liberal Zionism. I will continue respecting Clinton’s political centrism. I will continue singing Carlebach tunes. Nor will I equate all their misdeeds because there’s a wide range of bad behaviors involved, even if every accusation is believed.
In so doing, I don’t excuse any sexual bullying. I still encourage the ongoing revelations. But I trust that rather than simply judging people by the worst moments of their lives, we will remember, as one rabbi friend teaches, Psalm 15. This psalm of David – himself a sinner – lists 10 things that merit the world to come.
Rabbi Gamaliel would cry when he read the psalm, despairing of his ability to do all 10, until he was reassured by Rabbi Akiva, who interpreted it as saying doing any of those things is enough.
That powerful teaching about salvation and judging in context is reasonable. Still, it takes distant second place to this scandal’s most profound teaching. Tempering any movement’s inevitable excesses so it preserves lasting gains is a tactical question. But reaching out, validating and helping to heal however we can, every woman pawed, every woman disrespected, every woman harmed, is today’s moral imperative.The author is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University
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