For those of us on Facebook, the past week has been both startling and sobering. In the wake of the revelations concerning movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, women on Facebook have been encouraged to bear witness to their own experiences with some form of sexual harassment, with the simple phrase, “Me too.” During this entire week, one, after the other, after the other, women of all ages, some of whom I personally know well, have begun their posts with what now has become a haunting refrain: “Me too.” And then, the personal narratives unfold.
I was reminded on CNN during this week that perhaps the earliest and most public case of sexual harassment in this generation was brought by Anita Hill, now Professor of Law, Social Policy, and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University, against Judge Clarence Thomas, during his confirmation hearings for appointment as an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court.
As we know, Hill’s allegations were deemed unfounded, and Thomas was appointed to the bench. It is not my intention to offer a personal assessment of the veracity of Professor Hill’s allegations. What I will say, however, is that all over America, there were women of all colors, ages, and stations in life, who watched those hearings with rapt attention, and had no trouble whatsoever believing that it was at least plausible that such encounters could have occurred within a work environment such as the one in which Hill found herself at the time. Again, I would state that this is not a commentary on Justice Thomas. It is, however, an observation that the type of abusive encounters such as those described in Hill’s allegations happen. They happen all the time. And, lest we forget, just about a year ago, the Republican candidate for President was heard on tape boasting about taking advantage of women professionally, and physically assaulting them in the process. And then, our fellow Americans elected him President anyway.
Our Torah portion begins with the story of the Flood, which wiped out the Earth and all its inhabitants, save for a righteous man named Noah, and his family, and two of every type of creature. Why? The Torah tells us that God had reached the end of the line with humanity, because “the earth was filled with hamas.” The term hamas is generally translated as violence, which the Rabbis tend to interpret as economic corruption. But in light of this dreadful week of revelations about a powerful and wealthy man, who continuously used his position to violate and humiliate women, I would offer as an alternative interpretation and manifestation of hamas, harassment and violence against women, in all its many forms.
In the coming weeks, we will be reading stories in the Genesis narratives that involve blatant violation and oppression of women. Sarah is taken against her will into the harems of Pharaoh and Avimelech, and forced to have sex with them. Hagar is brought into a subservient position to Abraham and Sarah, and used both for sex and procreation, only to be cast out into the wilderness with her son. Rachel and Leah are sisters are pitted against each other for the affections of Jacob, and are locked in a painful competition to bear children. Dina is taken against her will by Shechem. Tamar is brutally raped by Amnon. And this is just in the Book of Genesis!
On the one hand, we can understand these stories as reflections of the ancient world, in which women were generally treated as chattel. On the other, they provide important instructional value for us in our own time. While the structure of our society has changed dramatically, of course, the fact that women often find themselves on the losing end of sexual harassment and abuse is a reality that we can no longer afford to sweep under the rug. In this respect, it might be safe to say that Harvey Weinstein has done us all a big favor. (Though of course, it’s the women he abused and intimidated who finally found the courage to step forward, who really have done us the favor!) It’s not as though revelations of personal immorality and abuse of power are new to us. But there’s something about this particular case that has finally struck a nerve, to the point at which women are willing to “come out of the closet,” so to speak, and declare “Me too.”
What all of us would do well to consider in light of the Weinstein scandal is how it could happen in the first place. Harvey Weinstein has been one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, putting his money and support behind a number of important and successful, often ground-breaking movies. He also has donated untold amounts of money to liberal causes and candidates. (An interesting aside: In Oscar acceptance speeches, the most “thanked” individual has been Steven Spielberg, with 54 mentions. Next on the list, second only to Spielberg, is a tie with 34 mentions. The tie is between Harvey Weinstein – and God.) What happens to turn the mind of such an individual to convince him that he can do the things he is accused of doing, with utter impunity, and with no fear of consequences? It would seem that relegating it to a “power trip” is too facile. Of course it’s a power trip! A manifestation of sexual perversion? Perhaps. But I would suggest that a Harvey Weinstein, and all those like him, are created, and shaped, and encouraged, by the society that has objectified women since the days of Noah—the society that all of us have inherited.
Harvey Weinstein has been expelled from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences. But the Academy has a long way to go to make adequate teshuva, as it were. But the Academy is just the tip of the iceberg, and we all know it. This is a much longer conversation that has to continue. For now, I offer my thanks and support to every “me too” who has written this week, and all those as well who have not.