MAY 28, 2020
The question of what to do with “the art of monstrous men,” as Claire Dederer put it in The Paris Review, is a timeless one.
There is a long list of men — and women, too — whose creations define culture but whose characters defile it: A composer who hated Jews and inspired Nazis (Wagner); a painter who beat his wife (Picasso); a writer who raged in drunkenness (Hemingway); a poet who gassed herself to death as her children slept (Plath).
It is an inconvenient truth that many of humanity’s most gifted are also among humanity’s most morally corrupt. So to preserve our pleasure in the products of human creation, we’ve adopted a strategy of “separating the art from the artist.” Enabled by the New Criticism of the mid-20th century, which declared that a work of literature should be evaluated on its own merit — unclouded by biographical, moral or political considerations — consumers of culture were given a handy excuse for bracketing character. We dismiss vicious ideological positions and behaviors because it is the only way to behold the beauty of a poem by Pound or a painting by Picasso and not condemn ourselves for callousness.
“The merit of a view owes nothing to the biography of the individual who holds it,” former New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier once wrote. He’d like to believe that. In the years since he limned that line, numerous female journalists who worked with and for him accused Wieseltier of sexual harassment, exposing a cunning subtext to his truism. It takes a truly special kind of genius — a kind of intellectual contortionist — to deploy his gifts in the eradication of his own guilt.
But the justification for ignoring an author’s character must stop somewhere. And that somewhere should be the domain of religion, which claims to concern itself with living a good and moral life. Yet, along comes The New Jewish Canon (Academic Studies Press, July 2020), edited by Yehuda Kurtzer and Claire E. Sufrin to assure us that character is of little consequence when deciding whose ideas Jewish tradition should venerate. Their book self-aggrandizingly borrows the term ‘canon’ as if to suggest it is an update of the genuine Jewish canon — the sacred scripture of the Jewish people — which, according to rabbinic authorities, closed before the end of the second century BCE.
Their “new canon” includes work by Wieseltier, Israeli journalist and author Ari Shavit, and Hebrew Union College sociologist Steven M. Cohen — all of whom have been accused of sexual misconduct. (Full disclosure: I have written previously of my experience with Shavit.) Two of them, Wieseltier and Shavit, have acknowledged mideeds, and made acceptable, albeit imperfect public apologies. But neither the formal confessions nor the corroborating accounts of numerous women were sufficient to persuade the editors of this volume that the conduct of those anthologized in the “canon” of a religious tradition is of any importance.
Did #metoo make enough of an impact? Have any lessons been learned from the tidal wave generated by an open question about the female experience?
I don’t care to hear about #metoo lacking due process — not because I believe in the idiotic and dangerous notion that we should “believe all women” — but because it is a misguided critique. The court of public opinion and a legal courtroom are altogether different arenas, and since what many of the men (including the trio mentioned here) committed were not legally punishable crimes but moral and ethical transgressions, they deserve a different set of consequences. This is why most of the men outed for sexual misconduct by the #metoo movement did not wind up in jail, like convicted violent predators Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, but were instead ruthlessly investigated by the press, and then fired or forced to resign from high profile jobs and positions of cultural power.
After decades of ignoring or silencing systemic abuses of patriarchal power and privilege, it is a credit to the institutions in this country and elsewhere that had the guts to say, “Dayenu. Enough. We shall be party to this problem no more.” Even a secular, profit-driven corporation like CBS kowtowed to the culture and dethroned its long-running and successful CEO, Les Moonves, to restore integrity to the company and reaffirm its commitment to basic human decency.
By the ancient rabbinic principle of kal v’homer (if this is true, that should be even more true), we should assume that if secular institutions reacted vigorously, accessories to religious traditions should exercise even more stringency. The health of the Jewish religious tradition — or any religious tradition — depends on accountability for these types of transgressions and demands an unambiguous judgment of transgressors. Whatever else religion is, it is surely a moral system — a collective, communal aspiration for filling human life with meaning and virtue. To absent these values from the communal conversation makes a mockery of religion and the most basic principles it claims to uphold. You’d assume any Jewish work that has the chutzpah to call itself a “canon” should at least exceed the standards of CBS.
Yet Kurtzer and Sufrin undermine the tradition’s moral authority by privileging their authors’ ideas over their decency. After Kurtzer announced the forthcoming publication on his Facebook page, a debate erupted over why, exactly, they had chosen to include “the writings of known bad actors,” as Kurtzer himself put it. In self-defense, he explained that he and Sufrin use the book’s introduction to acknowledge the problematic calculus of further “celebrating or promoting” these bad actors by including their work in the book.
“Our book takes on some of the most controversial issues in recent times, which includes the scholarship of some extremely controversial and problematic individuals,” Kurtzer wrote. “We do so not because we are privileging robust debate over pain and dignity, but precisely because we believe that the nature of the former can be a force in remediating the latter.”
Whatever that means. In what world does the academic essay of a perpetrator lessen physical or psychological trauma of the victim? If Kurtzer and Sufrin really believed that robust debate is capable of remediating pain and dignity, they might have included some writing around issues of sexual harassment, assault and abuse of power in their book. But unfortunately, even as they purport to cover the most controversial and impactful ideas of the last four decades, sexual predation didn’t make the cut.
When asked if there was any concern about causing the victims of these men further harm, Sufrin confessed on Facebook that yes, she had thought about it, but, “even as I felt pulled in that direction I also felt the pull of scholarly commitments in the other direction, and that is ultimately what [we] chose.” Pity. Because that choice was also a choice for the status quo; for the same old cultural and communal norms that subjected so many women to degrading and dangerous treatment to begin with. I commend the editors for at least admitting that they had a choice: an opportunity to write a truly new canon for what it means to think, act, and live as a modern Jew. But they chose wrong.
Two years ago, in January of 2018, I met with Ari Shavit at a cafe in Tel Aviv. We had a long, very moving and meaningful conversation, during which he apologized to me and I accepted. I do not wish him any further punishment; God knows he has paid a steep price for the harm he caused me and others. He, like many of the men brought low by the #metoo movement, deserves the chance to live and work in dignity. His voice also deserves to be heard at the discretion of those who wish to hear it. My quarrel in this writing is not with him or Cohen or Wieseltier, but with our culture.
Jewish tradition promises every human being a path to redemption. It is a religious promise: if you repent for your misdeeds, you can restore your life to goodness, to wholeness. Transformation is possible. The tradition knows that no human being is without sin, and that with the exception of a few truly terrible crimes, everyone deserves a chance to repair what they’ve broken.
But at the same time, Jews understand themselves as a kehillah kedoshah — a holy community — and as such we must ask ourselves: Who are the people we want to lift up? Who do we want to celebrate and enrich? What qualities should the leaders of our societies and our culture possess? And what do our answers to these questions say about us?
It is incumbent upon any religious tradition which claims the mantle of moral authority to consider how they wish to see their most cherished values represented in the public arena. That Wieseltier, Shavit, Cohen, and others like them are gifted men, there is no doubt. But they are also men who abused their power and committed sexual misconduct. Are their ideas worth more to us than the dignity of those they have hurt? Are their contributions to society so invaluable that we should make an onerous moral choice to promote them?
With The New Jewish Canon, we have Sufrin’s and Kurtzer’s answer. What we do not have from them is equivalent consideration for the cultural awakening spurred by the actions of these and other men. They say the book spans material published between 1980 and 2015, a few years shy of the birth of #metoo. But the concept behind #metoo is universal and timeless. Those who speak in the name of an ancient tradition should know that. As for the victims — who, despite being degraded, objectified, and abused, came out of the shadows of silence to expose a pandemic of injustice — well, disappointment is nothing new. Perhaps the next canon will be kinder.
Danielle Berrin is an award-winning journalist who has been covering the American Jewish community since 2007. She served as senior writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal for a decade, and wrote the popular blog, Hollywood Jew. She contributes regularly to The Forward and has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Yedioth Ahoronoth, The Guardian, and other publications. In 2017, she was recognized as one of the most influential American Jews by The Forward.