Parsha Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24
Arguably, the most explosive story of the past month has been the revelation that movie mogul Harvey Weinstein allegedly harassed and attacked scores of women over the course of many decades. Every day brings forth more accusations and stories illustrating the true scope of his predatory acts. The entertainment community has rightly ostracized Weinstein, and has thrown their unequivocal support behind his alleged victims.
But how did it get to this point?
How was a movie producer able to systematically plan, unimpeded, for young actresses to be alone with him, leaving them compromised at the least and helpless at the worst? How was he so confident in his ability to advance on his prey without fear of any backlash or damage to his freedom or power?
The answer comes from the statements of his accusers themselves. The primary reaction these young women reported having experienced when propositioned by Weinstein was one of extreme discomfort, coupled with a realization that resistance to his advances would likely result in the end, or at least the significant derailment, of their careers. They understood that the environment of Weinstein’s studio, and of other Hollywood production companies, meant that the pyramid of occupational dependency in the entertainment world gave those at the top the power to make or break all those below them. Anyone not at the apex of the pyramid would therefore either turn a blind eye to any impropriety or would more likely feel compelled by the same corporate forces to assist its designs.
Weinstein attacked with the force of a complicit cultural machine behind him, which managed not only to subdue any resistance, but also to silence any witnesses. The extent of Weinstein’s perceived power emboldened him to even make attempts upon actresses who were members of the long-standing entertainment elite, not only ingénues looking for their big break; such was the power of the cultural machine.
In this week’s Parsha, Vayeira, Avraham feels compelled to lie and claim to Avimelech, King of Gerar, that his wife Sarah is his sister. Avimelech learns of the deception and confronts Avraham, whereupon Avraham responds, “I saw that there was no ‘Fear of G-d in this place,’ and that I would be killed on account of my wife.”
The verse does not say that Avraham saw directly that his wife and life were in danger; rather, the G-dless environment led Avraham to intuit what would happen to him on account of his exceedingly beautiful wife. A culture that is not based on strong values gives those in the power establishment the liberty to prey upon the newcomer in ways that are not immediately evident, and usually in ways that give license to man’s baser instincts.
An entertainment culture based upon male executives evaluating the selling power of young women’s physical assets does not condone the abuse of a Harvey Weinstein. However, it creates a cultural attitude that the female physique is a commodity to be consumed, and makes the humanity contained within less noticeable. It allows the brokers of those sales disproportionate power over their human capital. Perhaps, in that milieu, one observing such abuse would feel more that it was part of the natural, if regrettable, course of things, rather than an egregious crime. Such an observer would feel powerless to speak out, and maybe even unmoved to do so. Many in Hollywood say they were repulsed by Weinstein and yet did nothing about it.
There is no easy justice for Weinstein’s victims, but they deserve an honest reflection of the circumstances that spawned him. A bit of “Fear of G-d” would go a long way. JN
Rabbi Raphael Landesman is head of school at Shearim Torah High School for Girls in Phoenix.