Friday, December 12, 2014

Why I Won't Show The Red Tent At Shul

Earlier this week, Lifetime television presented what I am calling a micro-series. It was a two-night version of Anita Diamant’s first novel, The Red Tent (St. Martin’s Press, 1997). It was a timely production because just last week we read the biblical account around which this story is formed. I remember reading The Red Tent soon after it came out. I thought it was a fantastic take on the biblical narrative.

In Genesis 34:2-4, we read:
Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the local prince, saw her; he took her, lay her down, and raped her. He was then captivated by Jacob’s daughter Dinah and, falling in love with the young woman, spoke tenderly to the young woman. So Shechem said to his father Hamor, “Get this girl for me as a wife.”

Jacob agrees to the marriage only if the Hivites would circumcise themselves so they would be worthy of Hebrew daughters. They agreed, and while they writhed in pain from their respective surgeries, Shimon and Levi killed all of the Hivite men, including Shechem and Hamor, and took Dinah back home. In the entire biblical narrative, Dinah never speaks. She does not take part in the drama that unfolds around her and Shechem. Like so many women of the Bible, she is silent. The difference between Dinah and all the other silent women of the Bible is that Dinah is named, which draw attention to her and her plight.

In Judaism we have a rich tradition of creating stories based on the biblical text. We call them midrashim, which really means “explanations,” because they all serve the purpose of answering a question. When Anita Diamant wrote The Red Tent in 1997, the question she wanted to answer was, “What would Dinah have said if she was given a voice in this story?” In a world where women are often silenced, it was a noble attempt to write Dinah’s side of the story. In 1997, we reveled in the creativity of this modern midrash. We marveled at the powerful storytelling of this author who had previously written only Jewish handbooks on Jewish life and baby namings.

Today, however, the story is tainted by the shadow that lies on our news cycle. And frankly, it is tainted further by the horrible production that Lifetime put together.

I want to take a moment to look at some of the differences between the book and the movie. Now, it has been a long time since I read the book, but I seem to remember that the copy I read had two different fonts. The normal font for normal storytelling, and either bold or italicized for the actual biblical text. This does two important things for a reader. First, it serves as a constant reminder that most of what is in the novel is midrash—an add-on to the biblical narrative. Diamant very skillfully weaves between the text of Genesis and her own creation. This is a very important skill as a writer of modern midrash, because that is exactly what the homiletic midrashists have been doing for centuries. They weave their tales so skillfully into the Torah, the line between original text and midrash can become blurred.

I would often ask my 6th grade Bible students in Miami to find the story about Abraham smashing the idols in the Torah. I would tell them, “Abraham is born at the end of Genesis 11, and told to leave his father in Genesis 12, so please look for the famous story of Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s shop.” They would look and look, turning back and forth between the two chapters, sometimes flipping ahead and hoping for some sort of flashback. But it was a trick question, intended to teach them the difference between the biblical canon and the midrashim. Some of them become so engrained in our teachings that we do not always realize that they are midrashim, like the story of Abraham and the idols.

The rabbis who have been telling these stories to one another for centuries did not have this problem. Midrashim were written specifically for an audience who knew the text backwards and forwards. They never wondered which parts of the homilies were added and which came from the text. It would be like someone writing a whole new Star Wars story about Luke’s journey in between episodes 5 and 6. Many of us would know that it is not from the great and holy Lucas story, but who knows? It might be a very entertaining story that explains something the readers have always wondered.

And that is the second thing the different fonts do for the readers of The Red Tent. It helps the uninformed reader make the distinction. It prevents the problem of “I don’t remember that from the Bible,” and gives us a visual clue as to what she is creating and what is sacred text. That is also the first problem with the movie.

The movie version of the book could have been terrific if there was some sort of explanation about the concept of midrashim and the role it plays in Jewish teachings. There was no such explanation. Only a tag line that said, “My voice will finally be heard.” It makes people who saw the movie come to me all week saying things like, “I didn’t remember all of that from the Bible. I’m going to have to read it again.”

Now, that statement is a double-edged sword. Of course, I want you to read the Bible. I want you to be as familiar with the text as the ancient rabbis, and as familiar as Anita Diamant surely is with it. The other side of that is, in the words of my father, “You need to know the rules before you can break them.” In other words, reading midrash is a skill that comes from an intimate familiarity with the text. Understanding the intent of the authors of these stories is meant to be done in study, with groups of people, explaining and debating. When The Red Tent came out, guides were published for book clubs and classes that were reading the novel.

The micro series that aired this week provided no guidance. Viewers sat at home alone or with family, watching the story come to life on the screen. And most Americans are ignorant. Most people watching this movie were Christians with no concept of midrash, and no reason why they should have such a concept. Among the Jews who watched this film, many of them have no concept of midrash. The movie presents as an authoritative view of the Bible, when it has no authority except that of the author.

Now add the horrifying news we have recently learned about Bill Cosby. At this point, 19 women have come forward to say that he took advantage of them sexually. We don’t need to go over the details, but suffice it to say that over the last 20 or more years, Bill Cosby has forced women to do things they did not want to do, either by using drugs or by convincing them because, after all, he’s Bill Cosby. He has made settlements with some of them, and some have simply been silent for years. Sadly, there is a statute of limitations on any crimes he could be accused of, which has run out at this point in time. So there is nothing to be done legally if he were proven to be a criminal abuser. Nevertheless, the victims deserve to be heard.

In an article written this week called Carlebach, Cosby, and Separating Art from the Artist, Asher Levy eloquently describes the struggle between remembering The Cosby Show and the hours upon hours of laughter provided to him as a young man and the horrific actions of this man he once thought was so funny. He describes the Shabbat celebration of Shlomo Carlebach’s music, while, “A battle was raging in my head: How can you sit there and listen to this when you know what he really was, and what he did to those women?”   

You see, after Shlomo Carlebach died, allegations emerged that he was abusive to women he knew. He was seen occasionally fondling inappropriately, and it was brushed off as being swept up in the holiness of the moment and not being aware of his actions. But there were things he did behind closed doors that were worse. Women who came to him in his private study, seeking guidance and support from this holy man, were instead treated with “sexual therapy” under the guise of something kabbalistic. Wielding his holy power over these helpless women so that he could satisfy his own base urges.

I have heard the claim that some of the women who have come forward are “jumping on the bandwagon” to try and get something from Mr. Cosby or Rabbi Carlebach. Of course it is possible that one or some of these women is not being entirely truthful. If even one of these women is telling the truth, that is too many. And frankly, that’s not the point.

The point is that all too often, men of power get their way with women who have less power. Whether that power is physical or financial, based on fame or the ability to be spiritual guides, it is abuse.

In Levy’s article he says that these men got away with what they did for so long precisely because the fans allowed it. We say all too often, “But he created so much laughter,” or “But he moved so many people with his music and spirituality.” Whenever we say that, we continue to silence the women they abused. Whenever we watch a rerun on Nick at Nite or play a familiar melody on the bimah or go see a Broadway show based on their life, we perpetuate the power over women that these men had. Levy quotes blogger Elan Morgan, who writes, “We cannot separate the men from their art when they used their status from that art both to commit and conceal their violent behavior. To continue to share their art is to continue to share one of the weapons they used to commit their crimes.”

How many of us have stopped watching Mel Gibson movies because of the deplorable things he has said about Jews? We have so little tolerance when it comes to anti-Semitism, and we are in the right! So why is it that we cannot offer that same venom to those who are anti-women?

Going back to the biblical text, there is the possibility of ambiguity with the Hebrew word innah, which is translated as “raped” in the Dinah story. It could mean “violated,” which could be construed as “took her virginity.” The problem for me is not the one word, it is the context. If we read the string of verbs here we can replace it with something euphemistic or innocuous and still get the same result. Shechem saw her, took her, lay with her, vay’anehah—and had her. Then, after the deed is consummated—after his animal impulses are satiated—only then does he notice her and ask his father to make her a bride.

Friends, this reads to me like a classic case of “I did it because I loved her.” Dinah never gets to speak in the Torah. She is tossed around like property, and largely forgotten. It is up to the midrashists to give her a voice. It is up to the educated to say, “No! Shechem should not have used his royalty as power over a young shepherdess!” It is up to us to support the silenced and stop making excuses for the Shechems and the Carlebachs and the Cosbys in this world.

It is unacceptable to keep letting men of power write the narrative of the women they abuse. It is time to listen to their true voice. It is time to say that we have had enough. It does not matter who the prince is. He must treat her like royalty. It does not matter how the music has moved us. This is not harmony. It does not matter how much we have laughed. This is not funny.

It is time for us to stop taking other people’s word for it, and listen to the real stories.