Does Widespread Harassment “Permit” Hollywood?

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I saw an insightful comic strip the other day. In brief, if a celebrity’s name was trending in 2016, we said, “Oh, no! I hope he didn’t die!” In 2017, if we see a celebrity’s name trending, we say, “Oh, no! I hope he’s not a sex offender!”

The Harvey Weinstein scandal has opened a floodgate of allegations and revelations. While men from all fields are included (including a former US President!), accusations involving Hollywood actors, producers, etc. are particularly ubiquitous. A partial list of post-Weinstein suspects includes Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, Ben Affleck, Jeremy Piven, Dustin Hoffman and numerous others. (Kevin Spacey/Usual Suspects pun unintended.) Even beloved icon George Takei has been accused, though people are not quick to accept that allegation as fact.

In the big picture, this is a very good thing. Women are being empowered and men are learning that their actions are not consequence-free. In a very small way, however, there’s an inconvenient side effect: at what point do we stop boycotting the work of suspected or proven sex offenders?

I addressed this question three years ago when Bill Cosby turned from “beloved icon” to “public enemy.” There, I addressed the question of separating an artist from his work. I cited the example of Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah, better known as Acheir (“the other”). A traumatic incident caused him to lose his faith and become a heretic. Even though he left the path of Torah, the Mishna still records a dictum in his name (Avos 4:20) and the Talmud still cites a halacha according to his opinion (Moed Katan 20a). The Talmud (Chagiga 15b) discusses Acheir and tells us to “remember his Torah and not his deeds” and “eat the fruit but discard the pit.” In other words, keep the good stuff. [1]

However, this is largely a personal matter and some people have chosen to boycott Bill Cosby, as well as Woody Allen, Gary Glitter, and other artists whose actions have proven reprehensible. That’s all well and good when it’s a handful of individual offenders but what do we do now that problem is so widespread that a trending name makes us automatically assume “sexual harassment?” Once again, Torah may provide us with useful precedent.
Generally speaking, the kohanim who serve in the Temple must be ritually pure. However, if the majority of kohanim are ritually impure, or if there is no ritually pure oil, flour or wine to be had, the usual rule is suspended. This is a principle called “tumah hutra b’tzibbur.” (There is a difference of opinion as to the details but according to those who maintain that widespread impurity actually becomes permitted, there isn’t even any need to try to get a ritually-pure kohein to officiate.)

Let us also consider the precedent of Mishna Sotah 9:9. The Torah requires the “eglah arufa” ceremony (in which a calf’s neck is broken) in the case of unsolved murders and the sotah (bitter waters) ceremony in the case of suspected adultery. The mishna tells us that when murders were commonplace, the eglah arufa ceremony was suspended, and when adultery was rampant, the sotah ceremony was suspended.

No one is saying that ritual impurity, murder or adultery is a good thing. They’re not. There just reaches a point where we can no longer function if things that are supposed to be the exception become the rule. Might this concept apply to Hollywood? Can we say, “I normally wouldn’t see a movie with such a person in it but this problem is so widespread that such a course of action isn’t sustainable?” I think such a model is indeed defensible.

Of course, not everyone goes to movies or watches TV. If that’s the case, you don’t have a problem. Maybe someone has been trying to take the leap to break from movies and TV and this provides the impetus. If so, great. But for those who want to see a movie and are bothered to be supporting people whom they find reprehensible, I think you need not feel guilty.

Make no mistake: the situation in Hollywood is terrible and it absolutely needs to change. Most of us are not in a position to effect change in Hollywood, though we should take whatever steps we can to help clean things up in our own backyards. In the meantime, however, if someone feels a little queasy supporting Kevin Spacey or Louis CK, it may help to remember all the other people who worked on a movie. A boycott hurts them, as well. We can still feel good about supporting all the innocent people (who probably need the money way more than the stars!).

At the end of the day, this continues to be a personal decision – one should feel free to boycott any artist they wish. We just don’t have to feel bad if righteous indignation at every film in Hollywood is not the path we choose.


1. A colleague of mine has opined that while Elisha ben Abuyah may have embraced heretical ideas, so far as we know his actions always remained moral. This would potentially render his example inapplicable for people whose actions are immoral. This might make an interesting topic of discussion for another day.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.