A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Polanski and Forgiveness

I've been so out of the loop with the chagim and all the work (I should say avodah) around them that I've been in a kind of news exile.

In any event, Roman Polanski was arrested on charges of child rape. He was charged over thirty years ago in California with raping a 13 year old. He fled the US and has been living in Europe since. US authorities arrested him as he was traveling to Switzerland (?) to receive an award. He is awaiting the judgment of a Swiss (?) court as to whether his extradition to the US for prosecution of this long ago event.

I came across the story in an article, in the NYT I believe, in which the French culture minister, Mitterand, said, essentially, that Polanski had erred many years ago, but his contributions as a great artist far outweighed this error. There is a United States that the French loved, he said, but that there was a United States that scared people, and that was the one showing its face with this arrest.

Many others have come to the defense of this beloved and brilliant filmmaker and have argued against his arrest.

This article from Salon is a powerful and plainly stated reminder of why such sentiments are so terribly wrong.

The defenders of Polanski who I have read online are not necessarily arguing that he didn't commit the crime. There seems to be a theme that he did commit the crime but that we should forget about it.

Our capacity to create, even to create great beauty, does not negate our horrible acts. Those acts have to be confronted, contemplated, understood and punished. Polanski has made no attempt at reconciliation - he fled the country. We have a tendency to be dazzled by beauty - but we can't become so dazzled that we no longer can see right and wrong.

There is also an impulse to be sympathetic because of Polanski's age and that fact that the alleged crime took place 32 years ago. But forgiveness doesn't just seep into one's skin over time. Polanksi is charged with raping a young girl - having sex with her against her will. How could this just melt away?

The religious dimension of repentance is that when we hurt someone - and clearly 'hurt' doesn't begin to describe the experience of this young girl (now a woman in her mid 40s) - we have to attempt to make amends. We seek forgiveness and reconciliation with the other person and we also engage in an internal process known as teshuvah - contemplation, reflection, commitment to change.

Both this external and internal process are hard to imagine in the case of a child rape - how could one seek forgiveness? The notion that he has the power to assuage her is offensive - what could be done? Halachah states that one who refuses to be assuaged takes on a burden of guilt but I do not know if the halachah is equipped to deal with such traumatic cases (I'm not saying this rhetorically; I really don't know). And second, it would seem likely that she would only be traumatized by any encounter with him and would want to, and should be entitled to, avoid it.

The legal (that is, US law) dimension is clearer. How can we not charge such a crime, even three decades late? If the law can not bring justice in the case of a 13 year old girl raped by a predator...then what good is the law?


  1. I agree with you that in the abstract, child rape is not something to minimize. And certainly one doesn't get a pass on age or artistic accomplishment. However, this particular case hinges more on prosecutorial abuse and the nature of the victim herself. The agreement reached by prosecution and defense was to unlawful intercourse with a minor and to time served. This agreement was reached on the specifics of the case that included that the 13 year old looked more like 24 and that she was more of an active participant rather than a victim. In any case, the judge was bent on a politically motivated vendetta and was ready to void the plea agreement. The victim herself calls for an end to this legal battle for her sake as well.

  2. Moepackman -

    An interesting point - if I demand justice (in a legal sense) for Polanski then I get caught on the snag of the deal that was made, which is part of the system of justice. Fair enough.

    I wrestle with it, though. For starters, he fled the country on a charge of unlawful intercourse with a minor. More than that, though, if you read the testimony of the victim as to what actually happened, it is horrifying: he drugged a 13 year old and then acted upon her sexually against her repeated pleas that he stop.

    I don't agree with the notion that she was an active participant (a) because she was 13 & any agency on her part in a sexual situation with an adult would be meaningless and (b) because her testimony makes clear that, while Polanksi may have perceived that she was an active participant, she wanted him to stop and made that clear. I don't know if you've read her description of events, but it is chilling.

    Again, this doesn't address the procedural issue (ie the agreement to reduce the charge in spite of what actually happened) but they get to my horror at the way he is being defended by his supporters in the media.

    Finally, on the point of her wanting an end to the legal battle for her own sake. That's a tough one, but I think there's a great danger in personalizing the law. You sometimes hear people say "Well, if someone every killed a member of my family I would want the death penalty." We can't personalize the law because the law has to be cool headed and rational and take into consideration the interests of the entire society. Beyond that, I think that this argument has at its core another one: Think of it this way - what if she said immediately after the rape, or several months after it, that she didn't want him prosecuted? We would say, "Well, that's really not up to you." Why is that different years later? I think that at its core, the argument about her wishes really hinges on many years having passed, and I don't think that a charge of rape should be dropped just because time has passed.

    Thanks for writing.

  3. Good points. The Polanski apologists that invoke his status as a great director as a defense seem completely off base. Perhaps the original plea deal was improperly influenced by such considerations just as the judge may have had his own political motivations. At this point, a legal resolution would be best. We shall see if the extradition proceeds.

  4. Comment about Rabbi Rose’s blog about The crime of Roman Polanski
    Roman Polanski sees the world in great beauty as Rabbi Josh suggests. I believe that is what caused Roman Polanski to commit a major sin and offence against a thirteen year old girl. The reason the French say that America is showing its ugly side is because America wants to put Roman Polanski into prison where he will not survive. He could not live in the violent evil environment of prison. He could not live among the violent evil of prison as a young man and that is why he fled America to France to escape having to commit spiritual or maybe even actual suicide by entering prison.
    Does the world want to see another tragedy beyond the tragedy this young thirteen year old girl suffered? The Lord knows what mitigating circumstances that led to Roman Polanski committing this crime. He had experienced the loss of his girl friend Sharon Tate by a brutal murder. Roman Polanski lived in fear with a jaded outlook for many years thereafter.
    Roman Polanski again awoke to the beauty of the world to see the goodness and beauty in this innocent thirteen year old girl. He then thought he could experience the innocence he had lost with the love of this thirteen year old girl. Of course this is only speculation, but why must we believe that justice can only be served by a heartless act of revenge. Roman Polanski did not brutalize this innocent thirteen year old girl as many rapists do. Circumstances must be taken into account.
    Fortunately neither Rabbi Josh nor I is God, so that while Elohim’s halachah is perfect no one has lived nor ever will live it, so we should be grateful for the mercifulness of the Lord.