The Exodus:5 Project
He made a cover of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. Exodus 37:5
At exactly what point does fruit become poisoned?
When the Second World War came to an end, the victors were confronted with an agonizing dilemma. The Nazis pursued scientific knowledge with intensity. Much of the “research” they did was to justify the warped notions of human genetic hierarchy that formed the underpinning of Aryan racialism. A particularly perverted subset was pursued by researchers with dubious credentials among the captive and disposable populations in the concentration camps. Most notorious of these “doctors and professors” was Joseph Mengele who perpetrated unconscionable experiments on children and adults, especially identical twins.
The medical value of those efforts has since proven to be negligible, but until it was, “pure scientists” who considered the pursuit of knowledge as an end wondered about making use of the tainted results to mine them for their usefulness.
They faced a more intense pushback than the defense and space research establishments that snapped up the scientists who developed the Third Reich’s rocket power and used it to inflict misery on the Allies, especially England. The dilemma was captured for the popular imagination by the satirical song by Tom Lehrer, “Werner von Braun” in which Lehrer imagines the rocket scientist saying he is “not hypocritical,” rather “just apolitical” in switching his allegiance to America…and then maybe China.
Our current dilemma about poisoned fruit is a result of the long-overdue #MeToo movement. Men who are titans of their fields – entertainment, sports, technology, finance and, of course, government – have been revealed to be misogynistic abusers. In some cases, their exploitation of power to assault women (or younger men) clearly calls into question the worth of their accomplishments. An actor whose ability to secure a role was dependent on the casting couch (or shower) calls into question the project itself and the wealth generated for the perp. The organization that oversees Olympic training for athletes tarnishes gold, silver and bronze by enabling the abuse of a pedophile in the name of medical procedures. And (once again) of course, an elected official whose misconduct toward women is a matter of public record ought not to be given free rein to decide or even recommend policies that encroach on a woman’s autonomy in determining medical care.
What happens to genius likely unconnected to later transgression? I cannot hear or read the word “cubit” without thinking of one of the great comedy bits of all time. Bill Cosby, when he was a struggling young comedian without supplies of drugs and females to exploit, wrote and performed “Noah,” a quick and brilliant retelling of the story of the Flood. It is filled with quotable lines – “voopah, voopah,” “only two, only two,” “who is this really?” and, to my point, “what’s a cubit?”
For years, I was able to make use of Cosby’s routine to illustrate for students the process (if not the result) of midrash, the very close reading text with an eye toward interpretation that makes up so much of Jewish tradition. Cosby is no scholar of the Bible, but he hit on exactly the kinds of questions a human being might have in trying to suss out actual or hidden meanings. Including “what’s a cubit?”
Is the early work product separate from the later moral decay? Does criminal activity irreversibly taint every aspect of the criminal’s life? Is transgression retroactive, as if the seed of misconduct had been planted and germinated before it came to sprout…and bear poison fruit?
I have no answer, but it is not about sexual abuse alone. Otto Kerner was one of a long parade of Illinois governors to wind up in jail, but not before he chaired an investigation that cast a spotlight on institutionalized racism in America. H.L. Mencken was an insightful critic, but his private diaries revealed an unmistakable and deeply-rooted prejudice against Jews. And can I drive a Ford or a Volkswagen? (I still marvel at the WWII veteran who framed the Purple Heart license plate on his Toyota with “proud to have served in the Pacific theater.”)
Extreme examples, or those that resonate with current events, may feel easier. But what do we say to people inside our community who will not interact with advocates for the Palestinian cause, or to Muslims who will not interact with any Jew who professes any form of Zionism – and not just on matters related to the Middle East?
This is a very difficult question, and I distrust any easy or even categorical answer. This much is true: the imposition of suffering or indignity on another human being is a permanent taint on any benefit that emerges from it. Figuring out what to do is a journey of many cubits and overlaying it with gold is not the answer.