From Pomegranates to Woody – Robbie Gringras
My favorite character from the Chazal period, the Rabbis of the first and second century, is Rabbi Meir. He was a smart cookie. He was married to a strong and smart woman, and was an original thinker. At the same time, his superior intellect made him slightly suspect in the eyes of his contemporaries. It was said, (admiringly or disapprovingly) that he could argue a point of law one way, and then argue it equally fluently the other way. When you’re talking sacred law, being a master of spin is not necessarily an admirable quality.
When you’re talking sacred law, being a master of spin is not necessarily an admirable quality.
Meir’s most famous moral and intellectual choice was in his ongoing friendship with R. Elisha Ben Avuya. Ben Avuya had been the top scholar of his generation until he lost his faith and was excommunicated. In the moral universe of Chazal, to renounce one’s faith was disgraceful. Like being a child abuser in our days. In the Talmud his name was obliterated, his teachings were accredited to “the other”, and no one was allowed to come near him, let alone study with him. R. Meir, my hero, totally ignored this ban. He continued to study with his old friend and teacher, arguing: “When one eats a pomegranate, one can spit out the seeds yet still gain sustenance from the juice.” Quite apart from the fact that this is actually more difficult that it sounds (ever tried it?), it is also more morally complicated than Meir admitted.
Subsequent stories told about Meir tend to hint at an undignified, morally ambiguous ending to his life – brothels, insanity, exile. Whether or not these stories are true, they certainly suggest that the storytellers had deep misgivings about Meir’s moral backbone. His approach to right and wrong was not sharp enough for these creators of the Mishnah’s dichotomous legal code. His thinking was too individualistic, too complex.
And so to this week’s controversies of Ariel Zilber, Eyal Golan, and Woody Allen. To me it would seem that they all revolve around the question of the pomegranate seeds and the juice. Can we praise the early music of Ariel Zilber, while spitting out his later abominations? Can we enjoy the love songs of Eyal Golan, in the knowledge that his actual treatment of women is so very far from romantic? Can we appreciate the films of Woody Allen, when aware that this guy was – at very best – a horrifically dodgy step-father? Can we or should we make a separation between the artist and his art, or as R. Meir had it, between the teacher and his teachings?
Can we or should we make a separation between the artist and his art, or as R. Meir had it, between the teacher and his teachings?
All of us, at some time or another, are simply unable to make such a separation. In particular when dealing with art, emotion mixes in and often trumps the rational. Watching “Manhattan”, for example, in which Allen develops a relationship with a teenage girl, makes my stomach turn when thinking about what issues he was working through at the time. The juice, in this sense, is tainted with the taste of the rotten seeds. I get this.
Yet at the same time I fear for the creation of a fixed principle that insists on always judging art by its artists. I cannot move beyond the thought that if we were to reject every work of art created by a morally questionable artist, our cultural lives would be irredeemably impoverished. (Was Picasso a nice chap? Do I care?)
I myself sometimes like to refer to myself as an artist, and I tremble at the thought that my work might one day be judged by my own character rather than those characters I create on the stage.
In the end I side with R. Meir, who somehow was able to remain within society while choosing to ignore society’s opprobrium. He accepted moral principle, while insisting on its relativity.
[Robbie Gringras is a playwright and an actor living in Israel. He was against ACUM giving a prize to Ariel Zilber and was also against ACUM changing their mind halfway. He’s not that big on Woody Allen and he’s never going to let his daughter go to an Eyal Golan concert.]