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by Susan Reimer-Torn
Rabbi Ila’i said: If a person is tempted to do evil he should go to a city where he is not known, dress in black clothes, cover his head in black, and do what his heart desires so that God’s name will not be desecrated. —Mo’ed Kattan 17a
THIS PIECE OF ADVICE from the Talmud is oft-quoted and controversial. “Tempted to do evil,” especially in this context, is a code phrase for sexual deviance or transgression, behavior of great concern to the talmudic rabbis.
Each of us is exhorted to do whatever we can to conquer dangerous and potent “evil inclinations.” The rabbinic remedies are not merely repressive; there are many suggestions as to how to redirect these impulses towards a higher cause. However, the rabbis also acknowledge the case of the irrepressible impulse that will not be repurposed. In such a case, the best policy is damage control: A man in this situation — yes, naturally, only a man, for women all kinds of other issues arise that are not dealt with here — is advised to protect the equilibrium of his own family and community by assuming a disguise, going off where he will be unrecognized, discharging his compulsions, and coming home to some form of serenity. It’s a third-rate solution, but a solution nonetheless.
The solution comes as a conclusion to a long, sad story told in Mo’ed Kattan, the tractate of the Talmud that deals with the weeks between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot. In that story, a great man who remains nameless has acquired a bad reputation by repeatedly indulging in behavior that is anti-social and sexually reprehensible, although the specifics are not revealed. The scholarly community is divided — on the one hand, this man has many valuable qualities as a teacher, but on the other hand, he is a recidivist offender. The great Rab Judah, head of the rabbinic court, places a form of excommunication on the man that forbids him from studying, teaching, or praying in the community and requires him at all times to keep a minimum distance of approximately two yards from other Jews.
Years later, on his deathbed, Rab Judah smiles when he sees the man he has excommunicated — because Judah is proud of himself for meting out justice without being swayed by the offending man’s high status. Even though many years have past, the excommunicated man (who does not appear to be remorseful or rehabilitated) is petitioning to be reinstated. He is refused,which this upsets him greatly. Then, in one of those where-else-but-in-the-Talmud moments, the bitterly disappointed man goes outside where he is stung in his private parts by a wasp and without much delay, dies of the resulting infection.
THE MAIN CHARACTER in this talmudic tale is anonymous, but I take the liberty, now, of filling in a name: DSK or Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the brilliant French Jewish leftist economist, a former Marxist and IMF chief. During the same week that my Jewish Talmud study group began to discuss Mo’ed Kattan 17a, DSK, once considered the savior of the world, began his trial in France for aggravated pimping. (After two weeks of tell-all testimony, the charges are now likely to be dropped.)
DSK seems to fit the part remarkably well: For a long while, his stature convinced others to ignore his lascivious behavior. Then along came a judge who was willing to preside in a semi-pornographic, tell-all trial in spite of DSK’s status and former position. DSK, like the talmudic character, makes no apology and shows no remorse. His humiliation is akin to being stung on the world stage in his exposed private parts, and though he is not literally dead, his career certainly is. Like the talmudic prototype, he is ostracized rather than condemned to prison — and also like him, he will no longer be able to offer his erudition to others.
Returning now to our talmudic archetype: After this stroke of poetic justice delivered by a lowly insect results in the death of the unrepentant protagonist, the deceased is rejected from several eternal resting places. Finally, he is accepted into the cemetery where lie the Judges. And why is this? In spite of his lapses, the man has the merit of having obeyed a particular injunction — the one that says if you cannot control or redirect your yetzer hara, or evil inclination, the best thing to do is disguise yourself, hide under cover of night, go to another town, do what you have to do and return home.
Herein lies the critical difference that would deprive DSK, a secular Jew, of any saving grace. Having lived in France for twenty-two years, I know that DSK did not indulge his self-serving excesses “in another town.” On the contrary, he and his socialist cohorts instilled a very distinct culture right in the halls of government throughout the 1980s and ’90s, during the 14-year reign of Francois Mitterand.
According to a French woman I knew who worked in the Socialist Party, women of the Party were subject to the dictates and wiles of a man’s world. Their professional and social advancement depended largely on their skill navigating coquettish intrigues and winning men’s invitations to fancy dinners and jet-set weekends away. The high points were seasonally scheduled orgies set in a chateau just outside of Paris. No one was “required” to attend, but it was assumed that the women who took their careers seriously would attend, not to mention comply and show stamina once there. (I don’t know if men felt comparable social pressure.)
As I recently wrote at the Forward’s blog:
The ceremonials began with a multi-course dinner under elaborate crystal chandeliers served by waiters in white gloves. The participants would address one another with the formal vous, Monsieur, Madame appellations for the first few hours. At the stroke of midnight, chimes would sound the opening bars of ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusic,’ signaling that Hermes ties and coiffed chignons might be loosened. The partouze — or orgy — would go on till dawn, with waiters serving champagne and hovering discretely, if attentively, with clusters of grapes, unctuous creams and hot towels.... Before parting, a man and a woman who worked together in some official capacity would shake hands and mutually reassure: On s’annule. The phrase is impersonal and reflexive — one person reciprocally annuls the other. It means I was no more here than you were, or in American parlance — what happens in the chateau stays in the chateau.
While no one I know mentioned DSK by name as a participant, these were the social spheres he inhabited — and these were activities orchestrated to satisfy the libertine tastes he freely defends to this day when testifying at his trial. Privilege, absolute discretion, exceptionalism were the reigning values, with those at the top, like DSK, certain that their immunity, along with the tradition of noblesse oblige from which it derived, would surely go on forever.
THE STORY in Mo’ed Kattan takes a strong stance against covering up for the misdeeds of the powerful. It also takes a strong stand against infecting one own’s community with deviant urges too powerful to overcome. It is the story that needed to be invoked in the recent case of Rabbi Barry Freundel spying on naked women in the Washington, DC mikveh that was under his supervision. Sadly, some of Freundel’s colleagues were slow to condemn his deeds, which corrupted the religious institution for which he was responsible.
Meanwhile, in my midtown Manhattan Talmud class, there was lively controversy surrounding the quoted admonition. Some people embraced the wisdom of not acting out irrepressible urges where they can wreck marriages, communities and institutions; others worried about the license to run and to hide: In a world which is increasingly a global village, should we encourage deviants to take on false names and exploit little boys in Brazil or underage girls in Thailand? What is more, in the age of the Internet, is there any longer such a thing as discretion? Is there some place on the planet that is not our home? Is there any circumstance — or any sort of human being in a position of power — who can say, “On s’annule,” and be trusted to set aside the satisfactions, or dissatisfactions, or powermongering temptations, of their self-indulgence?
Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return, published by our own Blue Thread Books and Music. She writes regularly for The Jewish Week.