Because of her, it went well with him: Weinstein, Wieseltier, and the Enablers of Sexual Harassment

Part of this week’s Torah portion, from Genesis 12, tells the story of a famine in Canaan that drives Abram and Sarai (the names of Abraham and Sarah before they became Abraham and Sarah) to Egypt. As they near Egypt, Abram fears that Sarai will be sexually desired there and that he’ll be killed so that she can be taken. Abram devises a plan. Sarai should pretend to be his sister. That way, she’ll be taken but he won’t be killed in the process. “Please say that you are my sister,” he says, “that it may go well with me because of you.”

And that’s what happens. Sarai is taken by Pharaoh (none of this is described as rape; it’s all part of the Bible’s euphemistic traffic in women), who then amply rewards Abram—with herd animals, slaves, and the like—for the gift of Sarai. “And because of her,” the text says, with a nod to the earlier formulation, “it went well with Abram.”

When God learns of this transgression, God punishes Pharaoh greatly. Pharaoh returns Sarai to Abram. Abram, the enabler who served up his wife to Pharaoh, keeps his reward; indeed, it is the mustard seed of his later wealth and retinue. Because of her, it went well with him.

(According to our rabbinic intern, who delivered an amazing drash on this passage this past weekend in shul, there is a midrash or some other medieval commentary that says that the later bondage of the Jews in Egypt was in fact a punishment for Abram’s sin with Sarai. But there’s nothing in the Torah itself, I don’t think, that suggests that. Instead, it is the rapist/harasser who gets punished, not the enabler.)

Reading this story, I couldn’t help thinking, as did our rabbinic intern, of all the sexual harassment and sexual assault stories we’re now hearing about. Only I was thinking less of the pharaonic harassers and their victims than of the collaborators and bystanders, figures who have long concerned me: in this case, the assistants to Harvey Weinstein (some of them women), who helped serve up the women he harassed or raped, or the silent staffers at The New Republic who, according to the Times, witnessed some of Leon Wieseltier’s behavior—”never an ‘open secret,'” Michelle Cottle has written, just “simply out in the open”—but said nothing.

And I couldn’t help thinking that all of those enablers, those collaborators and bystanders, were motivated not simply by confusion or uncertainty, which many of us feel when confronted with injustice, not simply by timidity or fear, which many of us also feel, but also by a fear laden and laced with ambition, which, again, many of us feel—a sense that if I cooperate with this monster, or if I keep quiet, if I look away, maybe I’ll be okay, even advance; if I don’t, my career will be ruined. “Covetousness begets fear,” declared the radical Gerrard Winstanley during the English Civil War, “and this makes a man to draw the creatures to him by hook or crook, and to please the strongest side.”

And I couldn’t help thinking, finally, that though Pharaoh was punished, it went well with Abram.


  1. Dan October 30, 2017 at 12:50 pm | #

    You may find it interesting that traditional Christian (or at least Protestant) readings of this text take the euphemisms at face value. The King James translation probably cemented this denial of what was really going on, and the similar story in Genesis 20 specifically denies there was any sexual transaction. As a result, most contemporary conservative Christian readings of these texts assume or contrive interpretations that deny that Sarai’s obedience could have meant she was pimped out to other patriarchs.

  2. SteveLaudig October 30, 2017 at 1:10 pm | #

    As it happened I had read this a few days before. Abram the Coward might be how van Creveld sees him. Cheers.

  3. Diana Lipton October 30, 2017 at 6:49 pm | #

    Soon enough, Sarah herself becomes an enabler of sorts. Seemingly without asking her first, she ‘serves up’ her Egyptian maid servant, Hagar, to Abraham, intending to claim for herself the child she hopes Hagar will conceive. Once Hagar is pregnant, Sarah feels diminished and, with Abraham’s OK, ‘oppresses’ her (Gen 16:6). Scholars have seen the ‘oppressive’ slavery in Egypt — just predicted in the previous chapter (Gen 15:14) — as a measure for measure punishment for Sarah’s oppression of her Egyptian maid servant. So perhaps the Torah itself does link Sarah to slavery in Egypt, but because she harassed an Egyptian, not because she was the victim of Egyptian harassment.

  4. Brett November 1, 2017 at 10:39 am | #

    Good points. I remember Matt Yglesias making a point that if you chose to deliberately ignore Weinstein’s abuses and predatory behavior to do business with him for most of his career, you still would have made out extremely well. Weinstein himself is for now still living off those riches (although perhaps not forever, if he does end up getting criminally indicted over it).

    And that’s the rub of it. As long as there are still big personal benefits from enabling or overlooking the behavior of powerful abusers, and a system of accountability that’s dependent on those same people benefiting from said abusers, you’re going to get equivocation and excuses – “it was just one mistake” when it’s the 10th, or the 20th, or the 50th time, and so forth. Really, the decision on whether to punish someone for sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be moved out of the hierarchy of firms and workplaces altogether.

  5. decollins1969 November 6, 2017 at 6:00 am | #

    I haven’t thought about these Torah lessons since my Hebrew-Israelite days n the 1980s. It isn’t just about cycles of enabling rape. It’s also about rape as power, advantage, and advancement. One could easily argue that Yahweh in this context condoned rape, as long as it advanced bloodlines, empowered the people he anointed to carry out his will, or provided the material needs necessary to sustain his flock. Rape in Genesis is contextual, and even for the greater good. Later on, in the prelude toward Sodom and Gomorrah, when two angels visited Lot and warned him to leave before the two cities’ destruction. Lot offered up his two daughters to a group of men intent apparently on gang raping the “men” who visited his home. The “men of the city” were wicked, because their designs served no purpose to Yahweh, and not necessarily because of rape in general. And Lot was fully willing to enable them.

    There are so many examples of this in the Torah (or for us Christians, the Old Testament). David, Bathsheba, and Uriah come to mind. Rape is only a problem when it doesn’t serve some spiritual or utilitarian purpose, and enabling it apparently isn’t a sin and violates none of the laws. We have no laws specific to enablers, save in the context of prostitution, sex traffickers, and pedophilia, where madams, pimps, and other organizers/enablers are arrested and prosecuted. In part because they profit but don’t pay taxes, and because their deeds are wrapped around other forms of organized crime (drugs, gambling, money laundering, blackmail). In other words, when their iniquities work against the broader interests of the state.

    This is why Weinstein, Cosby, Spacey, and so many other profit despite their swath of harassment, assault, and rape. They have rendered unto Caesar in the midst of their crimes, and made it so their enablers have profited as well. (As an aside, my late sister’s name is Sarai, so thanks for a quick trip down memory lane).

    • Dan Knauss November 6, 2017 at 9:24 am | #

      It’s not 100% certain the men of Sodom had sexual intentions, but to make a long story short … yada yada yada … that’s the traditional Christian reading.

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