Thursday, October 1, 2009
Roman Polanski and Jewish Tradition
Roman Polanski is considered by many to be one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation. Polanski’s first feature film, Knife in the Water (1962) received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language film. Many of his other films continue to be held in high esteem like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1972), which received 11 Academy Award nominations including one win for best original screenplay. Polanski, a holocaust survivor, received the Academy’s highest award, best director, in 2002 for the Pianist.
However, Polanski truly is a person of Shakespearean stature, accomplished, revered, and deeply troubled. It is well known that Polanski’s second wife, Sharon Tate and their unborn child were slaughtered in the famous Manson murders of 1969. Polanski was devastated by Sharon’s murder, with whom he described his time with her as the happiest of his life.
But Polanski is most well known today for the events that took place 30 years ago in 1977 with the seduction and rape of 13 year-old Samantha Gailey. Following a plea agreement and a 90 day psychiatric evaluation, Polanski fled the United States fearing further prosecution. In 2009, Polanski was arrested as he was entering Switzerland where he was to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Zurich film festival.
In response to Polanski’s arrest and possible extradition back to the United States, there are some, especially in Hollywood clamoring for his release. Even Samantha Gailey (now Geimer) has expressed a desire to have the events put behind her. However there is also the adamant call by many to see Polanski brought to justice for the crimes he perpetrated and admitted to.
The Jewish community is very ambivalent about the Polanski case. On the one hand, we note the horrors and tragedies that have followed Polanski throughout his life. We also acknowledge the prominence he has brought in terms of Jewish portrayals in cinema. At the same time, we are also a tradition of tzedek, tzedek tirdof, justice, justice shall you pursue. And that even though Polanski has admitted remorse, and done teshuvah to a degree, there is still a price to be paid for his crimes that time cannot erase.
As a father and a husband, I am personally appalled by anyone who would defend Polanski’s actions. Rape is one of the great violations, and even Judaism when speaking about issues of life and death argues it is better to die than be forced to commit rape (Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 74a).
So clearly Polanski broke one of American society’s cardinal rules: rape of a minor. He also broke one of Jewish traditions great prohibitions as well. And no matter his many accomplishments since the incident nor the failings of the U.S. legal system make up for this fact. Polanski should in the eyes of both American and Jewish legal precedent have to do time for his crimes. As this time of year teaches us, no matter our past circumstances, we are still all to be held accountable for our actions.