Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Katie Holmes, Scientology and Parshat Pinchas

KATIE IS DIVORCING TOM. In a sudden but unsurprising move, Katie Holmes has filed for divorce from Tom Cruise and they have quickly agreed to a divorce settlement in which she has primary custody of their daughter Suri. She is being celebrated by many for her bravery and courage to “break free” from Tom's clutches and regain her independence. Is there really something here to celebrate?

In this week's Parsha, Parshat Pinchas, Pinchas is rewarded by Hashem for his bravery and courage. At the end of last week's Parsha (Balak) Jewish men were seduced by Moabite women in large numbers (Numbers 25:1). These illicit relationships then led to the Moabite women coercing the Jewish men to worship their idols (25:2, with Rashi). This became a large scale epidemic with no end in sight. Hashem instructs Moshe to inform the Jewish legislature to begin trying and convicting those worshiping idols to end this widespread idol worship in a civilized way.

Suddenly, a leader of the tribe of Shimon, Zimri, took his Moabite temptress and sinned at Moshe's feet, in front of the entirety of the Jewish people. There was widespread panic, and the people began to sob at the hopelessness and licentiousness before them. Pinchas, Aaron's grandson, quickly grabbed a spike and killed them both on the spot. This zealous act sent a message to the entirety of the Jewish people, and their behavior and the plague that had begun wiping them out stopped dead in its tracks.

It is a complicated story to say the least. Some might find Hashem lionizing Pinchas a bit off-putting. Do we really want to reward such zealous behavior? Shouldn't the Jewish people be promoting love and peace and act in a more measured way? Are we comfortable with Pinchas being a Jewish hero?

I think the story of Pinchas teaches us an important lesson about human nature. Standing up to evil is an incredibly difficult thing to do, especially when large amounts of people get swept up within it. At times, even the most sinister of behavior can become accepted and taken as a fact of life. Jerry Sandusky, who by all accounts was raping and molesting children for decades, was convicted at the age of sixty eight! Sixty Eight! How many people knew or suspected of his behavior while nothing was done to stop him? Hundreds? Thousands?

In the next day or two the public will have a chance to read a report prepared by former FBI agent and federal judge Louis Freeh, an internal investigation commissioned by Penn State's Board of Trustees, that will reveal to what extent school officials and employees knew of Sandusky's behavior. Just from the sworn testimony at Sandusky's trial we know in 2001 a graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, saw Sandusky raping a boy under the age of twelve in the football team's showers. He was caught red handed, and still there were no consequences. Mike McQueary didn't even stop the rape as it was happening. He had a chance to be Pinchas and protect an innocent child, and instead did nothing to stop it.

How many people did nothing? How many potential Pinchases were there who chose silence over bold action for fear of losing their job, being caught up in a scandal or by deferring to administrative leaders and assuming they were exercising good judgment? That is the greatness of Pinchas. In a moment where it seemed the moral foundation of the Jewish people was disintegrating and the dignity of Moshe and the Jewish people were about to be lost, Pinchas turned the tide in one felt spearing. It was extreme, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

I don't really feel bad for Katie Holmes. She's an adult who married someone with a questionable relationship history. She got engaged two months after starting to date him and one month after Cruise's bizarre Oprah couch jumping episode. Whether she married him for love, because of a school girl crush or to further her career, it doesn't really matter. I just can't feel bad for an adult who willfully decides to marry someone of her own free will and later finds out that he is exactly what everyone was saying he was.

However, this might become a landmark moment for society's relationship to Scientology. Worldwide, people are struggling with what to make of Scientology. It is a religion? It is a cult? Is it an international scam designed to bilk money from its followers? Whatever it is, there are clearly aspects of Scientology that are profoundly troubling. People who have left Scientology, including a niece of the international leader of Scientology David Miscavige, report very troubling aspects of the movement. Children are taken from parents as babies and raised in communal homes by nannies rarely interacting with their parents. Children as young as twelve are sent to the “Sea Org ”, a group of young volunteers who leave home and are forced to work long hours, often sixteen hours a day, and have little to no contact with their parents. If they step out of line in any way they are labeled a “Suppressive Person” and sent to the Rehabilitation Project Force, which is described consistently by those who have been forced to attend as a labor camp, with harsh and inhuman condition and various forms of physical and psychological torture. Suppressive Person's can be forced to be there for years on end.

Will Katie's divorce further the discussion about the nature of Scientology and some of their practices? Will it cause the Federal government to look further into questioning the legality of some of their practices and their status as a non-profit organization? We don't know. What we do know is that leaving Scientology is a difficult and painful process and comes with much risk. Katie's divorce from the world's most famous Scientologist will no doubt shine a brighter light on the movement. She might have gotten herself into it, but it still took tremendous courage to get out of it. This could be her Pinchas moment.

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz is rabbi of Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStrul.