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Roman Polanski: Justice or Mercy?

Should directing movies as haunting and beautiful as “The Pianist” give you a get out of jail free card? How about if the victim of your crime has forgiven you?

Director Roman Polanski was arrested a few days ago on charges from 30 years ago that he raped a 13-year-old girl. Polanski has admitted to having sex with the girl – however, he claims he thought she was much older, and the sex was consensual. Although he also allegedly plied her with drugs and alcohol. For the past 30 years Polanski has been living in exile from the United States, as there has been a warrant for his arrest. In a surprise move, the US and Swiss governments arrested him, and he is currently sitting in jail in Switzerland, awaiting extradition proceedings.

His victim, Samantha Geimer, now in her 40s, has publicly said she forgives him and has no desire to see him go to jail. Many of his friends, including Woody Allen (hmm, maybe he’s not the best character reference) have lobbied for his release. The noted French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy has asked whether the Swiss police don’t have other more serious criminal business to pursue. Levy said Polanski “perhaps had committed a youthful error.” Youthful error? Polanski was in his 40s when he committed the crime, the only thing youthful was his 13-year-old victim. According to CNN, fellow filmmaker Otto Weisser said “He’s a brilliant guy, and he made a little mistake 32 years ago. What a shame for Switzerland.” A little mistake? Would Weisser feel that way if such a thing happened to his daughter? Why should it make any difference if he’s “brilliant” and “millions and millions of people love his work?”

We’ve just come through Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. What guidance does the Jewish tradition give us on how Mr. Polanski should be treated? Justice? Or Mercy?

This episode provides a fascinating case study in how when we turn to Torah for guidance, we have to look at the principles we learn from Torah, not the necessarily the specific statutes.

What happens in this case if we look at the specific rules in the Torah? The Torah has different rules for whether a maiden (i.e., 13 year old girl) is betrothed to another or not, where the attack takes place, etc. In this situation, where the girl was not betrothed to someone, whether the sex was rape or consensual, the man would be obligated to pay a fine to the father and to marry the girl. Clearly moral expectations in the Biblical era were different than today – no one would suggest that a 13 year old girl who was raped should marry her attacker, or that he should get off with paying a fine to her father.

So if we can’t go by the explicit rules in the Torah, what happens if we turn to the values we learn from Torah?

There are two competing values that come into play – values that we lived through on the High Holidays. Judgment and Mercy. Rosh Hashana was the Day of Judgment, when God looks at us and decides who will live and who will die. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, when Mercy is ascendant, and knowing we are not worthy, we throw ourselves on the mercy of the court and plead for our lives.

The Torah is clearly concerned with justice. One of the most famous passages in the Torah, inscribed over the entrance to the US Supreme Court, is “justice, justice you shall pursue.” We should not be impressed one way or another that Roman Polanski is a great director – the Torah commands us not to favor the rich, or to favor the poor, but rather to treat each the same. We are commanded not to take bribes in judgment, not to distort judgment. Evil is not to be tolerated – for heinous crimes we are told to “burn the evil from your midst,” murder is said to pollute the land itself. When a community tolerates immorality – like Sodom and Gommorah – it is destroyed. God is said to visit the sins of a father on his children to the 3rd and 4th generation.

All of these sources would suggest that the fact that the crime was 30 years ago should not make a difference. In fact the idea of a statute of limitations is, as far as I know, absent in the Jewish tradition. It is never too late for justice.

On the other hand, we have sources that speak about God’s mercy and kindness. On Yom Kippur, we beat our breasts, confess our sins, and pray for mercy. We cry out to God as Moses taught us to cry out, “Lord, merciful and forgiving God, lifting sin and transgression…” We have prayers where we pray that God’s mercy and compassion should conquer his anger. The Talmud tells stories of rabbis running out of their house after burglars, yelling out, “I give those things to you!” so that the burglar shouldn’t be guilty of theft. Just as it is a commandment to do repentance, it is a commandment to accept someone’s repentance. God may visit the sins of a father on his children 3 and 4 generations, but his mercy extends a thousand generations.

If Roman Polanski has repented – and I can’t say for sure if he has or not, I don’t know his heart – and if his victim has forgiven him, which she has – do we need to hunt him down and punish him? Or can we just say it was a long time ago, it may have been consensual, the victim has forgiven him, let it go?

Opinions vary – but in this case I side with the 70% of the public surveyed rather than with Mr. Polanski’s friends. He needs to be brought to judgment.

There is a saying “to err is human, to forgive is divine.” In this case, we should leave the forgiving to the divine, and do the judging ourselves.

Judaism teaches that we are to have the utmost respect for one another: we are all created in the divine image, we all contain a reflection of God. As such we are obligated to treat each and every one of us as precious, as special, as embodying some of the beauty and purity of our God. What Roman Polanski did cheapens us. He disregarded the inappropriateness of his behavior – after all, he WAS 40 something, and even if she was a “mature” 13 year old, how old did he think she was? I’ve known 13 year olds who could pass for 15 or 16, there aren’t so many who would pass for 18.

I admit to having a bias. I have a 13 year old daughter. If anything like this happened to her, I would certainly be utterly devastated, and I would fear for the lifelong trauma it would bring on my daughter. Society has an obligation to protect its most vulnerable members – which is why the Torah commands us in several places to take special care of the widow and orphan. To let Roman Polanski off the hook would be to say that what he did was not such a big deal. It would say, well, it’s been a long time, the victim has forgiven him, it’s not a big deal. SORRY. It IS a big deal. For a 40-something man to have sex with a 13 year old, consensual or not, is a horrible exploitation and violation of a young person who is at a delicate stage of development. To protect all 13 year old girls, it is vitally important that society send the message that this behavior is not appropriate, it is never acceptable, and it doesn’t matter if it happened 30 years ago, it doesn’t matter if the perpetrator is rich, famous, and/or talented, and it doesn’t matter if the victim eventually forgives him – such behavior is not acceptable, it will not be condoned, it will not be tolerated.

It is good that the victim has been able to forgive Roman Polanski and move on with her life. I’m sure it is much healthier for her psychologically than if she were still hanging on to hate and ill will. However, society as a whole cannot forgive him so easily. To do so would
be to say his actions weren’t all that bad. Polanski needs to be punished not because he is a threat to others – presumably he learned his lesson, and in his 70s the fires aren’t burning as hot anyway – he needs to be punished because allowing him to escape the consequences of his actions would be to diminish the significance of his crime in the eyes of many people. It would reduce the psychological barriers to others who might contemplate such crimes. We must see justice carried out: as Psalm 106 says, “Happy are they that keep justice, that do righteousness at all times.”


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

4 thoughts on “Roman Polanski: Justice or Mercy?

  • So, if he thought he committed no crime, why not face the court at the time? Leaving the country for 30 years does not smack of innocence.

  • Oddly enough, given my former profession, I think we ought to let it go. The victim is now in her 40s, doesn’t want charges pressed, in all probability doesn’t have a great recall of the events, and something published at the time (and perhaps incorrect–I haven’t seen much mention of it since) was that her mother was an aider and abetter in this scenario….the overly ambitious stage mother who engineered the “date” with the director. This doesn’t excuse his behavior (I don’t care if she was 25–getting a woman drunk so you can sexually exploit her is wrong) but it may explain why the victim is ready to forgive him and move on.

    Criminal punishment is supposed to accomplish two things. The first is deterrence. I suspect that Polanski himself is more than deterred enough, having lived in exile due to this crime, and the publicity surrounding this has probably had a deterrent effect on any citizen who might think he could get away with something similar.

    The other purpose of criminal punishment is to make the victim whole. Many studies show that victims of sexual assaults can’t put the trauma behind them until the case is adjudicated in their favor. Here, it appears the victim has managed to put it behind her and doesn’t want to relive the experience again in the glare of public scrutiny.

    If she can forgive him and move on, I think we should, too. [For the record, I have two relatives, both of them molested in their early teens by their mother’s boyfriend, so I’m not very forgiving about this sort of thing myself, as a rule.]

  • Deterrence is not just about the individual who committed the crime. I have no idea what type of life Mr. Polanski has led since he raped this child. If I assume for arguments sake that he has been deterred I am still concerned about the message that is sent to others if we do nothing. What does it say to others who are considering doing the same thing if there if we just look the other way. Do we really mean to tell people that if they have sex with a child that as long as that child “looks older” and as long as that child has a mother who perhaps thinks it is a good idea and as long as the child forgives the person when she becomes an adult that it those cases there is no crime.

    It is simply outrageous to me that people would suggest that we forget about it…as if the laws apply only to those of lesser intelligence and only to those without artistic talent.

  • Larry Lennhoff

    I favor the full force of the law being brought to bear in this case. Mr. Polanski did not merely commit the crime – he actually fled the country after his trial but before sentencing. 30 years of luxurious exile does not count as punishment. Studies have repeatedly shown that the severity of sentencing has a much smaller effect on deterring crime when compared with the certainty of punishment. Allowing Mr. Polanski to escape justice will encourage other wealthy rapists.

    The Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog has a number of good articles on the Polanski issue:


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