Progressively Speaking: Roald Dahl was racist, but can we still enjoy his books?

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Progressively Speaking: Roald Dahl was racist, but can we still enjoy his books?

Student Rabbi Lev Taylor takes a topical issue and offers a progressive response

Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl

This Chanukah, I bought my baby eight books – one for each night. Choosing children’s books is surprisingly hard.

They don’t just have to have good illustrations and compelling storylines. For progressive parents, they also have to communicate good values in a way that isn’t toe-curlingly earnest.

On top of all that, we now need to worry about whether their authors were antisemites. Roald Dahl certainly was.

He said of Jewish people that “even a stinker like Hitler didn’t pick on them for no reason”. Last week, Dahl’s family apologised for his offensive remarks.

So, what do we do with that? Can we still enjoy texts even if they’re written by racists? Let’s set aside the content, because I haven’t yet heard anyone argue that James and the Giant Peach is full of anti-Jewish tropes. Can we separate the art from the artist?

Jewish tradition might suggest the answer is no. The values of a writer can matter so much that they affect even our holiest texts. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 45b, even a Torah scroll – if written by a heretic –should be burned.

Those standards, however, would render many of our own synagogues’ scrolls unfit for use. It is highly unlikely that every scribe holds perfectly to the Orthodoxy of the rabbis in the Talmud.

A heretic, according to the Talmud, is someone who denies God’s perfection, the forthcoming resurrection of the dead or who disagrees with the majority of rabbis on halachah (Jewish law).

By such a measure, many of our congregants and rabbis would be considered heretics. Their books would be burned with them.

So, do we burn all our Torah scrolls? Of course not. We teach the stories to children. Then, as adults, we study them, reflect on them and critically engage with them.

This is what we need to do with Roald Dahl’s works, too. We can tell the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to our children. As adults, we can think about what the story’s values are.

Roald Dahl was a racist. Cancelling him now, 30 years after his death, won’t change that. The harder task is looking at the prejudices and stereotypes in our society today. The real work is to educate our children in a way that helps facilitate an antiracist future – and for that, we need to start telling different stories.

Lev Taylor is a student rabbi at Leo Baeck College

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