Jewish Word | What Is Cancel Culture—and What Does Judaism Say About It?

March, 08 2021
Images of public figures that have been cancelled.

Comedian Kevin Hart was bumped from hosting the 2019 Oscars for years-old homophobic tweets. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has faced internet shaming for controversial statements regarding trans women. New Yorker Amy Cooper was fired after calling the cops on an innocent Black man birdwatching in Central Park. Sixteen-year-old Tik Tok star Charli D’Amelio lost almost a million followers after a video of her being rude to her personal chef circulated.

All of the above are examples of “cancel culture,” a term frequently thrown around in today’s public discourse. But what people mean when using it is nearly always up for debate. Is it positive or negative? Is it a form of public accountability or a system of public shaming gone too far? What warrants canceling, and who gets to decide? Is canceling permanent, or is there room for forgiveness and change?

In general, the people and groups doing the canceling don’t use the term. In their eyes, they are simply addressing perceived power imbalances and calling out someone whose reprehensible behavior deserves attention. Even though canceling occurs along the political spectrum, “cancel culture” is usually an epithet hurled by those on the political center and right. They view it as the left’s obsession with “wokeness” and are quick to compare it to the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror or the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s.

Is cancel culture a form of public accountability or a system of public shaming gone too far? What warrants canceling, and who gets to decide?

But these analogies fall short, writes Ligaya Mishan in a New York Times Magazine piece on the topic. Those were government-sanctioned campaigns, while cancel culture is random, leaderless and disorganized. “It follows trends that come and go and feels very intolerant,” says psychologist and author Andrew Solomon. “It’s not clear and systematic, and it’s often cruel.” According to Solomon, cancel culture has created a fear at the prospect of being canceled, which, he says, “mutes people.”

How did a word referring to the voiding of transactions, subscriptions, memberships or events take on such power? Writing for Vox, journalist Aja Romano traced the first use of “cancel” in reference to people to the 1991 action crime film New Jack City, when, after a tussle with his girlfriend, a drug kingpin played by Wesley Snipes says, “Cancel that bitch, I’ll buy another one.” From there, the expression spread to rap music and Black Twitter (“You’re canceled,” “She’s canceled,” etc.) before making its way into the national lexicon. But it was only in 2017, when “cancel” became the verb to describe a social boycott against people accused during the #MeToo movement, that the term became mainstream, says Jonathan Krasner, a professor of American and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. “Once it gained some currency, people were just off to the races with it.” Today, “canceling” has a range of meanings, from withdrawing support to indicate disapproval and exert social pressure, to eliminating a person and their achievements from public conversation.

The term is new, but the questions surrounding canceling are not. They have surfaced in Judaism just as they have in other religions. “The most drastic type of canceling is when we say Yemach Shemo—blot out their name,” says Brandeis University sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman. “Jews traditionally use that phrase for the Nazis. So when something is a moral monstrosity, that’s when one cancels [it].” Even then, Jewish tradition usually stops just shy of complete cancelation, she adds. Deuteronomy commands us to “blot out the memory of Amalek,” yet the same verse instructs us to “not forget.” That’s why every Shabbat before Purim, Jewish communities read the Torah portion reminding them of Amalek’s sins against the Israelites.

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The tension between tolerance and intolerance of ideas is also nothing new. Judaism makes a strong case for intellectual understanding, in part through the intense focus on debate and disagreement in the Talmud. Both the Jerusalem and Babylonian editions make a point of preserving minority opinions, purposely recording a range of views, many of which are not reflected in Jewish practice. This kind of intellectual open-mindedness helped Talmudic rabbis judge new ideas as they emerged, says David Bashevkin, director of education at the Orthodox Union. “The ability to countenance incorrect opinions helps sharpen our appreciation for and understanding of opinions that are correct,” he explains. And this applies to the 21st century as well. “If you’re only exposed to the ideas that are true right now, you’ll lose your ability to discern when you’re not given a clear sign of what is correct and what is incorrect.”

As Bashevskin sees it, however, canceling is an inherent part of Jewish thought. The Bible, or the Jewish canon, was created by purposefully including and excluding certain texts. In essence, he says, “the creation of Tanakh [the Bible] was itself an act of canceling. We know that other books exist; they’re just not part of our text.” Like other religious communities, Judaism also has an extreme mechanism of canceling, excommunication. Called cherem in Hebrew, it has allowed individuals to be ousted from the community for straying from societal norms. Most famously, the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated by the Amsterdam Portuguese-Jewish community for “abominable heresies.” In Bashevkin’s opinion, this sort of canceling is integral to building communities. “All communities are canceling because all communities have an inside and an outside. There are both explicit and implicit rules that if violated can oust a person from the group,” he says. “It’s a function of community.”

In other ways, cancel culture could be considered at odds with Judaism, which places a high value on teshuvah, or repentance. While violations today are broadcast across various platforms, those who have been canceled are rarely given a chance to apologize or make amends. This inability to be forgiven strikes Jonathan Krasner as antithetical to Judaism’s ideas of teshuvah. “Teshuvah is an opportunity to right whatever wrong. But in cancel culture, there is no repentance. You’re blacklisted and that’s it.”

The complexity of modern cancel culture is indicative of a wider problem. “It’s all part of a larger societal phenomenon of people cocooning themselves,” says Krasner. “We’re just not talking to each other anymore unless we agree.”

Opening picture: James Bennet, Roseanne Barr, Kevin Hart, Charli D’Amelio, Al Franken, Louis C.K. and J.K. Rowling. Each of these figures has been “canceled” over the years, facing public backlash for everything from being ungrateful to a chef to allegations of sexual misconduct. (Photo credit: Wikimedia, Youtube, U.S. Senate)

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2 thoughts on “Jewish Word | What Is Cancel Culture—and What Does Judaism Say About It?

  1. Davida Brown says:

    It seems to me that the above article is confusing religious aspects of the Tanakh, clearly the admonition by God to “repent”, or Te-shuvah in Hebrew, of personal wrong doing, with cultural constructs that change like the blowing of the wind. The Jewish King Solomon states, in Ecclesiastes: ” That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9) Remember, he was considered the wisest man that ever lived and he messed up royally! But, he has a point there.
    I understand what is going on through social media, but that is seemingly a passing phase that will ultimately “cancel itself out.” I understood from first hearing the term “cancel culture” , to be literally that…past historical cultural acts would be eliminated due to their “politically incorrect” connotations. Of course, if there is indisputable evidence from multiple sources, that is just plain ridiculous. All of human history, including our individual historical lives, contain undesirable aspects that we would love to toss out or eliminate from all memory, but it is not possible, is it? Bad things happen. It’s the human condition. Facing this truth and dealing with it will save a lot of grief, keeping in mind that many factors lead up to these unfortunate incidents. Repentance and forgiveness are the answers.

    1. Anita Spivak Lieb says:

      Thank you, David Brown. You gave a rational response to how we should deal with cultural mistakes of the past with out destroying people because they have erred under the new “rules”.

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