Rabbi Cassi’s Kol Nidrei Sermon 5782

On Cancel Culture

Kol Nidrei 5782/2021

Rabbi Cassi Kail

Elisha ben Abuya’s story is a cautionary tale. Elisha had been a well-respected scholar whose love for teaching Torah was infectious. In his lessons, he placed particular emphasis on the importance of mitzvot, the ways we act out our faith. Nearly overnight, Elisha’s reputation drastically changed, as he transformed from a respectable Rabbi to a heretical villain.[1]

What happened to ignite such a transformation in the public eye?

According to the Talmud, Elisha was enjoying a walk when he witnessed a man asking his son to retrieve chicks from the top of a building. In his eagerness to follow the mitzvah of honoring his parents, the young boy jumped into action and eagerly began to climb. When he came across a mother bird sitting on her nest, the boy remembered the Torah’s commandment to send away a mother bird before taking its eggs. Watching this, Elisha was content. Surely this boy was made for great things. With the chicks in hand, the boy began to descend the ladder when suddenly and tragically, the boy tripped and fell to his death.[2] The next day, Elisha witnessed a second man retrieving birds from a nest in the same manner. When he, too, fell to his death, Elisha could not stay silent. Everything he believed had been challenged. In his angst, he cried out, “There is no judge, and there is no justice!” Elisha questioned God at a time when doing so was inexcusable.

Elisha’s story is a cautionary tale, not because of his crisis of faith but because of how the Jewish community responded to it.

Elisha’s once lauded teachings were expunged from the record. His name was not spoken. He was from that day forth referred to only as “Acher” the other. In response to Elisha’s crisis of faith, the Jewish community had silenced and excommunicated him. As Rabbi Marc Katz teaches, “The same religion [that teaches] of forgiveness, that no one is beyond reproach, and that everyone has a pathway towards reconciliation cast him out.” In other words, to use a modern term, Elisha ben Abuya had been canceled, without any possibility of rejoining the fold. His community proclaimed that they wanted nothing to do with him.

For the past several years, there has been a deep-seated debate in our country about something called “cancel culture.” Cambridge Dictionary defines cancel culture as “a way of behaving in a society or group, especially on social media, in which it is common to completely reject and stop supporting someone because they have done something that offends you.” Its goal its to stop dialogue that is hurtful, abusive, or offensive.

Opponents of cancel culture are concerned by the way it can shut down an open and free exchange of ideas. Within recent years, there has been a growing trend of uninviting people from speaking engagements, particularly at colleges and universities. The professor who invited Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley rescinded his invitation because of a controversial article he wrote about race issues.

TV host and transgender activist Janet Mock withdrew from a speaking event at Brown University after students protested not because of the content of Mock’s speech but rather because Hillel was cosponsoring the lecture. The list goes on and on.

Heterodox Academy surveyed 445 academics, and more than half of the respondents said that they were nervous about expressing views outside of the consensus for fear of it affecting their career trajectory.[3]

When professors and even students are fearful to speaking up on controversial topics, then students are deprived of an opportunity to be challenged by new ideas, to engage in difficult dialogue, and to be stretched beyond their comfort zones. We all are. Rather than cancelling or shutting down dialogue, they ask, shouldn’t we be more fully engaging with one another?

They have a point. Jewish tradition has always embraced debate. Two Jews, three opinions is our motto. Our entire Talmud is filled to the brim with passionate debate and a multiplicity of perspectives. In fact, we learn that each person at Sinai heard just a small portion of revelation. Only through listening to one another’s points of view do we have an opportunity to gain a fuller picture.

On the other hand, many people argue that we shouldn’t give a platform on which people can spread their racist, sexist, homophobic, antisemitic, or dangerous ideas.

In recent years, social media has been used to call attention to the objectionable actions of public figures and organizations, which had for too long gone unchecked. Cancel culture is a direct response to years of misogyny, racism, homophobia and other kids of hatred. Social media is used as an outlet because other forms of speaking out have failed.

Columnist Sarah Hagi explains, “I’m a black, Muslim woman, and because of social media, marginalized people like myself can express ourselves in a way that was not possible before. That means racist, sexist, and bigoted behavior or remarks don’t fly like they used to.”[4]

When the #MeToo hashtag went viral in 2017, women for the first time in their lives felt comfortable speaking out about their experiences of sexual harassment, assault and rape. Social media has demanded accountability of not only the people who committed these offenses but also the industries and funders who enabled them.

Since the rise of cancel culture, employers have become far more receptive and attuned to the impacts of racist, antisemitic, homophobic, or misogynistic rhetoric. Cancel culture shines the spotlight on this problem.

Judaism is clear that it is important to address the ills and missteps within a society so that they can be corrected. This afternoon’s Torah reading, nicknamed “The Holiness Code” discusses the importance of rebuke. Hokeach tokiach, the Torah says. You shall surely reprove your neighbor lest you become guilty on his account. And yet, just a couple of verses later, our Torah portion continues with a reminder to “judge your neighbor fairly”  and “love your neighbor as yourself”[5] How can we rebuke our fellow while judging him favorably and loving him? We can remain in relationship with him.

The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Meir, who was fed up by lawless men in the neighborhood who caused him great pain. Rabbi Meir decided that he would pray for these sinners to cease, and he used a verse from Psalms to justify his prayer. יִתַּמּוּ חַטָּאִים מִן-הָאָרֶץ- “May sinners disappear from the earth,”[6] it said.

Rabbi Meir’s wife, Brurirah immediately objected. “No,” she said. The word “Chataim” does not refer to the people who commit the sin but rather the action itself. We should not hate the sinner. We should only hate the sin.[7]

During the High Holy Days, we are called to take responsibility for our actions, to admit our wrong doings and to commit to making better choices in the year ahead. We are able to pound our chests and offer our deepest regrets for one crucial reason: because we believe that everyone is capable of change. Though not everyone will chose to do the hard work that leads to change, everyone is capable of growth. We believe in second chances. Exodus Rabbah teaches, “The gates of repentance are always open, and anyone who wishes to enter may enter.”[8]

The problem with cancel culture isn’t that it calls out injustices, or that it demands that people take responsibility for their actions. Both are appropriate. The problem is that the dialogue often ends there. Too often the conversation ends in a fury of rebuke and anger. We talk about the person who committed the offense rather than to them. We call for their resignation. We see a sin and rather than pray for the sinner to repent, we pray for the end of sinner.

I’d like to share the story of Alexi McCammond.

Alexi McCammond was an impressive journalist, who had been named “Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists when she was 25. At 27, Conde Nast chose her to become the new editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue. Days before her position began, outrage emerged as racist and homophobic social media messages from her teen years began to resurface. As posters pointed out, they were unquestionably wrong, offensive, and hurtful. Alexi was in full agreement there. She had deleted them years before. She had apologized for them in 2019, and as people began to express their outrage on social media, she made a heartfelt statement of apology in which she called her language “hurtful and inexcusable.” Joe Libonati of Conde Nast explained that they had picked Alexi for the position “because of the values, inclusivity and depth she has displayed through her journalism,” and her dedication to being “a champion for marginalized voices.”[9]

Maimonides teaches that when someone sins, they must go through the four steps of teshuva, or repair. First, they must confess their mistake, and ask for forgiveness.[10] Next, they must express sincere remorse, promising to never again make the same error.[11] The third step is to do everything possible to “right the wrong” that had been done.[12] Finally, they must act differently if the same situation reoccurs.[13]

Alexi had fully repented, and yet she was destined to lose her job anyway. As the Twitter storm grew and calls for her resignation increased, Conde Nast and Alexi decided they had no choice but to part ways. Her position had ended before it ever began. There are many more stories like Alexi’s.

Sometimes cancel culture can get out of hand, because it places too much focus on punishment and not enough on growth, too much emphasis on the sinner and not the sin.

Our tradition offers a radical alternative.

You might remember the story of Judah in our Torah. Judah was the boy who sold his brother Joseph into slavery in a fit of jealousy and rage. He did one of the worst things anyone could do to another person—and he did it to his own brother.

Over time, Judah became deeply remorseful for his actions. When he met his brother Joseph, years later, he took responsibility and offered and heartfelt apology. When Judah’s youngest brother was arrested under threat of being imprisoned, Judah sacrificed his own freedom to save him. Judah had repented; he had gone through every one of Maimonides’ stages of teshuvah. And he was forgiven, not just by Joseph but by God and the Jewish community at large. Judah did something that was horrific and inexcusable, but he didn’t let the story end there. He grew, he changed, and devoted his life to protecting the ones he loved.

It is for this reason, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains, that he merited being the forefather of the Jewish people. We are named for him. We are called Yehudit, Jews in his honor.[14]

After Judah committed his sin, the Torah didn’t define him by his one horrendous act. It held onto his story, believing that he could create a better ending, believing that he could grow. It dared to believe that Judah could take on the arduous work on doing teshuvah. I believe that without that faith, Judah’s story could have been different. He did better because God and the Jewish people believed that he could.

Last year, the TV show host, musician, and actor Nick Cannon made anti-Semitic comments, indicating that Jews were responsible “for the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe.” As a result, he was removed from his comedy improv show, wild ‘N Out. Jewish leaders condemned him. People were outraged for good reason, and he deserved to be held accountable. But the story doesn’t end there.

Rabbis Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Norman Morans of the AJC didn’t talk about Cannon online; they reached out to him. They demanded an apology, and opened themselves up to start a dialogue. Cannon was incredibly receptive. He asked to learn more about Jewish culture and religion so that he could better grasp the error he had made. He asked for “counsel culture” rather than “cancel culture.”

The rabbis obliged. Once he understood the fallacy of his words, and the harm caused by such anti-Semitic rhetoric, he issued a series of apologies, “First and foremost,” he said, “I extend my deepest and most sincere apologies to my Jewish sisters and brothers for the hurtful and divisive words that came out of my mouth.” He continued, “They reinforced the worst stereotypes of a proud and magnificent people and I feel ashamed of the uninformed and naïve place that these words came from. The video has since been removed; I used words and referenced literature I assumed to be factual to uplift my community [and] instead [it] turned out to be hateful propaganda and stereotypical rhetoric that pained another community. For this I am deeply sorry, but now together we can write a new chapter of healing.”[15]

Isn’t that what the High Holy Days are all about it? We are here to repent, to grow, and to write a new chapter in healing.

This evening I have spoken about the public responses we offer academics, writers and those in the public eye, but as we know cancel culture can be much closer to home.

Many of us have people in our lives with whom we have stopped talking. Something was said, or done that hurt us, and we stopped engaging. I understand in some cases, when abuse is just too great, we need to distance ourselves. That’s okay.

In other cases, Judaism encourages us to meet one another with compassion, rebuking one another while also offering the benefit of the doubt, and the love of relationship.

Nick Cannon’s story was so inspiring not just because he repented and grew, but, as my colleague Rabbi Weinblatt explains, “that the Jewish community allowed [him] to repent and express regret, turning something negative into something positive.”

As I look around this room, and as I look at the screens of people on zoom I see incredible individuals, each of whom, like me, are trying to do the best they can, sometimes stumbling along the way. The Jewish teachings of teshuva and forgiveness implore us to forgive when a person has grown, and to do the work to repair relationships long broken.

Years ago, I stopped talking to an aunt who hurt me, and when she died suddenly last year, I wished I had tried to reengage. I wish I had heeded her apology.

Elisha’s story was a cautionary tale, but ours doesn’t have to be.

Life is too short to hold on to anger and resentment. It’s too short to write people off or push people out. The high holy days implore us to repair our relationships. So this year, let’s spend less time canceling and more time in conversation.

Together, let’s write a new chapter of healing.

[1] This framing is inspired by Marc Katz’s Yom Kippur sermon entitled, “Cancel Culture and Forgiveness.”

[2] Kiddishin 39b

[3] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/09/academics-are-really-really-worried-about-their-freedom/615724/

[4] https://time.com/5735403/cancel-culture-is-not-real/

[5] Leviticus 19

[6] Psalms 104:35

[7] Berachot 10a

[8] Exodus Rabbah 19:4

[9] https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/11/media/teen-vogue-alexi-mccammond-apologizes-again/index.html

[10] Mishnah Torah 1:1

[11] Mishnah Torah 2:2

[12] Mishnah Torah 2:9

[13] Mishnah Torah 2:1, based on Yoma 86b, “How is one to tell whether a penitent is genuine? Rabbi Judah said, ‘When the penitent has the opportunity to commit the same sin once and once again he refrains from doing so’.”

[14] https://rabbisacks.org/an-unforgiving-age-watch-rabbi-sacks-pre-selichot-address/

[15] When Cannon eventually returned to his show, he donated his first paycheck to the Simon Wiesenthal Center. I became aware of this story by Rabbi Weinblatt in his sermon, “What does Judaism have to say about cancel culture?” https://www.bnaitzedek.org/what-does-judaism-have-to-say-about-cancel-culture.html