Cancel Culture

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There was a special gift that G-d gave us at the dawn of creation. It was the gift of speech. Speaking is an important part of being human.

There is a famous story in the Torah that tells us how we almost lost that Divine gift. The people after the Flood built the Tower of Babel. And they were punished. We know the generation of the Flood sinned and was therefore punished.

But why was G-d angry with the people who built the Tower of Babel? Why were they deserving of punishment? G-d seems to find fault with these people because they all spoke one language. “And the Lord said: behold the people is one and they have all “one” language. And the whole earth was of one language and one of speech.”

But what is so wrong if all the people speak one language? There are people, even in our day, who still dream of a universal language.

Yet, according to this story, G-d himself confounded their speech and scattered them upon the face of all the earth. Again, what did these people do that warranted such punishment? What’s wrong with everyone speaking in one language?

Our sages answer this question by telling us that there would be nothing wrong with all people speaking one language. While there is beauty in divergence of tongues, there would be no moral opposition to the desire of all peoples to speak one language.

But the text of the Bible says more, “And the whole earth was of one language. Devarim Achudim – and of one speech.” The trouble seems to have been not that they spoke one language, but that all were expected to speak Devarim Achudim – the same words, to give expression to the same ideas.

In contemporary terms the generation of the Tower of Babel turned into a “cancel culture.”

As if we don’t face enough challenges these days, “cancel culture” has become a major issue in our times. On its simplest level, “cancel culture” is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as: “The practice or tendency of engaging of mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.” On another level, it simply means that it is no longer true that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. If I don’t like something you have said or done, I can do whatever I can to get you “cancelled.” The effect of this mindset has affected companies like Goya and Pepsi-Cola, Uncle Ben’s and Aunt Jemimah and people like Eminem, Dr. Seuss, J.K. Rowling and even Mr. Potato Head!

Sometimes there is an attempt to “cancel” people simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I read about a Canadian psychologist who was denied a research fellowship at Cambridge University School of Divinity after a photograph surfaced of him alongside an individual wearing a tee shirt with an offensive message. There is no indication that he endorsed the message, or knew the person, or even was aware of what was on the person’s tee shirt. But that didn’t matter! It also doesn’t matter if you said or did the wrong thing one time 20 years ago … in the eyes of many, you deserve to be “canceled.”

We as Jewish people should be particularly concerned with this culture because it is on college campuses where it has run rampant. Pro-Israel speakers, pro-Israel Jewish students and groups are under constant attack.

Under the circumstances, one would think that if there is any one people that should be against the concept of a “cancel culture” it’s the Jewish people! Not simply because we have been its victims, but also because it violates Jewish tradition. Was it not G-d who was against one language and one speech? Jewish law took this very seriously.

The entire Talmud relates the differences of opinion between Abaye and Rava, between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, between Reb Yochanan and Reish Lakish and countless others. In each instance the halacha follows one way. So why relate the opinion that we don’t follow? Because we can learn from a contrary opinion. We all have felt affected by the “cancel culture” mentality. We always felt comfortable speaking our opinions on events of the day in the light of ancient texts. But now it feels like every word must be weighed and measured, trying our best not to offend anybody … because in these days of “cancel culture” it seems that most anything you say can be found offensive.

We Jewish people should know better. Who are the Jewish people? Our original name was given to the first Jewish person, our forefather, Avraham. In referring to Avraham, G-d calls him an “ivri” which we translate as “Hebrew.” The word “ivri” literally means “from the other side.” Geographically, Avraham came from the other side of the river Jordan. But our sages explain that there is another meaning in the name “ivri.” Avraham was on one side and the entire world was on the other. Avraham saw the world differently, Avraham saw through the eyes of G-d. He paid a price for being different. According to the Midrash, they threw him into a furnace, but he survived. And we survived! Avraham was not afraid to take a position that ran counter to the times. And we must do the same. It was we Jewish people that have taught the world the importance of
differences and in so doing, enriched the world.

Wherever we Jewish people lived, we never conformed. They tried to “cancel” us, but we’re still going strong. Our country must learn this lesson. Our people must continue to practice this lesson. And then it will be said of the American people what G-d promised the Jewish people: “And I will make you a great nation and you shall be blessed.”
Rabbi Scolnic