Torah For Today! This week: Cancel culture

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Torah For Today! This week: Cancel culture

Rabbi Daniel Friedman takes a topical issue and applies an Orthodox Jewish response

JK Rowling
JK Rowling

From JK Rowling to Jodie Comer, celebrities are being “cancelled” right, left and centre. It doesn’t take much.  It could be a Twitter opinion, or their partner’s political affiliation.  Who will be next?  Last week, more than 150 thought leaders penned a letter decrying how individuals have been boycotted in this way.  What does the Torah say about cancel culture?

The obvious starting point is cherem – excommunication. In our tradition, if you refuse to toe the line, you get cancelled from the community. For example, a recalcitrant husband who refuses to give a get to his divorced wife may be excommunicated by the Beth Din.  

Practically speaking, he would not receive a call-up in synagogue, and it would be forbidden to daven in a minyan with him, among other penalties.  So it seems we do believe in cancel culture.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Elazar teaches (Pirkei Avot 2): “Know how to answer a heretic”, which implies a duty to discuss fundamental disagreements, even with characters you might deem unsavoury – because it’s impossible to respond to a person without listening to what they have to say.  

We don’t cancel people because they entertain different opinions.  Judaism thrives on healthy debate.  We are not vexed by the recalcitrant husband’s opinions. 

We excommunicate him because he’s made his ex-wife’s life a misery by his tangible misconduct. The purpose of the excommunication is to motivate him to mend his ways.  Once he’s done so, we welcome him back. Judaism doesn’t believe in eternal cancellation. 

It’s easy to cancel people from your life because they have different ideas or they’ve said something that annoyed you.  The mensch will pick up the phone to the person with whom they’ve disagreed.  

We’ve all said things out of line and we all have different viewpoints.  The Talmud teaches (Shabbat 127b) that God judges us in the same manner we judge others.  

Let’s all strive to be a little more forgiving and seek to understand one another’s opinions.

  •   Rabbi Daniel Friedman serves Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue
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