Letter | Of course Judaism believes in cancel culture
This article is part of a new series called “On Persuasion.” We asked thought leaders to consider what persuasion means to them. What works in terms of persuading people? Is it moot in 2020? What is the Jewish value of persuasion? Should we be opening our minds to other points of view, or closing them to dangerous ideas? Read all the pieces here.
The Talmud famously records both the prevailing and dissenting arguments on every issue, and some have suggested that this shows that “cancel culture” is antithetical to Jewish values. Jodi Rudoren, the Forward’s editor-in-chief, recently pointed to the example of Hillel and Shammai in pushing back on calls for Jared and Ivanka’s children to be expelled from a preschool. Another recent column in the Forward by David Wolpe similarly cites Talmudic debate to argue against the idea that some arguments should be shut down entirely.
This logic misses the mark. It is true that Judaism has a strong tradition of debate, and it is true that even opinions held by a minority of dissenting scholars have been preserved in our texts. Yet the tradition of debate is not open-ended; it comes with certain boundaries beyond which there can be no legitimate argument.
Examples of so-called “cancel culture,” of people being expelled and excommunicated over their statements, opinions, and practices, can be found throughout Jewish history. In the Talmud there is the prominent example of Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah, whose name was almost completely expunged from the Talmud for reasons that are not clearly recorded. Shabbatai Zvi was expelled from several Jewish communities in response to certain teachings and public spectacles. Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated for his heretical teachings. The examples are not limited to religious disputes: Maimonides excommunicated the controversial leader of an Egyptian Jewish community for certain business practices and over a political dispute.
The challenge is knowing where the lines are drawn. Expelling someone from the community should not be taken lightly, and should be reserved for truly egregious offenses. I am not wise enough to say whether or not Jared and Ivanka have crossed the line, and even if I was so wise I could not weigh in as I am not a member of their synagogue or community.