Yom Kippur and Cancel Culture

We keep hearing a lot in the Media and in Academic papers about what has come to be referred to as “Cancel Culture”, meaning the removal from the table of civil discussion of all those who express disagreement with the accepted Orthodoxy(ies) of Academic life. It has spilled into the general society to include disagreement(s) with what has come to be accepted as “political correctness” and even used as a club to hit over the head those who express opinions others disagree with. In other words, the denial of acceptability of any kind of disagreement with what a particular group considers “social consensus”.

Yom Kippur begins with the recitation of the introductory formula of the Kol Nidre: “By the Authority of the Court on High and by the authority of the court down here, by the permission of One Who is Everywhere and by the permission of this congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with sinners”. This is followed by the Kol Nidre itself, which annuls the prohibitions, obligations, and oaths we imposed upon ourselves over the twelve months preceding the recitation of the Kol Nidre. In other words, the cancellation of all our oaths and promises that remained unfulfilled. In principle, there seems to be a parallel with the Cancel Culture. Let us dig a bit deeper into the comparison.

The Cancel Culture reflects the unwillingness to confront diverging opinions, on the basis that they are considered invalid and null insofar as they oppose the perceived “Social consensus”. This so called “Social Consensus”, however, is not Universal. It refers to the social consensus within the group asking for the cancellation of dissent. In other words, it reflects the denial of alternative opinions because they challenge the beliefs of a group. In some cases, this can go even further and cancel historical facts which contradict the beliefs of the group… such as “The Holocaust is a hoax”; “There was never a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount”; “Present day Jews have no connection with Biblical Jews”, etc. And it cuts both ways, since some also claim “There has never been a Palestinian People”; “Arabs got out of the way so that the Arab armies could kill all Jews and they could come and claim what the Jews had – there were no expulsions”, etc.

And the cancel culture applies not only to the big issues, but also to day-to-day. Organizations many times need to erase part of their history in order to pretend it never happened, because sometimes acknowledging a past mistake makes its members uncomfortable. So entire periods of time are “whitewashed” from the organization’s history. It is more comfortable.

The Kol Nidre Service starts with the aforementioned legal formula to make it acceptable to pray with sinners because it accepts the fallibility of Human beings, and therefore every one of us is potentially a sinner. If we were to exclude all the people who committed transgressions, there would be congregation or even minyan – and the whole idea of Yom Kippur would be pointless. Once we accept that, the text of the Kol Nidre is also telling us that we may have promised things we could not deliver and releases us from the obligations we imposed upon ourselves with it (them). Again, the formula of the Kol Nidre accepts we are fallible, and we do unwise things – it gives us a chance to correct ourselves, to change.

The very concept of Yom Kippur is based on the idea that we make mistakes, but we can correct them. It is based on the acceptance of our imperfection. It recognizes that Human beings sometimes behave like jerks, too. If we ask forgiveness from a fellow human being for something we did that affected him (her), and the other person does not give us the forgiveness we ask for, we can still obtain absolution. The sages said that if we ask the person forgiveness three times (three being a legal formulaic number in many contractual relationships in the ancient world), we can consider ourselves absolved. But absolution alone does not complete the process – we need to prove we have learned from out mistakes by changing our behavior and not repeating the offending actions of the past. Yom Kippur offers the opportunity to change not by denying the past or our past behavior but by embracing it and learning from it. It offers the opportunity to grow.

The Cancel Culture starts by assuming that what we see as the social consensus (of our group) is an undeniable Truth, and those who oppose it are not only mistaken but offensive. It reflects intellectual arrogance and ideological supremacy. It also reflects the conviction that those who follow the prescribed Orthodoxy are perfect and those who don’t are “sinners”. By denying the open competition of ideas (even those ideas we find contemptuous), we define Truth as that which we believe, and our Belief becomes the Truth. The identification of our ideas with the only possible Truth takes away the possibility of open discussion. And the open discussion of ideas has been in Human history the very engine of change and growth.

While Yom Kippur is an opportunity to take personal responsibility in order to reach absolution and grow, Cancel Culture promotes the idea of somebody else’s responsibility to accept our Truth – cancelling the possibility of growth and promoting the idea that absolution comes with the acceptance of established Orthodoxy. Since different groups have different ideas of what is the Truth, Cancel Culture leads, inevitably, to a breakdown in dialogue and the polarization of ideas.

In my opinion, Yom Kippur represents the hope for a better future and the belief in the power of learning and of Human Nature. Cancel Culture represents the fear of dissent and the denial of dialogue as an instrument of learning. Just my two cents…

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