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Cancel Culture versus Teshuva Culture – Rosh Hashana

I wanted to give at least one sermon this year that wasn’t about the pandemic or the move. So this morning, I’m going to address an issue that is undoubtedly on all of our minds. Has The Cat in the Hat been canceled?

This past March, Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided to stop publishing six of its titles because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” This led to a firestorm on right-wing media, with one channel’s hosts claiming over 30 times in one morning show that Dr. Seuss had been “canceled.”

But if I asked you to list as many Dr. Seuss books as you could, I’m fairly certain that these titles would not be the first six, or even the last six, that came to mind. While there was a rush on Dr. Seuss books following the announcement, you can still find The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and Oh, the Places You’ll Go on bookshelves around the world.

The actions taken by Dr. Seuss Enterprises were meant to be a thoughtful response to complaints that certain ethnic groups were negatively portrayed in the author’s work.  According to the company, “Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalog represents and supports all communities and families… with messages of hope, inspiration, inclusion, and friendship.”

But for many, this was yet another example of “cancel culture,” a relatively new term used to describe the shaming of celebrities, and the boycott of brands, in response to insensitive, offensive, or abusive words or behaviors in the public sphere.

Lisa Nakamura, of the University of Michigan, defines “cancel culture” as “a cultural boycott…an agreement not to amplify, signal boost, give money to. … when you deprive someone of your attention, you’re depriving them of a livelihood.”

Canceling someone can be simple and straightforward. Over the last few years, we’ve seen a number of entertainers be called out for racism, sexual misconduct, and other abuses of power and privilege. Their TV shows and stage performances were literally “canceled.” Their public platforms, and the income they generated, were taken away, hopefully making space for more women and people of color to have their voices heard and create content.  

Sometimes, cancel culture is more complicated. In this age of instant and constant media coverage, someone who makes a mistake or speaks out of turn is immediately “canceled,” often resulting in their firing or their removal from public discourse. In “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” to Harpers’ Magazine, over 150 writers and public intellectuals expressed their concern about the increasing “calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”

And sometimes, the phrase “cancel culture” is used as a false flag, to shame those who try to hold a person or an institution accountable for their actions. Or even, in some cases, to shame those who try to make changes to their own behaviors, as certain newscasters did with Dr. Seuss Enterprises.

It is important for us to understand these different interpretations of “cancel culture,” because we are in grave danger of confusing “cancel culture” with accountability. And at this time of year, when we take stock of our own words and actions, it is essential that we understand the difference.

At this season in the Jewish calendar, we engage in the process of cheshbon hanefesh, an “accounting of the soul.” We evaluate our words and actions over the past year, and determine how we might do better in the year to come. We take a moment to pause, to consider whether we are on the right path and, if necessary, to reorient ourselves. This turning, or returning, to the right path is known as teshuva.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes outlines the path of teshuva in six essential steps. We regret our thoughts and actions. We renounce our past behavior, we confess our wrongdoing, we reconcile with those we’ve hurt, we make amends for the harm we have caused, and, perhaps most importantly, we resolve to never engage in the same behavior again.

These steps provide us with a significant amount of work to do after we realize that we have made a mistake. But sometimes we can be blind to our own missteps. We might need someone else to call us out and hold us accountable. This is when we must engage in a process called tochecha, or rebuke.

On Yom Kippur afternoon, we will read from Leviticus 19, otherwise known as the “Holiness Code.” Right before the famous commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” we read: “You shall not hate your kinfolk in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor (hocheach tochiach), and not bear guilt because of them” (Leviticus 19:17).

What does it mean to “bear guilt because of them”? The rabbis tell us that anyone who has the power to call out sinful conduct in their household or community, and fails to do so, will be held accountable for that conduct (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 54b).

We know from elsewhere in our tradition that we are all responsible for one another. What we might not always realize is that this responsibility extends to holding one another accountable for our words and actions. It also includes providing a path to repair, if repair is possible. And in many cases, it is.

A loving rebuke might lead to a meaningful conversation, in which the offender might gain a greater understanding of how their words and actions were hurtful. It might lead to real teshuva, where the offender walks thoughtfully and deliberately through these steps of renouncing their behavior and making amends.

It is not enough for a public figure to simply lay low for a few months and then arrange a “comeback tour.” It is not enough to post a professionally-worded non-apology to “anyone who was hurt by my actions.” It might take time, and it might take multiple attempts. And it certainly takes the willingness to acknowledge when we are wrong.

Rabbi Kipnes writes, “To renounce our wrongdoings requires honest personal evaluation. We look into our hearts and souls and admit to ourselves that our actions were wrong. No excuses. No rationalizations. We cease to see the action as a necessary consequence of our personality. We distance ourselves, emotionally and intellectually, from the deed. Renouncing a sin does not mean that we deny that it happened or that we deny doing it. Rather, renunciation means that we reject any sense that we needed to act as we did.”

If we never call people out on their negative behavior, this process might never begin. And if we immediately cancel people, without providing a path to teshuva, we deny those at fault the time and space to engage in this process at all.

At this point, you might be asking: is the rabbi for “cancel culture” or against it? And that, in a way, is my point. We cancel people because we want things to fit into neat little boxes: good or bad, with us or against us. But canceling a person or an institution is too black and white in its thinking. I’m equally concerned about the knee-jerk reaction of canceling a person and the knee-jerk reaction of crying “cancel culture” in response to legitimate criticism and calls for accountability. We cancel people, or claim that we have been canceled, because we don’t want to do the hard work of rebuke, repair, and reintegration.

So what I’m proposing is that we replace “cancel culture” with “teshuva culture.”

How do we create a culture where people have room to make mistakes and repair them? How do we create a culture where people can—and do—choose to do teshuva?

 This question has been on my mind this year in my work on the board of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. Following the death of a prominent HUC-JIR professor, several former students came forward with claims of harassment and bullying. Some of the victims were criticized for speaking out, and told not to speak ill of the dead. But their voices brought to light a pattern of silence and secrecy within movement institutions, leaving survivors of harassment, discrimination, abuse, and even assault to fend for themselves. This wasn’t the only professor who had abused his power, nor was the abuse of power limited to professors at the college. Even worse, these behaviors were an open secret, well-known by most movement leaders, but rarely properly addressed. And while there is never a good time to engage in tochecha, this speaking out ultimately led to a moment of reckoning in our movement institutions.

The Women’s Rabbinic Network called upon the leaders of the movement to respond to complaints with transparency rather than secrecy, accountability rather than enabling of perpetrators, and support rather than silencing of victims. Moreover, the WRN demanded that our movement take a close look at its institutions as a whole, in order to develop “policies, standards, and processes to ensure safety for all, including the on-going promotion of a feedback-rich and retaliation-free environment to support a safe and respectful culture.”

While this rebuke may have stemmed from painful experiences and disappointment with leadership, the WRN took these steps out of love. The WRN didn’t say, “This institution is canceled, and we want no part of it.” Instead, the WRN called upon the leaders of our movement to do better, all while committing to stay in relationship with the movement while this difficult work is being done.

In response to this tochecha, three of the major Reform movement institutions, as well as several Reform synagogues, launched independent investigations, to see how cases of harassment, assault, abuse, discrimination and misconduct had been handled in the past. Many of those past wrongs cannot be undone, especially in those situations in which the perpetrator or the victim is no longer alive. But by encouraging the leaders of our movement to engage in this process of cheshbon ha-nefesh, the Women’s Rabbinic Network hopes to create a “future in which our Reform movement and the Jewish world writ large are environments of safety and equity that honor the holiness of each human life.”

Fulfilling this vision is going to be a lengthy and complicated process. Not everyone is happy about these grievances being aired publicly, and not everyone will support that work that must be done. But it is only by engaging in this tochecha that we can hope to create a culture where real repair and meaningful change is possible.

On the one hand, it isn’t in line with our Jewish values to “cancel” someone forever. Teshuva is meant to be an ongoing process, that someone can begin at any time, and keep working at, until the wound has been healed.

On the other hand, in order to do teshuva, a person or an institution must be called out and held accountable, so that they can take responsibility for their words and actions. To do so is not “cancel culture,” even if it means that a person loses their job, their media platform, their sponsors, or their customers. Making space for someone to do teshuva doesn’t necessarily mean that they get to keep all of the money, power, fame, and influence they already had. It doesn’t mean that the people they hurt will immediately be ready to hear what they have to say, to accept apologies, or to offer forgiveness. It doesn’t mean that the offender won’t experience anything painful or difficult during their teshuva process, or that it won’t take a lifetime of resolving to do better, every single day. It simply means that we recognize the humanity of those who hurt us, and give them an opportunity not to be defined by their worst thoughts, words, and actions.

Not everyone will take that opportunity. Sometimes, a person or an institution doubles down on their words or actions, and tochecha feels like a fool’s errand. But we need to create a culture where people who speak up are heard and listened to, and not shamed for standing up for themselves. And we need to make sure that the burden of tochecha is not placed entirely on the individual victim speaking out.

It can be difficult to hear rebuke, to admit that we were wrong, to take responsibility. This is something I find myself having to do often as the leader of a faith community. We might get defensive, or try to explain that, “This isn’t who we are.” And maybe it isn’t who we are, or more likely, who we imagine ourselves to be in our best moments. But it is how our words and actions have affected people. That’s what we need to change, so we can proudly say, “This. This is who we are.”

It can be equally difficult to accept an apology and truly forgive someone. Because that, too, might involve acknowledging that we were wrong about someone. Not about the harm they’ve done, but about their ability to reflect, repent, and change their ways.

All of this is difficult because it requires us to stay in relationship with one another, even when we have been hurt, even when we know we have made a mistake. It requires us to wrestle with what has been done, and what needs to be done, so that we can continue that relationship, and perhaps even make it stronger.

Kimberley Foster, leader of the black feminist community For Harriet explains that: Changing culture meaningfully means approaching folks from the standpoint of ‘these harmful ideas you are perpetuating need to go,’… We’re not going to accept this anymore. But the people themselves can be recovered.”

Whether it’s an author an actor, a politician or a journalist, an academic institution, a family member, a colleague, or a friend: sometimes people disappoint us with their words or with their actions. We owe it to ourselves, and to the people who’ve let us down, to call them to account, and tell them how they can do better. And when someone opens our eyes to a mistake that we’ve made, we owe it to ourselves, and to the people that we’ve hurt, to examine our behavior, and seek to repair the damage.

We owe it to ourselves and to those we love to stay in relationship with one another while we do the hard work of rebuke and repair. We owe it to ourselves, and to each other, to remember that, as long as we are willing to do the work, it’s not too late to change.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz