Judaism’s Antidote to Cancel Culture

The bulk of the Talmud comprises records of various arguments among rabbis, and its narrative portions contain numerous examples of these sages maintaining respectful relations despite the ferocity of their disagreements—as well as tales of the dangers of taking disagreement too far. Drawing on these traditions, David Wolpe shows how they can provide an alternative model of civic discourse that stands in contrast to our current age of censoriousness, intolerance of contradictory ideas, ad-hominem attacks, and “cancellation.” Take for instance, this story about the two leading sages of the 3rd century:

When the great Rabbi Resh Lakish dies, his brother-in-law and intellectual sparring partner, Rabbi Yoḥanan, is inconsolable. The other rabbis seek to comfort Rabbi Yohanan by sending Rabbi Eliezer ben Pedat, a very fine legal mind, to engage and perhaps distract him. It does not go well. . . . “Finally, Rabbi Yohanan bursts out, ‘Are you comparable to the son of Lakish?  . . .  [W]hen I would state a matter, he would raise 24 difficulties against me in an attempt to disprove my claim, and I would answer him with 24 answers, and the halakhah by itself would become broadened and clarified.” (Tractate Bava Metzia 84a).

One cannot really understand the truth if one does not understand the arguments and views that can be urged against it. Just as we appreciate our blessings when we feel the lack of them, we sharpen our perception of truth when we are confronted by arguments that appear to contradict it; . . . openness to others, including those with whom we might vehemently disagree, is also essential for creating a robust and living culture. Totalitarian regimes strangle dissent; they produce, in Nabokov’s memorable phrase about the Soviet Union, “poker-faced bullies and smiling slaves.” Thriving cultures cannot draw narrow bounds to speech.

And although rabbinic authority is a key element of the halakhic process, tradition also recognizes that authority is not everything:

Argument from authority, including “lived experience,” is never sufficient. Despite the reverence for teachers in the Jewish tradition, for example, there are limitations. The great Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin puts it this way: “A student must not accept his teacher’s words if he has an objection to them. Sometimes a student will be right, just as a small piece of wood can set a large one aflame.” Many teachers throughout history have refused to give their students the space to disagree, but Rabbi Ḥayyim realizes that to silence someone is not to answer him.

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More about: Cancel culture, Hayyim of Volozhin, Judaism, Talmud

Condemning Terrorism in Jerusalem—and Efforts to Stop It

Jan. 30 2023

On Friday night, a Palestinian opened fire at a group of Israelis standing outside a Jerusalem synagogue, killing seven and wounding several others. The day before, the IDF had been drawn into a gunfight in the West Bank city of Jenin while trying to arrest members of a terrorist cell. Of the nine Palestinians killed in the raid, only one appears to have been a noncombatant. Lahav Harkov compares the responses to the two events, beginning with the more recent:

President Joe Biden called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to denounce the attack, offer his condolences, and express his commitment to Israel’s security. Other leaders released supportive statements as well. Governments across Europe condemned the attack. Turkey’s foreign ministry did the same, as did Israel’s Abraham Accords partners the UAE and Bahrain. Even Saudi Arabia released a statement against the killing of civilians in Jerusalem.

It feels wrong to criticize those statements. . . . But the condemnations should be full-throated, not spoken out of one side of the mouth while the other is wishy-washy about what it takes to stave off terrorism. These very same leaders and ministries were tsk-tsking at Israel for doing just that only a day before the attacks in Jerusalem.

The context didn’t seem to matter to some countries that are friendly to Israel. It didn’t matter that Israel was trying to stop jihadists from attacking civilians; it didn’t matter that IDF soldiers were attacked on the way.

It’s very easy for some to be sad when Jews are murdered. Yet, at the same time, so many of them are uncomfortable with Jews asserting themselves, protecting themselves, arming themselves against the bloodthirsty horde that would hand out bonbons to celebrate their deaths. It’s a reminder of how important it is that we do just that, and how essential the state of Israel is.

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More about: Jerusalem, Palestinian terror