Posts Tagged 'parshat mishpatim'

The Limits of Cancel Culture: Jeremiah and Our Moment

John McWhorter is a professor of linguists at Columbia University. It makes sense for him to be interested in a Chinese language professor in California who was leading a discussion on filler words, such as “like” or “you know” in English. A common pause word in the Chinese language is “na-ge.” During his lecture, the professor repeated several times the term, which sounds like the N-word, but means “that.” Students complained, and the professor was suspended. “Those are cases that make the news because they’re especially colorful,” says McWhorter. “But it happens all the time.” There are real perils of cancel culture. While I do not agree with everything he wrote, I found his book Woke Racism to be a compelling and a really thoughtful book.

It is clear that we have become a culture of extremes, laying waste to people in the middle. Be it the mobs of cancel culture on one side or newly victimized anti-cancel culture advocates on the other, we increasingly use bombastic language. This makes us more tribal and less willing to take time to understand situations that are not our own. Both sides believe they are always right and are the guardians of truth. Both groups espouse politics that become equally zero-sum and exclusionary. The boundaries of our echo chamber are clear. In this current climate we are less likely to hear one another out. This ultimately takes us further away from fixing the serious problems. We have an inability to have substantive and serious debate about fundamentally crucial topics. We have lowered our level of discourse. Our next step is not clear.

To be clear, it is wonderful to live at a time when there are real and clear consequences for bad actions, we desperately need accountability. We need to continue our long march to living in a just and fair society. In the case of Chinese professor, too much is lost in translation. Have we gone too far? How might we fix this?

I was thinking about this issue this week when reading the haftorah, which is taken from the book of Jeremiah. There we read :

Just as I would not cancel My covenant with the day and night and I would not cancel the laws of heaven and earth, so too I will not cast away the descendants of Jacob . . . for I will return their captivity [to their land] and have mercy on them.(Jeremiah 33:25-26)

It concludes with words of reassurance that God’s relationship with the Jewish people is as implacable as God’s commitment to the natural order of time and law’s of nature. In Jeremiah we see that there are consequences for our behavior, namely captivity, but God is not into this cancel culture either. For us to return to a higher level of discourse we must follow God’s example. We cannot allow ourselves to be held captive by extremes. We must be open to listening to each other in good faith without just canceling them. We need to be clear when people hurt us, be open to change, have mercy for people doing their best, and most importantly rebuild trust. A world without accountability and a belief in and practice of teshuva is one that will remain broken. As sure as the passing of day and night and laws of heaven and earth, we need to find a way to return.

Ultimate Freedom

In parshat Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we read a whole litany of rules dealing with slavery. For a group of people who had just been liberated from bondage it is hard to imagine that there would be any sanction for this behavior. How could we ever put a price on another human being? And if we are looking to make Torah relevant today the idea of slavery seems even more absurd. In our age, a time in which we are hell-bent on the idea of personal autonomy and individuality, the idea of owning another person seems totally absurd.

In his Sh”ut Memaamikeem, Responsa of the Holocaust, Rabbi Efrayim Oshry deals with a very interesting question (III: 6). How can a Jew who is subjugated to forced labor in the ghetto say the morning blessing thanking God for not making him/her a slave? Rabbi Oshry responded that despite the fact that the person was actually enslaved physically, according to the Avudraham, the original idea behind the blessing was that we should thank God for not making us spiritual slaves to idolatry. The Torah’s ideal is to be free. Freedom in the Torah is not independence, rather it is recognition of ultimate dependence. Relying on anything other than God would be idolatrous. Rabbi Oshry encouraged the person to continue to say the blessing as testimony of real freedom. In saying the blessing, the slave became liberated.

In our lives it is hard to imagine that we are physically enslaved. But, with so many things making a claim on our time, it is hard to imagine that we are truly the masters of our own time. While we abhor slavery, it seems that we have actually put a price on our own persons.  What are we working for? Are we  selling ourselves short? So stay up late, make more time in your life,  and talk about these questions with people you respect. Who knows? You might even find these conversations redeeming.


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