Building Bridges Instead of Towers

This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Elle Muhlbaum at the Contemporary Service on Kol Nidre, 2020.


There’s a rabbinic tradition, a midrash, that teaches that whenever two come together to study Torah panim el panim, face to face, the Shechinah, or God’s presence, dwells between them. Being close with others often teaches us about ourselves, and each relationship we have is distinct! We know our siblings differently than our parents know us. We know our partners differently than our friends know us. We know our teachers differently than our students know us. There can be great holiness in each of our relationships. The teaching of the divine presence dwelling among us points to how holy it can be to be close with others.

But, as is so often the case in our tradition, God is complicated. And, as we all know, so are relationships. Complicated, fragile, tenuous, dynamic, and, so often, too easy to take for granted. We let our relationships fade like unwatered houseplants forsaken in dark corners of cluttered rooms.

When I think about the myriad challenges the last six months have brought to our nation, I am struck by how, for so many of us, our social isolation has led us to dive quite deeply into the networks of social media. We are so hungry for social interaction, we overindulge at the buffet of constantly refreshing news feeds and digital time lines, all the while hovering our fingers over that tempting button: unfollow.

It’s easier than ever before to cut people out of our minds, to distance ourselves from people with whom we disagree. We call this cancel culture: the way we willingly and knowingly remove people from our social circles, both real and virtual.

When I think about cancel culture, I think about those interactions I have with the people in my life; those tense conversations that leave me wondering how I exist in the same reality as the person I’m speaking with. Do they not see the world the way I do? Sometimes these moments lead to breaking points, when I make the decision to step back from a friendship, or distance myself from a coworker. These are steps towards cutting someone out of our headspace, of cancelling.

So, what is it to cancel someone? To Dr. Meredith Clark, a professor at the University of Virginia’s department of Media Studies, “it’s ultimately an expression of agency. “To a certain extent: I really do think of it like a breakup and a taking back of one’s power.” Canceling, she said, is an act of withdrawing from someone whose expression — whether political, artistic or otherwise — was once welcome or at least tolerated, but no longer is.[1]

It turns out, there is ample biblical precedent of cancel culture. Shortly after creating humanity, which is immediately flawed, God reflects on the evil that humans have created on earth. In Genesis 6:5-8, we read: Gen. 6:5 God saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. Gen. 6:6 And God regretted that God had made man on earth, and God’s heart was saddened…Gen. 6:8 But Noah found favor with God.

Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation.  This seems to be the moment when God cancels creation.

The story of Noah and the ark isn’t just for children, who love animals. It’s the shadowside to the glorious depiction of creation that we read at the beginning of Torah. It’s a story of ultimate destruction, of mass killing, of regret. With humanity failing God’s expectations, God wants to start over. Noah might have been blameless in his generation, but it seems that was all relative. And so it goes: more generations rise and fall.

Eventually, we reach the story of the tower of Babel. We’re told that everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. Humanity decides to build a tower with its top in the sky. They say “let us build a city, to make a name for ourselves.’ God comes down and sees how people are beginning to act. God says, “let us then go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” God scatters humanity from there over the face of the earth, and they stopped building the city. [2] The tower of Babel is cancelled. Humanity speaking one language? Also cancelled.

Rabbi Amy Schwartzman wonders how this biblical story of a skyscraper might speak to us. I find her teaching to be quite powerful, and so I share part of it with you here. Rabbi Schwartzman wonders: What was so bad about Babel? Could what happened to its inhabitants also happen to us? (Genesis 11:4): “Come,” the people said, “let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the sky… ,” The city and the tower are for us… Then where do the visitors and newcomers who want to move there go? What about the homeless? This is the first mistake the people of Babel make, [Rabbi Schwartzman teaches]. Their actions are completely for themselves. They do not consider the needs of others in their venture.   The final error of the Babel-building project is not found in the story itself but in a midrash. This addition to the Torah text suggests that the people became so focused on the tower that they lost sight of the value of human life. “As the tower grew in height, it took more than a year to get bricks from the base to the top. Thus bricks became more precious than human life. When a brick slipped and fell, the people wept. But when a person fell and died, no one took notice.” Can you imagine living in a place where our work means more to us than our friends and family do? [Where we don’t recognize the hardships our fellow humans are facing?]

Perhaps that is why God came down to Babel at the end of the story to see the tower before destroying it. Perhaps God couldn’t believe that people would be so self-centered and so removed from the divine hope for human kindness and compassion in the world…”[3]

There’s one more biblical piece I want to share here. Amalek was the first foe the Israelites faced after being redeemed from servitude in Egypt. In the book of Deuteronomy, we are told in almost consecutive verses to hold an impossible tension: Deut. 25:17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt— Deut. 25:19 Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

We are supposed to remember the evil actions of Amalek. And, we’re supposed to blot out the memory of Amalek. We have to remember and forget! This tiny passage of Torah speaks exactly to the contradiction we face in cancel culture. Most people change! We learn from our mistakes and failures. We grow from each relationship. We have to carry forward our memories of those failures and mistakes. We have to remember what we’ve learned, and at the same time we have to forget so as to not get stuck in our own past. To release grudges and shame, and grow into the new year.

This passage about Amalek also points us to those expressions of such evil and devastation that are simply unforgivable. There are figures in our Jewish tradition who, if I may be so bold, are cancelled: from biblical villains like Haman to modern destroyers like Hitler, we know that there are those who have sought to demolish our people.  And I think those Jewish precedents are incredibly important, because they remind us that even in a season of repentance and forgiveness, there are things that are not readily forgivable. So yes, while people change and grow, there are those in our world and in our communities who do terrible things. The ten days of awe, our prescribed process for repentance and repair, are not meant to have us offer sweeping reconciliation to those who abuse and traumatize. There are real violations to us as individuals and to us as a people, and we hold those as a process apart from these ten days of repentance.

I’m thinking again about the cancel culture that is becoming so prevalent in our society. As we find it easier to shut out future interactions with challenging people, avoiding speaking with them or engaging with them because we can’t change their minds, I worry about civil discourse. I worry that we’ve turned truth into something subjective. Just as those who helped build the self-centered tower of Babel were scattered throughout the earth, with their speech confused, I worry that we are becoming decreasingly understanding of those around us. I see how we isolate ourselves, creating echo chambers where our own viewpoints reverberate around us. It’s true: there are toxic and abusive people in the world. We must know our own boundaries. But cancelling someone is not something to be done lightly.

In a recently published interview, philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler spoke of cancel culture. She said, “I learn from being confronted and challenged, and I accept that I have made some significant errors in my public life. If someone then said I should not be read or listened to as a result of those errors, well, I would object, since I don’t think any mistake a person made can, or should, summarise that person. We live in time; we err, sometimes seriously; and if we are lucky, we change precisely because of interactions that let us see things differently.”[4]

This is the entire project of these ten days of repentance: to have those conversations with our loved ones wherein we speak our truths, seek forgiveness from those we’ve wronged, and forgive those who have wronged us. To have interactions that let us see things differently. To bring more of God’s presence into the world through sacred connection with other humans, meeting each other panim el panim, vulnerably face to face, even if we have to do it virtually. We carry our misdeeds with us as we move forward and grow from our mistakes.

This High Holy Day season, may we strive to connect with each other, rather than disconnect from those around us. May we grow as human beings because of our willingness to carry our own broken tablets with us as instructive reminders of how to be in our relationships with others. May we fight the urge to cut out those whose perspectives are different from our own. May we work hard to come from a place of curiosity, instead of judgment. May we challenge ourselves to engage, rather than disengage, even when it means admitting how we’ve done wrong. And, finally, let us use our agency to build bridges instead of towers. Ken yehi ratzon: may this be God’s will.

We encourage you to share comments below, or to post the link to this post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or to share with others by email, to continue the conversations it engenders.


[2] Genesis 11:1ff

[3] Rabbi Amy Schwartzman