March 29, 2023 -
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 Anshe Chesed Temple Youth (ACTY) Service on Kol Nidre, 2020.
Growing up, I loved immersing myself in the world of Harry Potter. I quickly identified with Hermione Granger: her unflappability, her love of reading, and her rigid rule following all felt familiar to my own way of being. As the books were released, I would wait with anticipation, ready to mentally wander the halls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It happens that the books were released as I was right around the same age as the main characters, and it felt like we all grew up together. I remember when the final book of the series was published, I drove to my local bookshop, bedecked in my Gryffindor t-shirt, picked up my advance order copy at midnight when it was released, drove home, and stayed up all night reading. I didn’t fall asleep until I had finished devouring the book. Then, in the late morning, I woke up and started it over again, so eager to soak in every detail of this book that marked not only the end of the series, but a new chapter in my life. In July of 2007 when the book came out, Harry, Ron, and Hermione had all graduated from Hogwarts, and I had just graduated high school a few weeks earlier.
My love of the books was paralleled by my love of the movie series, the theme park in Orlando, and the audiobooks. I have been, for most of my life at this point, a giant fan of Harry Potter. It’s become a part of my identity as an adult. I even have a tiny time-turner keychain, like the one Hermione uses in the third book of the series, hanging in my office as a reminder that I am only one person and that I, unlike Hermione, can only be in one place at a time.
Until recently, I also generally felt like a fan of the creator of this impactful series, JK Rowling. After all, she had formed the wizarding world into a place in which my imagination felt at home. Of course, being a Harry Potter fan is only one part of my identity. And recently, it has come into tension with another piece of who I am. I consider myself to be an LGBTQ Ally. And so, these past several months have been fraught with tension, even from my privileged place as a cisgender woman.
JK Rowling has become an outspoken trans exclusionary radical feminist, and I find her view of trans folks to be antithetical to my own values. You see, Rowling does not consider trans women to be women, nor trans men to be men. I disagree wholeheartedly. She has used her sizable platform, including Twitter, where she has some 14.3 million followers, to share transphobic and hateful messages. I believe that trans rights are human rights, that trans women are women, and that trans men are men.
In the year 2020, there are so many people with celebrity status that we have more access to than ever before. With social media, we can take in and respond to so many modes of communication: videos on TikTok, pictures on Instagram, statements on Twitter. It’s hard to imagine any previous generation having such access to people who are famous. And with that access comes knowing celebrities in different ways: learning their political leanings, their charitable givings, and, of course, their misdeeds. After all, people who are famous are just that: people.
So what are we supposed to do when someone we have admired and respected comes out with a statement that goes against the core of who we are? What happens when we find out one of our heroes has done something terrible, something seemingly unforgivable?
This is what, in the America of 2020, we might call cancel culture. Without diving into the debate of whether you can separate an artist or creator from her or his art, we have the option of saying something like, “JK Rowling is cancelled.” We can stop reading her books, watching her movies, buying her merchandise. We can unfollow her on social media, and cut her off, so to speak. She probably won’t notice. But it could make us feel better.
So, what is it to be cancelled? To 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.
Cancel culture is such a fascinating beast, especially because it isn’t just celebrities that can be cancelled. We cancel people in our lives all the time, sometimes without even thinking about cutting someone out. And cancelling someone sometimes does have its merits! When there’s abuse or trauma, cutting someone out of our lives can sometimes be the healthiest for our mental wellbeing.
But at this season, these aseret yamei tshuvah, these ten days of repentance, I find myself thinking about what it means to cancel people. What does our tradition teach us about cancel culture?
We read in the very beginning of our Torah as God creates the world by speaking existence into being. In the newness of the universe, God creates all living beings, including the immediately flawed human beings. Adam and Eve disobey God’s rules in the Garden of Eden. Cain and Abel show us the first example of sibling rivalry, which leads quickly to Cain killing Abel. The lengthy generations come and go. Finally, God reflects on all that has come to pass. In Genesis 6:5-8 Gen. 6:5 The Lord 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 the Lord regretted that God had made man on earth, and God’s heart was saddened. Gen. 6:7 The Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.” Gen. 6:8 But Noah found favor with the Lord.
This, of course, is how we get to meet Noah. We’re told he was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. This is also, it seems, the moment when God cancels creation.
What follows is the story that many of us have known since childhood. A great flood is coming, so Noah and his family build an ark and bring pairs of animals on board. It is through Noah’s family that humanity will continue to the next generation. Though we teach the pediatric version of this story to our children, who love animals, it’s actually a dreadful story. 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.
The flood was not God’s first plan. It’s God’s plan b. With humanity failing God’s expectations, God wants to start over. Rather than actually start anew, God chooses Noah to continue on. But even Noah is flawed. Noah might have been blameless in his generation, but it seems that was all relative. And so it goes: more generations rise and fall. Humans make mistakes. In this biblical story, cancelling humanity actually doesn’t solve all of God’s problems. Humans continue to be flawed and imperfect.
When God tells Noah to build the ark and prepare the pairs of animals, God is preparing to cancel the rest of humanity, and start over. When we cancel someone, a celebrity or someone we know more closely, we don’t necessarily have a grand plan. We just know that something has gone terribly wrong in our relationship with that person.
There is a real dark side to cancel culture. Let’s return to our example of JK Rowling. If we are to cancel her, so to speak, and stop spending money on anything Harry Potter related, and unfollow her on twitter, any one of us would be the tiniest, least noticeable blip we could imagine. But we might feel better by simply disassociating ourselves. When it comes to a loved one, or a colleague, someone we know more closely, cancel culture can leave us feeling initially righteous. But simply cutting someone out of our life can eventually lead us to feel unfulfilled. You see, the wisdom of the Jewish tradition around the High Holy Days is that repentance and forgiveness take two parties: the person who has done wrong, and the one who is wronged. When we cut people out of our lives without doing the work of repentance and repair, we can cheat ourselves of the meaningful process of connection built into the design of our tradition. This does not mean we forgive everyone for everything right away. There are, of course, boundaries to how forgiving we must be. We know that trauma and abuse are real, and that the process of forgiveness in those cases may be vastly different than in other situations.
Imagine how different it would feel if we could engage in real dialogue with the ones who have hurt us. To offer our side of the story in a genuine, unreactive way. To allow the cultivation of empathy in conversation. Repentance is meant to be a restorative process: it doesn’t mean that wrongs haven’t been committed, but it allows people the chance to right those wrongs. Sometimes we are the ones who have been wronged, and we have the opportunity to forgive. And just as often, we are the ones who have done wrong, and we have the opportunity to seek forgiveness. This Yom Kippur, I am thinking about all of those moments when I have knowingly or unknowingly crossed the line with someone else; times for which I may have harmed someone or even times when I have been cancelled. Reflecting on those moments is a humbling thing. I can only hope to be greeted by the ones I’ve wronged with the same graciousness I strive to offer others when they approach me for forgiveness.
These 10 days of repentance bring us to our emotional knees. We stand, vulnerable, before our loved ones and God. And this year, I encourage each one of us to consider the ways we have been wronged, and work towards forgiveness. And then, I want each one of us to face ourselves and our actions, and explore how we’ve hurt others. Are there friendships that have faded over these last months? Is that because of the natural lifespan of the friendship, or because you’ve been cancelled? As we engage in the process of repentance and forgiveness, how can we best grow this coming year? How can we learn from our mistakes and cultivate healthier relationships with ourselves and others in the year ahead?
I think back to my time turner keychain. To anyone who finds it, it looks like a little trinket, nothing too significant. But when I look at that little trinket, I see a symbol. It signifies my fanship of the Harry Potter franchise, sure, but it also reminds me that times change. Relationships change. Viewpoints that we may have tolerated become unacceptable. We move forward, we grow and learn from all of our experiences. That means that sometimes the folks we look up to, whether in our own personal lives or those who are celebrities, might disappoint us. We might even choose to disengage from them. But that doesn’t mean we can erase their impact from our lives. I look to that little time-turner as a reminder that I evolve as a person, and that everyone else does, too, just not always at the same rate. As time passes, I might become more ready to apologize or to forgive. That process of repentance and forgiveness is a holy one, and a worthwhile one. Wherever you find yourself on that journey at this season, I pray it be a meaningful journey, one full of reflection and growth. Ken yehi ratzon–may this be God’s will.
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