• Rabbi Isaac Roussel

The Cure to Cancel Culture


I had planned a totally different sermon for today. But there was an incident this week that I thought worth sharing with you all.


A while ago I was in a weekly team meeting at work. We were all joking around and talking. The conversation shifted to two folks discussing how silly religion is and made many comments and jokes about it. I left that meeting feeling, what I can only describe as, yucky. It bothered me for a bit and then I put it out of my mind.


Then a couple of weeks ago my boss played a short video for the team about being an ally in the workplace. The video showcased primarily a woman who had climbed high up the corporate ladder only to find her opinions and proposals ignored by the men that she worked with. She described a meeting where she stood to present her proposal to a room full of men and many of them immediately began looking at their phones. They rejected her ideas only to cheer them later when one of the men proposed the same idea. She needed an ally to see what was going on and help her, but none was to be found. My boss asked us to ponder the video and we would discuss later.


It was a good video. The reality is that this happens to people for all kinds of reasons. It might be their gender, race, age, and many other things. I thought of a time that I chose to be an ally and thought that I would share that.


We had our discussion earlier this week. I reminded them that this can take all kinds of forms, less obvious forms than just race, gender, age, sexuallity and so forth. I relayed to them how I chose to be a female co-worker’s ally at a previous job. She was quite introverted and spoke quietly and slowly. I noticed that people would often talk over her in meetings and the frustration on her face. So I made sure that I stopped the conversation and got people to listen to her. I was her ally.


The conversation continued and the “religion” incident suddenly came to mind. I thought, this is another example that is out of the ordinary that I can share with the group. So I did. Well, it now was no longer just theoretical. This had happened with the people in the meeting. A wonderful discussion ensued. I told them that as a person of faith I have experienced this my whole life. Many times I have been in a conversation where people are mocking religion and belittling people of faith, calling them fools and stupid. It also happens a lot on social media. People listened to me, asked questions, and apologized. I left the meeting realizing that it had been incredibly cathartic. I brought it up as an example, but it turned into something more. It is the first time that I have ever talked about this issue. I realized that this has weighed on me over the years more than I realized. And they responded with empathetic listening. I felt heard.


I am still processing this encounter and probably will for a long time. I think that there will be a lot of fruit from it. I”d like to share with you some of my thoughts and insights that I have garnered already.


First, ever since racism hit the forefront of all our awareness this year I have been striving to challenge my own unconscious biases and apathy towards others’ plights. I realized that my rare and relatively mild struggle with anti-religion attitudes is just a small taste of what gender and race minorities experience in spades. I realized that my “yucky” feeling was what many people have to experience on a daily basis. If this is difficult for me, how more so for them! My sympathy moved to empathy. I have a taste of what they go through. I can feel their pain to some small degree. This has spurred me on to become their ally and to be mindful of what I say and how I act.


Second, I told my team in that meeting that one of Judaism’s greatest tenets is responsibility for others. This is heavily emphasized especially in Mussar texts. Our society's emphasis on being considerate of others, especially those who are a minority of the population in some way, is expressing this. Which is ironic because our culture is obsessed with personal rights. As we have discussed before, we have become a highly polarized culture where people blast others with their firmly held beliefs and demean those who disagree with them. We truly do live in a Cancel Culture or what Rabbi David Wolpe called a Culture of Contempt. Yet in the next breath we are encouraging folks to be mindful of others’ feelings and rights. It's quite the dichotomy.


I had a subsequent conversation with one of the team members and he said to me that what he didn't like about the conversation is that there was no room for redemption in our culture. What's a person has been identified as X then they are forever labeled as that. There's no allowance for people to grow and change. I told him that that is indeed correct. What goes hand in hand with this heightened awareness of each other's behavior is also the gift of redemption. I said that religion done well emphasizes both of these points. The problem is that it often fails to do so. And that my goal as a rabbi was to foster these as much as possible.


He said to me that it seems like too lofty of a goal. That I'm expecting myself to be perfect. And he asked me how do you do this without driving yourself crazy? And I replied that's because you also have to have the principle of Grace. We have to have grace on ourselves to understand that while we strive for an ideal we are often going to fail but take comfort and strength in the fact that we do continue to grow and improve. These three factors must constantly be juggled. While being mindful of our own behavior and the behavior of others we also have to be redemptive people and willing to allow others to change, repent and improve. And we also need to offer ourselves and others grace and compassion.


This is why we have a Cancel Culture. We have the lofty standard of mindfulness, which is ultimately an impossible goal, but one worthy of pursuing. But we lack redemption and grace.


Finally, one last point that I’ll make quickly. I have been reminded of the depth and nuance of the Torah. The mitzvah to love our neighbor goes much deeper than what we initially think. Many years ago Rabbi Mark taught that Yeshua’s sermon on the mountain’s main point is that the demands of the Torah go beyond what they seem on the surface. The commandment against murder is ultimately about harbouring hatred and ill will towards others. The commandment against adultery goes beyond the mere act and addresses lust. And so forth. Being mindful of how we treat others and ourselves, is a deeper aspect of “love your neighbor”. This is why we have the Talmud. Our rabbis understood that we have to work out the deeper implications of Torah’s commandments. We have to unpack the p’shat of Torah to get to its drash.


Our Parsha today is titled the life of Sarah and yet it actually focuses on her death. Our tradition does not so much focus on a person's death but to celebrate what they have done with their life. When we say “may their memory be for a blessing”, zichrono or zichronah livracha, we are not just expressing our wish that may we all think of them kindly. But that we celebrate the good things that they did and hope that they will live on in the hearts of minds and people who knew them and whom they influenced throughout their life.


I encourage all of us today to set this as one of our life goals. To be mindful of how we affect others in our words and deeds and to give Grace to those who are also striving in this way and to allow people to experience redemption and love from us.


I am convinced that the only way that we can keep this in the forefront of our minds is by deliberately and intently keeping ourselves nestled next to the bosom of Hashem. To keep our hearts soft we have to stay close enough to Him that our hearts can be softened by his tears as he weeps over the damage that we do to one another in our lives.


The insidious thing about our culture today is that it spills over into all areas of our life not just in areas of religion, politics, or racism. It spills into our daily interpersonal relationships. It is easy for us to fall into the trap of the Cancel Culture and to not be mindful of how we affect others, to not be people of grace, to not be redemptive. We can cancel our family and friends and co-workers when they disagree with us over even minor points and develop attitudes about them and we can cast them into stone and give them no room to become something more than they were. It's easy for us to focus on the bigger issues of race, gender inequality and so forth and to not be mindful of how this spills over into our daily lives in a million little ways. Then we fail to love our neighbor.


Yeshua fully embodied the Torah to the deepest level. He fully lived out Mussar. He lived and died for the sake of others.


May we, like him, be people of mindfulness, grace, and redemption.

May we not miss the opportunities to be like him in the little things of everyday life.

If we do then people will truly be able to say of us, “May their memory be for a blessing”.

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