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  • Andres Spokoiny

To Confront Cancel Culture on Left and Right, Take a Page from the Talmud (Tisha Be'av 5780)

The Talmud, the Jewish people’s greatest work of collective genius, is the direct consequence of the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple that we commemorate on Tisha Be’av.

When the surviving, shell-shocked Jewish sages recreated the Sanhedrin in the aftermath of the disaster, they reflected on what had brought that unspeakable destruction upon the Jewish people. They realized that the Temple’s destruction, wasn’t a discrete event in time; but the culmination of a process of Jewish infighting.

For close to 100 years, Jews had been divided in sects; Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and others. Vitriol between sects was commonplace, and violence emerged regularly; in fact, during the reign of the Hasmonean King Alexander Yannai, a full-fledged civil war was fought between Sadducees and Pharisees.

Moreover, internal divisions had been the direct cause of the loss Jewish sovereignty over Israel. The two sons of Yannai, who represented different factions, started a bitter fight for the throne, and both had the brilliant idea of calling the Roman general, Pompei Magnus, to intervene in their favor. Intervene he did, determining that Jews couldn’t rule themselves and instead putting the country under Roman suzerainty. The Roman occupation didn’t end Jewish sectarian violence, which was verbal at first and physical later, because extreme words invariably lead, sooner or later, to murder.

Finally, in 66 CE, the “zealots,” a populist extremist religious party launched the “big rebellion,” which wasn’t just a revolt against Roman rule, but mostly a civil war, in which extremist Jews fought and killed one another. The historian Josephus talks about Jews “locked in perpetual slaughter of each other,” each faction trying to be more extreme than the other. In the meantime, Rome closed in on Jerusalem. The outcome was the only one possible: Jerusalem fell, and the temple burned.

Horrified by the intolerance that had brought about the destruction, the rabbis then set out to rebuild Judaism on a different foundation: a culture of pluralism and respectful dissent. It was going to be the exact opposite of the intolerance that had led to the loss of the commonwealth.

Although many of the Sanhedrin leaders had belonged to the different sects, they ceased referring to each other as Pharisees or Sadducees, but as “rabbis.” Recognizing that the Jewish people included many views and opinions, they consciously determined that nobody in particular would have “the truth”; rather, Talmudic discussions would be a never-ending process of getting a step closer to truth but never achieving it.

Thus, the Talmud grew as a stylized collection of debates and arguments among sages, in which respect for the adversary was a central value. But how did the Talmud not become a free-for-all? How did the rabbis prevent outlandish opinions from reaching its pages?

The method did it for them. The genius of the Talmud was not to judge the validity of people’s opinions but the method by which they were attained. In other words, as long as one follows the right way of analyzing texts and extracting interpretations (for example, using biblical precedent and earlier rabbinical opinions), the resulting opinion was considered worthy of discussion.

When decisions had to be made, like in matters of Halacha (Jewish law), they were based on a majority vote and – critical detail – the minority opinion was always recorded, and in some cases, could be used a precedent in future discussions. In sum, sectarian exclusiveness was replaced by rabbinic pluralism

In that way, as Yehuda Kurtzer recently wrote in Tablet citing Shaye Cohen, the Talmud represents the “domestication of Jewish disagreement,” transforming it from a source of violence to a fountain of richness. The winning combo of freedom of thought on one hand and respect of standards and methods on the other, gave Judaism a culture of tolerant debate and healthy dissent. Paradoxically, the adherence to a shared hermeneutic method gave the Jewish people great cohesion, for it instilled in every Jew a conceptual language in which to discuss and debate; at the same time, the doctrinal openness gave us the possibility of being resilient and adapting to changing times.

To be sure, the Talmud contains examples of people being chastised and even excommunicated, but there’s a crucial detail: Barring extreme cases, like denying the existence of God, those excommunicated were done so not for their opinions but for their failure to respect the standards and the method of debate. Rabbi Eliezer, for example, is excommunicated for not respecting the majority rule, and the great Rabban Gamliel, leader of the Sanhedrin, is deposed for trying to impose his own opinion upon the sages. God Himself is not exempt from respecting the method and the parameters of the debate (see Baba Metzia 59b).

This is particularly poignant today, when we try to find our bearings between a toxic porridge of dogmatism, echo chambers and cancel culture on both the political left and right. Today, opinions are judged or silenced, never debated. Self-appointed inquisitors determine the limits of acceptable discussions; Twitter mobs terrify people into silence and lives are destroyed for any little violation of the dogma.

Simultaneously, however, the excuse of “free speech” is being used to justify the spreading of hate, racism, lies and conspiracy theories. And of course, those who demand “free speech” most vociferously are often the first to call for the “cancellation” of others. So how do we solve this conundrum? On the one hand, we want free speech, but that important value has become a fig leaf for defamation and incitement to violence; on the other, the cancel culture is constantly making honest debate impossible.

Could the Talmud offer us a way out? The idea of the Talmud is simple: any opinion is valid, but it has to be substantiated with the same “standard of proof”; it has to acknowledge and respect dissent and it has to be submitted to a “peer review” process.

If we used this principle, much of the extreme discourse of today would be unacceptable, not because it’s intrinsically abhorrent, but because it’s based purely on hatred and demonizing the opponent. In other words, our community would be saying that you can say whatever you want, but to say it in “our home,” you need to live up to certain standards: You can’t demonize others, you can’t throw accusations without proof, you need to ground your positions following certain standards, and you must acknowledge and document the existence of other views. And, of course, if you rile against the “cancel culture,” you can’t be a “canceller” yourself.

In other words, it’s not that agitator Richard Spencer or other white supremacists, don’t belong in academia because their views are abhorrent, although they are, but because they violate every step of the scientific method. It’s not just that those who demonize Israel are vicious, although they are, but that they base their ideology on the idea that Jews are not indigenous to Israel, and that claim meets no standard of historical proof whatsoever.

Maybe solving the problems of the cancel culture on America’s left and right is beyond us, but can we at least try to model civil discourse inside the Jewish community? The level of viciousness in our internal debate may well be worse than in the secular society; we have a rich cancel culture of our own and, in fact, we have organizations whose sole purpose seems to be policing the opinions of others, groups whose sole legitimacy derives from their prosecutorial zeal, individuals who complain about being silenced yet show no qualms in canceling those who don’t live up to their arbitrary dogma. The ability to cancel others grants power many would otherwise lack: organizations with only a handful of members that would otherwise be irrelevant, manage to terrorize others into silence; three guys with a computer can ruin lives and poison a community.

A Talmudic approach to debate and dissent could solve all that. Unhinged arguments would fall of their own incapacity to be substantiated, demonizing others would be off-limits and the community could be united, not in its opinions, which would be incredibly diverse, but in its adherence to norms of civil discourse and standards of debate.

Maybe this day of Tisha Be’av in which we mourn the destruction of our sovereignty, and breathe the rarified airs of the pandemic, can be the day in which we hit the “reset button” of our internal dialogue, much like the rabbis did 2,000 years ago. Maybe today we can start working together on creating standards of debate that guarantee both freedom and respect.

It’ll be a tall order to swim against the current of intolerance that seems to reign these days, but the Jewish people has swum against the current before — in fact, being countercultural is part of our identity. Time to do it again: We need it, and so does the world.


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