Cancel culture, leadership and anti-Semitism discussed in virtual dialogue

Rabbi Donniel Hartman at Temple Rodef Shalom in 2019. (Photo by Audrey Rothstein Photography.)

Cancel culture, anti-Semitism and leadership were discussed at a virtual dialogue on Jan. 14.

From Election to Inauguration and Beyond: Jewish Identity and Civic Responsibility” was sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and Shalom Hartman Institute. The featured speakers were Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and Kenneth R. Weinstein, president and CEO of the Hudson Institute.

Here are four takeaways from the hour-long discussion by Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and Kenneth R. Weinstein, president and CEO of the Hudson Institute. :

‘The flaw’s not in the leader. The flaw is in us.’

Hartman said the current state of the United States isn’t the result of a one person or group, but due to the efforts of all people. He said, often people will blame leaders for problems in society as an easy way out, countering that leaders only mirror society and speak in the language that they believe people want to hear.

“I, and all of us, are equally guilty. There isn’t somebody who did this.  This requires a collective effort,” Hartman said of America’s problems. “In democratic societies, leadership is not in Capitol Hill, and it’s not in the White House, and it’s not in the Knesset. Leadership is in the citizen. The citizens are the sovereign. And so I feel that part of the shift and responsibility that we have to internalize is to move away from what that person needs to do to what I need to do.”

Democratic rule

Weinstein told the talmudic story “The Oven of Akhnai.” The tale goes that Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus got into a disagreement with his fellow rabbis over the ritual purity of a new type of oven. Eliezer called forth miracles to prove his position was the correct one, but the other rabbis chose to rely on group consensus instead. Weinstein’s takeaway from the story is that just because someone may be outnumbered doesn’t mean they’re not right.

“Even being outnumbered in a rabbinic democracy doesn’t mean that we’re wrong,” Weinstein said. “So I think there really is a lot in our tradition we can draw on that enlightens us as to both think about democratic rule and how to treat people.”

Cancel culture

Weinstein said cancel culture, a kind of ostracism or shaming “is killing the free exchange of ideas.”

Weinstein said he applauded the open letter published in Harper’s Magazine last year criticizing cancel culture. The letter was signed by around 150 prominent writers and thinkers. He also argued that cancel culture was unhealthy to people who want to defend the state of Israel, “because we’re often the ones who are the most canceled.”

Pluralism vs. relativism

Hartman said people often confuse pluralism — the coexistence of various groups and ideas — with relativism — the thesis that all points of view are equally valid.

“I’m not looking to find anything positive in neo-Nazis. I’m not looking to find what the positive in an anti-Semite is,” Hartman said. “I’m interested in one thing: protecting myself.  Mindedness is not about turning the other cheek in our tradition. Our tradition says, love your neighbor as yourself. That means that only if you love yourself that you’re committed to love your neighbor. Self-protection is not immoral and it’s not amoral. It’s where morality begins.”

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