Before sunrise, a group sneaks into the center of a Baltimore park and begins defacing the large statue of George Washington featured in the center. Minutes later they have already fled the scene, but not before tagging the memorial with slogans such as “Destroy Racists” in bright red paint.
Subjecting historical figures to ideological purity tests is nothing new nor is its motivation difficult to understand. In other words, the urge to want to cancel figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson is completely understandable.
Within classical American mythology, these figures are elevated to represent nearly flawless exemplars of our societal values. When we realize that they, too, were both flawed humans and products of their time, the cognitive dissonance of American heroes falling short of contemporary ideals may be too much for some to handle.
But this phenomenon, a part of what many are calling “cancel culture,” sheds more light on the present than the past. Rather than fully place the blame on a younger generation, we need to look inward at how we may have, with good intentions, helped spark this effect. And this conversation begins with how we teach history.
Are we, as a society, presenting a highly sanitized version of history devoid of nuance? A version that may predispose students to think in rigid categories of “good” and “bad”—ultimately setting them up for distress and rejection when they learn that many of the “good” people and things in history were much grayer? My own experience as a student and educator of both Judaism and Israel, along with the story of much of the polling data of how young Jews feel, answer a decisive yes.
Take, for instance, the growing phenomenon of young Jews rejecting Israel and Zionism when they find out that it isn’t always the fairy tale they were taught in Hebrew school or summer camp.
Predisposed to highly binary thinking about the topic, they may very well pull a 180 from Israel = good, to Israel = bad. This phenomenon, one that is both well documented and rising, may perhaps be eradicated if students are taught with honesty and nuance from the outset. It’s much more difficult to go from nuance to rigid categories than to go from “rigid category 1” to “rigid category 2.”
Cancel culture, in other words, begins long before a group of university students begin writing off George Washington as an old white racist man whose name deserves to be tarnished. It begins when they are taught a highly edited and cleaned up version of Washington, only to be set up for disappointment as they inevitably discover later that the truth is always more complicated.
Cancel culture truly starts when we cancel difficult, inconvenient and balanced versions of the past, opting instead for overly simplistic narratives.
A few years ago, American Jewish scholar Marc Shapiro illuminated how this phenomenon functions within the Orthodox world with his book “Changing the Immutable,’’ in which he delineates how the Orthodox movement “edits’’ its own history to conform to current communal standards.
He gave the example of a photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in his student days at the University of Berlin. A photo of him without a head covering—something that was commonplace for Western European religious Jews at the time—was Photoshopped to include a big black kippah whenever the photo appeared in Chabad media.
Another example appears in a book published by the Orthodox Feldheim publisher about Bais Yaakov, an Orthodox educational movement for young women. In a string of pictures from the mid-20th century, the editor doctored many of the images to conform to increased modesty standards. Thus necklines were raised and sleeves grew, as if to say “Things have always been like this!”
One can imagine a future student of these movements, upon discovering the edited photos, putting forth an argument to cancel those involved. And it goes without saying that such a highly doctored view of the past, tailor fit to ideological purity, only causes students to demand ideological purity from their contemporaries.
Yet no one, past or present, is wholly ideologically pure.
Interestingly enough, this is a debate that we can parse out from Jewish tradition. On the one side we have the sanitizers of history – those who are fearful of the prospect of an honest history, opting instead for neatly edited versions of the past. “All who say that King David sinned are mistaken” (Shabbat 56a), a voice in the Talmud opines. Never mind the fact that entire chapters in the Hebrew Bible are devoted to David’s adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, his plot to have her husband killed, and the subsequent reprimanding he receives from Natan the prophet.
The desire of some to portray King David (along with other biblical heroes) as perfect, untainted beings is certainly understandable, yet one can easily see how it sets up future generations for failure.
A much more honest and refreshing view of history is put forth in another Talmudic narrative about Rav Ashi who, in a dream, goes back in time and encounters the wicked king Menashe. Menashe, the 7th century BCE Judean king who was notorious for his spreading of idolatry among the Jewish population, is asked by Rav Ashi why he allowed and encouraged the proliferation of the abhorrent acts of idolatry. King Menashe responded by saying “If you were there, you would have lifted your robe and sped after me” (Sanhedrin 102b).
It was a different time, King Menashe says, where idolatry was ubiquitous and the norm. Importantly, this narrative doesn’t defend the morality of these actions; rather it elucidates that standards change and progress and judging historical figures by contemporary standards is fundamentally flawed. The Talmud doesn’t want us to emulate Menashe, but it doesn’t want us to cancel him either. It wants us to understand that if we were alive in his time we would probably be worshiping idols right next to him.
In perhaps the first major inflection point of the dystopian novel “1984,” Winston, the protagonist who works as an editor in a governmental records office, suddenly has an epiphany. His job in the aptly named “Ministry of Truth” is to take historical records and ensure that they conform to whatever reflects current governmental policy—even if that means completely changing historical “facts” from one day to the next.
One day Winston has a sudden realization: “Who controls the past, controls the future. … Past events, it is argued, have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories.”
I reject the idea that past events have no objective existence, but we can understand the powerful lesson grasped by Winston regardless. Cancel culture is predicated on an ideology where nuance is rejected and replaced by binary certainly. It is an unrealistic view of both history and humanity.
But the problem cannot be reduced to complaints about a new, younger generation. Rather, it demands that we take a good look at how we talk about the past, with a heavy emphasis on the importance of honesty instead of simplicity.
Rabbi Daniel Levine is the Senior Jewish Educator at OC Hillel, the Rabbinic fellow at Temple Beth Tikvah, and a contributing writer to JLife magazine.