We’re living in a cancel culture world. That much became clear earlier this year, with the reaction of Russian partisans to the sanctions imposed on their country after its “special operation” in Ukraine. The West’s coordinated actions, they cried in outrage, were nothing short of a “geo-political cancellation.”
Notwithstanding the near-parodic overuse of the term, the debate swirling around it shows little sign of abating. Does it even exist? Has it always existed? What does it mean? Most people would agree that cancellation is a kind of a censure applied to someone who has committed some sort of moral offense. It can be fueled by febrile social media mobs or by thoughtful online activists. It can be triggered by expressing views out of lockstep with prevailing social mores, or by invading neighboring Eastern European countries under ambiguous pretenses. (To be safe, best to avoid both.)
Though they often originate in the cyber world, cancellations can have real world consequences. In an Atlantic essay late last year, historian Anne Appelbaum surveyed the wreckage the trend has wreaked across American campuses and media institutions: firings, withdrawn book deals, canceled speaking engagements, cynical denunciations, and petty acrimony. Strains of this phenomenon, Appelbaum argues, can be traced back to America’s puritanical past. The conformity, censoriousness, and pious zeal of the New Puritans, as she calls them, hearken back to the harsh world of seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay Colony, as evoked in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
The moral landscape of this new-old culture, like that of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, is stark and unforgiving, with an angry red line drawn between good folk and wrong-thinking heretics. Once found in violation of the prevailing moral code, a person can be shunned, winding up jobless and friendless. Sinners find that, once their reputation has been tarnished, their online record can be harder to remove than any scarlet letter.
In the pages of a religious publication, criticizing cancellation in this way might seem odd, even hypocritical. What is the practice of cherem — excommunication — if not cancellation? As educator and podcaster Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin has put it, canceling is simply “a function of community.” If the Jewish community is going to uphold a distinct set of values, norms, and traditions, it must at times enforce some kind of exclusion.
A Jewish critique of cancel culture, therefore, might not object to the practice per se. A culture of accountability, as some defenders like to describe it, is surely a good thing. More troubling are the motives that presuppose a cancellation, and what happens — or fails to happen — afterwards.
Ideally, the point of holding someone accountable is to inspire repair: we hope that they will make amends for their mistake and behave better in the future. This is where cancellation misses the mark. The word itself carries a permanence, a finality, an irreversibility. Once ejected from their social group, it is unclear by what mechanism a “cancellee” can come back, if they can come back at all.
To return to a previous example, if the point of sanctioning Russia is ending the conflict in Ukraine, there has to be some clear process by which the sanctions can be lifted. In Judaism, there is always such a mechanism for return; it is called teshuvah. “For You do not wish for the death of the [wicked],” we intone in the High Holiday prayers, “but for him to return from his way, and live.” A cherem may be harsh, but it can always be lifted.
So how can we account for a culture that would rather ruin a person than see them make amends? Actually, it’s quite simple. The vindictive style of cancellation emerges from a sense that our political or cultural opponents are our mortal enemies. Of course you would indulge a friend or an ally’s mistake, but once a person is identified as an enemy, the slightest misstep or misunderstanding is an excuse to pounce. It’s always open season on the Other.
This kind of thinking is anathema to a teshuvah culture. One of the extraordinary things about the Torah is the way it never attempts to airbrush any blemishes out of our history. The lowest moments of our people and of its leaders are there for all to see — but so are the stories of how they endured, recovered, and eventually returned. So, if even our greatest heroes had to perform teshuvah, then we can never indulge the delusion that errors are for other people. In the Torah, we discover time and again that there is no person, no matter how righteous, who has no need for teshuvah. And that there is no person, no matter how wicked, who can be denied it.
The fact that apologies aren’t enough to reverse cancellations doesn’t seem to stop anyone from trying. In fact, thanks to a few enterprising folks, saying sorry has become a cottage industry: ApologyLetters.Net has no less than 454 letter templates available for download, with titles ranging from the topical Sorry For Exposing to Virus to the useful Apology For Something You Don’t Remember, and the intriguingly specific Apology Letter For Bad Job House Sitting. At time of publication, it was unclear whether Apology Letter Yom Kippur Bad Behavior is for saying sorry ahead of Yom Kippur, or for some misdeed committed on the Day of Atonement itself.
Of course, once posted on a penitent’s Instagram page or the like, such apology notes are quickly picked for signs of insufficient regret or failure to take responsibility. They are seen as insincere, as just another self-serving attempt to save face. Sometimes, of course, that is exactly what they are (a fact borne out by such template offerings as Apology When Done Nothing Wrong and Non-Apology Apology), but even when they are sincere, they don’t seem to accomplish much. So is saying sorry pointless?
Far from it. In the framework of teshuvah, admission and acknowledgment of one’s sins is critical. To see the power of an apology in action, we go to that master of repentance—the man who, in the words of the Talmud, “established the yoke of teshuvah”: King David.
David’s rise, from his origins as a young shepherd boy to his reign as the king of Israel, is nothing short of breathtaking. Once anointed by the prophet Samuel, he quickly proves himself to be worthy of the throne with his battlefield heroics, loyalty, restraint, wisdom, and extraordinary spiritual gifts. But once there, his meteoric journey slows, takes a turn, and then threatens to plummet back to the earth. David becomes intimately entangled with Batsheba, a woman already linked to an officer in his army named Uriah, and then has her erstwhile husband killed.
For a time, the full story of David and Batsheba’s relationship is swept under the rug, but Divine Providence has other plans. G-d sends the prophet Nathan to confront David and hold him to account, which Nathan does with the greatest of tact. Nathan cleverly dresses up the sordid affair in the guise of a parable, which he then presents as a real-life crime for the king to adjudicate:
There were two men in one city: the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceedingly many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and reared; and it grew up together with him, and with his children. . . .
And there came a traveler unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to prepare a meal for the wayfaring man that had come to him. Instead, he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared it for the man who had come to him. (I Samuel 12:1-4)
David is outraged by the obvious greed and depredation of the “rich man” and demands that he be punished, which is when the prophet goes in for the big reveal, his voice thundering with righteous fury: “You are that man! . . .Uriah the Hittite you have smitten with the sword, and his wife you have taken to be your wife.”
At this moment, everything comes crashing down for David. The righteous king, servant of G-d, and savior of the Jewish people has been laid low and stripped bare. Of course, we know what often happens when people — and especially powerful people — are confronted with their crimes. They try to deny, obfuscate, justify, shift the blame, quash the accusations. And had Nathan tried this with any other king in the ancient Near East, he would have been lucky to leave with his head. All of which makes David’s actual reaction so astonishing.
King David owns up to his actions, and confesses: “I have sinned against Hashem,” he says. Quietly, bluntly, these simple words land like hammer blows, in the way that only simple words can.
The commentators wonder why G-d lets David stay on the throne after this affair. He is punished in other ways, but he does keep his crown. How come?
In his Sefer HaIkkarim, the fifteenth-century philosopher Rabbi Yosef Albo points to Psalm 51, the searing confessional King David composed in the wake of Nathan’s visit. In this extraordinary psalm, we are witness to David’s teshuvah from the inside, and to his gut-wrenching confrontation with his own actions, and their consequences: “Wash me thoroughly of my iniquity, and purify me of my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.”
According to Albo, with David’s refusal to deny or run away from his actions, he is fulfilling what Albo terms the “first condition” of teshuvah: “He doesn’t make excuses for his sin, and say that he did not sin; (rather) he constantly thinks of it.”
Words are cheap. Anybody can download an apology letter, it’s true. But there’s still a lot to be said for saying sorry. There is a reason that confessing one’s sins is actually considered to be one of the 613 mitzvahs, and why, on Yom Kippur, we spend so much time reciting the confessional Al Cheit prayers. When we wrong another person, and wish to make amends or to repair any pain caused, the first step has to be a full and open acknowledgment.
Doing the Work
But of course, teshuvah cannot end there. In Judaism, confession is a necessary part of repentance, but it is not sufficient for it, especially if the misdeed has been committed against another person.
With the approach of Yom Kippur, this point is especially salient. “Yom Kippur atones for transgressions committed by a human against G-d,” rules the Mishnah. However, “transgressions committed by a human against a human, Yom Kippur does not atone for — until [the transgressor] has appeased his fellow.” Scrubbing out the stain of sin can be hard work. It means going up to the person you have wronged, apologizing and making amends, paying restitution, returning whatever was stolen, repairing whatever was broken.
This emphasis on action — as opposed to thoughts and prayers alone — is highlighted best by one of King David’s forebears, much earlier in the Torah: Judah, the son of Jacob.
These two great and holy biblical figures share much in common. Like David, Judah had a natural capacity for leadership and bold initiative; he also found himself implicated in a number of compromising situations, first with his ex-daughter-in-law Tamar, and then in the sale of his brother Joseph.
And like David, Judah also readily acknowledged his role in both affairs, embarrassing though they may have been. Today, the Selichot prayers—recited in the run-up to Rosh Hashanah—recall the searching admission of guilt that Judah offered to Joseph: What shall we say? What shall we speak? How can we justify ourselves?
Still, given his record, one might well wonder why Judah was ever considered a worthy leader of his brothers, and why his tribe became the seat of the Jewish monarchy. Surely there were other good candidates for the job among the twelve brothers, like the eldest brother, Reuben. After all, it was Judah who first thought to sell Joseph into slavery, and it was Reuben whod planned on rescuing Joseph from that pit as soon as he could.
In Genesis 37:26, Judah suggested that he and his brothers would profit from selling Joseph:
Then Judah said to his brothers, “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites . . .…”
Meanwhile, the Midrash informs us that Reuben had every intention of saving Joseph. It was only because he happened to be caught up in his daily regimen of prayer and fasting at the time of the sale that, tragically he, never had the chance.
In a penetrating talk analyzing these two figures, the Rebbe once gave a fascinating account of what it was that set Judah apart from the rest of his brothers. Where we find Reuben praying and fasting, Judah is actually the one who ends up saving Joseph. Leaving aside his dubious intentions, he got the job done, pulling his brother out of the pit so that Joseph could at least live another day. Given these stakes, wallowing in his own guilt, beating his chest, or penning flowery apology notes would have been a disastrous act of self-absorption; Judah recognized that this wasn’t about him.
In both the Tamar and Joseph stories, Judah does not settle for lamenting his mistakes, with praying, fasting, or just generally feeling bad for himself — he takes the actions that are necessary to make amends.
Holding a Space for Teshuvah
Skipping down the dynastic line from Judah, thirteen generations past King David, we encounter King Menashe.
Quite possibly the worst leader in Jewish history, a man of almost comically evil proportions, even mentioning Menashe’s name in the same sentence as the righteous King David seems sacrilegious. In a skit from Israel’s deeply irreverent HaYehudim Ba’im, Menashe is depicted as a politician on the campaign trail in Ancient Israel who literally pokes out the eyes of his constituents and, when presented with a baby to hold, hurls it over his shoulder. (His campaign jingle: He’s corrupt, violent and is destroying the country / The king is awful and terrible / Menashe!) For a change, the satirists were being rather tame. This is how the long litany of crimes attributed to Menashe begins:
And he did that which was evil in the sight of HaShem, after the abominations of the nations, whom HaShem cast out before the children of Israel. (II Kings 21:2)
Menashe is then depicted building idolatrous “high places” and altars, even placing one in the Holy Temple. We learn that he “made his son to pass through fire” and practiced soothsaying, necromancy, and divination. He “shed very much innocent blood, until he filled Jerusalem from one end to the other,” and, according to the Sages, killed the prophet Isaiah. So how does he belong anywhere near a conversation about teshuvah?
The Book of Kings doesn’t mention anything about Menashe repenting, but it turns out that there is a second account of his exploits, much later on in Tanach. The Book of Chronicles contains a very similar synopsis of Menashe’s life — at first. Then the story takes a turn, when G-d holds Menashe to account. Hashem sends a foreign army to invade and take Menashe captive:
The Lord brought upon them the captains of the host of the king of Assyria, which took Menashe among the thorns, bound him with fetters, and carried him to Babylon.
And when he was in affliction, he besought the Lord his G-d, and humbled himself greatly before the G-d of his fathers, and prayed unto Him: and [G-d]… heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Menashe knew that the Lord was G-d. (II Chronicles 33:11-13)
It turns out that Menashe did perform teshuvah! It is odd, then, that this fact is only mentioned in the Writings, in Chronicles II, but not in the earlier account. It suggests, perhaps, that his teshuvah was not entirely complete, or not fully deserved.
Indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud fills in the details on the somewhat mysterious story of Menashe’s late-stage return to the faith. According to the Talmud, after capturing the Jewish king, the Assyrians tortured him, and were about to kill him as well. It was at this point, in keeping with that old saw about atheists in foxholes, that Menashe found religion. Not his own religion, mind you. First he began praying to any old god that came to mind, pleading with them to come to his aid. Only when all else failed did he recall the verse he once learned with his father as a young boy: “When you are distressed, and all these things happen upon you in the end of days, then you will return to the Lord your G-d and obey Him” (Deuteronomy 4:30). At last, Menashe was ready to come back.
But should he have been able to? Did a man with such a past deserve to turn a new leaf? The heavenly ministering angels let out a howl of protest at the thought:
The angels on duty closed all the windows so that Menashe prayer could not ascend before the Holy One, praise to Him. The angels on duty said to the Holy One, praise to Him: “Master of the Universe, would You receive in repentance a man who worshiped other powers and put up an idol in the Temple Hall?”
He told them, “If I would not receive his repentance, I would close the door to all repenting sinners.”
What did the Holy One, praise to Him, do for Menashe? He dug out a tunnel under His Seat of Glory and accepted his supplication. (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 10:2)
At the very last moment, Menashe’s teshuvah was accepted. He was miraculously whisked back to Jerusalem to complete the rest of his reign.
The discrepancies between the two accounts of Menashe’s life suggest to us that his teshuvah left something to be desired: it was performed under duress and accepted through a back channel. But it was something, and that’s all we need to hear. “If I would not receive his repentance,” says G-d, as paraphrased in the Talmud, “I would close the door to all repenting sinners.” Since Menashe’s repentance was received, that door was flung wide open.
If even Menashe, after everything, was able to come back in some way, then so can we. The path of teshuvah may be long and steep, and maybe it never ends, but it is open to all. This is its key point of contrast against the notion of a permanent cancellation. Perhaps, when writing of the transformative power of return, Maimonides (Laws of Teshuvah, 7:6) captured it best: “Previously, this person was hated by G-d, disgusting, far removed, and abominable [read: canceled]. Now, he is beloved and desirable, close, and dear.”
Astute observers have noted that, in our modern, secularized age, having lost the language of sin and repentance, we have forgotten how to forgive. Relearning the mechanisms of teshuvah, through these stories and others, can be a way to strengthen our belief in the power of that process — for ourselves and for others.
But there is more than that. Unlike forgiveness or repentance, teshuvah is not just about atoning for transgressions. The reason it is universal is not simply because all people make mistakes. Teshuvah is also for the truly righteous, for those who have never sinned. That is because teshuvah is really a process of perpetual return, of continual self-improvement, and of continuing aspiration that goes on long after one has made amends. No sinner is denied it, and no saint is spared of its demands.