Closeup shot of an unrecognisable woman with tape on her mouth that has the word "cancelled" written on it
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Judaism and Cancel Culture

Jewish tradition prizes a multiplicity of voices, but it also considers some ideas too dangerous to circulate freely.

Barring someone from participating in communal life through social ostracism or, in some cases, excommunication — what we today often call cancellation — has a long history in Jewish life. From biblical times until the present day, these tools of social opprobrium have been used to declare certain ideas or people outside communal norms, though they have generally been deployed rarely and typically with the endorsement of recognized communal authorities. While technically someone could suffer this punishment for a range of misdeeds, including some as innocuous as being disrespectful, it has mostly been used to punish those guilty of heresy. 

What Is Cancel Culture?

Cancel culture is the idea that certain actions or ideas are so completely beyond the pale that their purveyors merit exclusion from polite society. The exact parameters of cancellation can vary. Most would agree that efforts to have an offender deplatformed, kicked off of a particular social media site, removed from some position of honor or influence, or even fired from their job qualifies as cancellation. But the term has also been used to refer to attempts to exact a financial price for some perceived cultural transgression, as when advertisers pull their support from a talk show whose host has uttered something inappropriate. Targets of cancel culture can and sometimes do rehabilitate themselves, but as the term itself suggests, cancellation implies an attempt to eliminate offenders and their views from social discourse. 

To defenders of this practice, cancellation is a legitimate mechanism for keeping public debate within certain boundaries. But critics see it as a form of totalitarianism, exacting such a heavy price for deviation that many people will feel compelled to toe the line. Though the phenomenon feels like a distinctly modern one — the term itself only entered the mainstream lexicon in the 2010s and is often fueled by outraged reaction on the internet — the practice of deeming certain ideas, actions or even people beyond the pale is well-established in Jewish tradition. 

When God Canceled Amalek

Arguably the closest correlate to cancel culture in the Torah is God’s command to eliminate the tribe of Amalek. The injunction is specified in Deuteronomy 25:19, which instructs the Israelites to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” The Hebrew word for blot out — timcheh — shares a root with an expression commonly used in some Jewish communities today in connection with Nazis: y’mach sh’mam, which literally means “may their names be erased.” 

The precise nature of the sin that merited such a unique punishment for Amalek — the tribe is not the only one to have made war on the Israelites, but it is the only one to be designated for complete eradication — is subject to debate. Some authorities have suggested their offense was targeting the vulnerable, attacking a weak Israelite nation recently freed from Egyptian slavery from the rear. Others suggest that because they attacked the Israelites just after the miracles of the Exodus, they demonstrated a brazen lack of fear of God. So while it’s clear that in at least one instance, the Torah is unambiguous that cancellation is deserved — and indeed, obligatory — it’s not clear what precise circumstances demand it. 

The section of Deuteronomy containing the three commandments concerning Amalek — to eradicate it, remember what it did, and not to forget it — is publicly recounted in a supplemental Torah reading on the Shabbat prior to Purim, the holiday whose major villain, Haman, is said to be a descendant of Amalek. (When Haman’s name is read aloud during the public recitation of the Scroll of Esther, it’s traditional to make noise to render it unhearable — in effect, to cancel it.) But later rabbis were clearly discomfited by what appears to be an obligation to commit genocide. The Talmud (Yoma 22b) includes a teaching suggesting that King Saul — who failed to heed God’s command in the Book of Samuel to wipe out Amalek, including their women, children and animals — argued with God, asking why he should not take pity on the guiltless children and animals.


The other biblical concept that bears on cancel culture is herem. Commonly translated as “excommunication,” in the Bible it equated to a punishment of death for a handful of serious sins. By talmudic times, herem was essentially a form of severe social ostracism. The most famous herem in history was of the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza, who was excommunicated by the Amsterdam Jewish community for unspecified “abominable heresies which he practiced and taught and about his monstrous deeds.”

Herem could be imposed for merely rhetorical offenses, as was later done to Spinoza. Maimonides, in his enumeration of the 24 offenses for which excommunication was warranted, included a number of violations that could be grouped under the general heading of disrespect: insulting a learned man, calling a fellow Jew a slave, or insulting a messenger of the rabbinic court. Most of the items on the list, however, relate to ritual violations. None are merely holding or expressing an unpopular opinion. 

However, herem was imposed in Maimonides’ time for just those sorts of reasons. Scholars in France banned his books on the grounds of heresy, taking general issue with Maimonides’ attempt to synthesize Jewish thought and philosophy and for several specific claims, including that God has no physical form. Maimonides in turn placed a ban of excommunication on a fellow leader of the Egyptian Jewish community, Sar Shalom ben Moses, for tax-related offenses. 

In modern times, herem has been instituted only rarely and generally for reasons of ideological deviance. In the 18th century, the Vilna Gaon endorsed a decree of excommunication against the nascent hasidic movement, declaring them heretics who engaged in a host of objectionable practices. In 1945, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement, was formally excommunicated by a group of Orthodox rabbis who also publicly burned a prayer book he had authored, declaring that he “demonstrated total heresy and a complete disbelief in the God of Israel and in the principles of the law of the Torah of Israel.” In 2006, the chief rabbi of Israel issued a call to excommunicate members of the Neturei Karta hasidic sect, several of whose members had attended a conference in Iran purporting to demonstrate that the Holocaust had not taken place. 

In a highly unusual case, a South African rabbinical court excommunicated a businessman for failing to make child support payments, declaring that he could not become a member of a synagogue, be counted in a prayer quorum or be buried in a Jewish cemetery. The man appealed the case to a secular court, which ruled against him in 2014. Excommunication as a means to pressure husbands in divorce proceedings has generally not been done, though less formal public ostracism has been attempted. 

The Talmud on Cancellation

In general, the rabbis of the Talmud were clearly comfortable with a diversity of opinion and went to great lengths to ensure that minority opinions are preserved in the text as worthy subjects of study. Indeed, the Talmud is often held up as the paradigmatic example of Judaism’s embrace of multiple viewpoints and its refusal to write unpopular opinions out of the tradition. Nonetheless, the rabbis did uphold a form of social cancellation.

A well-known passage on the subject of ostracism from Tractate Moed Katan illustrates some key features of rabbinic thinking on the subject: 

The Gemara relates that a certain butcher behaved disrespectfully toward Rav Tuvi bar Mattana. Abaye and Rava were appointed to the case and ostracized him. In the end the butcher went and appeased his disputant, Rav Tuvi. Abaye said: What should we do in this case? Shall he be released from his decree of ostracism? His decree of ostracism has not yet been in effect for the usual 30 days. On the other hand, shall he not be released from ostracism? But the sages wish to enter his shop and purchase meat, and they are presently unable to do so.(Moed Katan 16a)

It’s worth noting that the talmudic rabbis condoned ostracism for something as seemingly minor as disrespect. It’s also worth noting that the punishment was not imposed by the mob, but by two learned rabbis who sat in judgment and determined ostracism was an appropriate penalty. Finally, the text implies that ostracism is not a permanent state. It has a time limit, after which the offender can re-enter the community. 

The Talmud does include one famous instance of permanent cancellation: Elisha ben Abuyah, a once-esteemed scholar who became an apostate and was almost completely excised from the Talmud, referred to only as aher, meaning “other.” The details are limited, but it’s clear from the talmudic account that Elisha, once a leading scholar and member of the Sanhedrin, abandoned Jewish observance and became a heretic, apparently after an encounter with God described in the famous allegory of the four who entered the pardes (orchard). So while the Talmud most certainly respected a diversity of opinion, it certainly did not countenance every opinion. 


So does Judaism condone cancellation? Jewish tradition undeniably prizes a multiplicity of voices and disagreement for noble purposes, but it certainly does not endorse the idea that every idea is worthy of consideration. And some ideas (and their purveyors) are considered too dangerous or detrimental to be allowed to circulate freely. Jewish leaders, both ancient and modern, have availed themselves of various tools to ensure that certain boundaries were maintained on behaviors, religious and otherwise, and ideas. The challenge, then as now, is determining where those lines ought to be drawn.

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