When it's ok to be part of cancel culture

On Purim we drown out the name of Haman


Statues of former heroes are toppled, famous writers are banned and bloggers are blackballed. Public shaming through cancel culture is the latest response to those whose views offend.

Jews too “cancel” our nemesis, but only once a year. The Torah commands us to “wipe out the memory of Amalek” referring to the biblical tribe who launched unprovoked attacks against us, preying on the weakest Jews who were trailing at the back of the line leaving Egypt (Deuteronomy 25: 19).

Similarly, we’re told that “the memory of the wicked will rot” (Proverbs 10:7). This, we apply to Amalek’s descendant Haman , whose failed attempt at genocide against Jews is recalled on Purim. We purge ourselves of Haman’s name by drowning it out with twirling gragger-rattles, booing and banging each time it’s read from the Scroll of Esther (Esther Rabbah 9: 10).

Like the negative publicity generated by “cancellers” as they announce the latest casualties of political correctness, in the week of Purim, we revive Amalek’s memory. We do this in fulfilment of the biblical command to “remember what Amalek did to you” by publicly reading from a Torah scroll the story of Amalek’s attack (Deuteronomy 25: 17).

The dual command to remember Amalek while eradicating its memory sounds like an oxymoron. It’s strange to invest so much effort in condemning an enemy who disappeared long ago. Our rabbis, however, were adamant that this remembrance remains relevant. Even after every other festival is forgotten, Purim, they declare will continue to be observed (Rambam, Laws of Megillah 2: 18).

God apparently prizes propagating the good done by our heroes, and publicising the damage done by villains (Tanchuma Pinchas 2). The Jewish people is less enthusiastic. Midrashim portray us responding to God’s command of remembrance by saying, “Our memories are fleeting, but yours is eternal, so why instruct us to remember? You should do it.” God, is unpersuaded. “You were the victims; you do the remembering”, he says (Midrash Tanchuma Ki Teitze).

The tribe of Amalek no longer exists, but perhaps we can recognise the modern bearers of its ideology. Our rabbis recognised that some peoples had legitimate disputes with us, but antisemitic enemies whose hatred has no rational raison d’être display the characteristics of Amalek.

The American scholar Rav Joseph Soloveitchik therefore suggested that the Nazis’ genocidal policies were indicative of Amalek and others reach the same conclusion regarding Islamist movements dedicated to the destruction of Israel. My father taught me that Amalek is the enemy who is so dangerous, if you do not destroy him, he will decimate you. We must always be vigilant.

As the rabbis put it, whoever is compassionate to the cruel will end up being cruel to the compassionate (Tanchuma Metzora 1).

While these scholars see the annual act of remembrance through the lens of self-protection, others see it is an occasion for self-reflection. They note that as we marched through the desert, we shamefully neglected our most vulnerable people, leaving them to lag behind and turning them into targets for Amalek. According to Rashi, Amalek’s attacks are linked to our own unjust society.

Rabbi Hirsch (1808-1888) suggests that this is a warning that if we ever see Amalekite tendencies emerging among us, we should be ready to deal with them. Remembering Amalek, means examining our national psyche to ensure no trace of Amalekite ideology has entered it.

While Amalek and his descendants were evil, rabbinic tradition never relinquished the possibility of their redemption. The Talmud suggests that Haman’s descendants sit in the city of Bnei Brak studying Torah (Gittin 57b). The first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel, Rav Kook, said this idea teaches Judaism’s refusal to give up on anyone and its determination to prevent us being “swept away by a stream of hatred even against the most terrible enemy” (Orot Hakodesh 3).

Our refusal to be overwhelmed by hatred is powerfully demonstrated at one of our most popular modern acts of remembrance; the annual March of the Living Holocaust commemoration. The March takes over 10,000 people on a pilgrimage to Poland where they visit the remnants of its great Jewish communities and the death camps where Jews were murdered.

The marchers then assemble in Auschwitz, readying themselves for the walk to Birkenau. Each year, I wonder whether pumped with survivors’ stories of Nazi persecution and the complicity of some Poles, the Jewish marchers will respond with rage. Perhaps bricks will be hurled at the homes of elderly Poles who live near the camp. Yet, it never happens. We’ve learned the secret of rational remembrance.

Remembering Amalek is not about causeless cancelling of others, but a profound lesson in self-protection and the preservation of our own standards of humanity. So, let’s remember Haman by giving charity, listening to the 
Megillah where it is safe and legal to do so giving gifts of food to our friends and eating hamantaschen.

Gideon Sylvester is the United Synagogue’s Israel Rabbi

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