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Jeremiah 26: Cancel Culture Confronts Jeremiah

It turns out that denial flows in Judah as well.
Dr. Elana Stein Hain is the Rosh Beit Midrash and a senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, where she serves as lead faculty and consults on the content of lay and professional programs. A widely well-regarded thinker and teacher, Elana is passionate about bringing rabbinic thought into conversation with contemporary life. To this end, she hosts TEXTing, a bi-weekly podcast that considers issues relevant to Jewish life through the lens

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Jeremiah 26

This chapter exposes our capacity for denying the truths that threaten us. Furthermore, it exposes our capacity for committing violence against those who express those truths. In this chapter, the Israelites, led by their priests (!) and their (false) prophets attempt to put Jeremiah to death for treason because he condemns their evil ways and prophecies their demise if they do not repent. The chapter further describes king Jehoiakim and his cabinet pursuing another prophet who holds a mirror up to their society, Uriah, dragging him back from his refuge in Egypt to execute him.

Rather than grappling with the allegations of these prophets – that society had become corrupted by violence, injustice, idolatry – leaders and their constituents respond by trying to stamp out the voice that adjures them.  It is a common story: no one, no community, no society wants to be told that its basic conventions are profoundly wrong, that its roots have become rotten. And the desperation that ensues to do everything but self-reflect is typical. Instead, our shock becomes anger, and we launch our aggression against those who dare challenge the status quo in which we are so invested. We read their message as transgressing the ethics of group loyalty instead of considering the ethics they are actually bringing to light.

To be sure, there are softer, more diplomatic ways to challenge a society than Jeremiah used, and there were prophets who employed such approaches (recall, for instance, Natan’s parable to King David about Bathsheba. That was remarkably effective as a rhetorical/ pedagogical strategy, as it allowed David to lower his guard and to empathize with his victims).

Moreover, false prophets do exist – people whose screeds are primarily fueled by animosity, greed or ego rather than by integrity and genuine concern for others. Discerning the difference between a false prophet and a true prophet – in both the ancient and the modern senses of the word – can be quite a subjective affair. But if a criticism cuts deeply enough that it brings out rage, it may be worth considering the criticism itself before taking up our pitchforks and going after the messenger. Because sometimes – even if not always – that rage manifests our innermost fears that Jeremiah and Uriah may just be right.

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