About fifteen minutes into the movie “Tar,” starring Cate Blanchett and the recipient of numerous Academy Award nominations, you realize something.
The movie is about Lydia Tar, a brilliant classical conductor.
You are not quite sure if you know who she is. You reach for your phone and google her.
Only then do you realize that Ms. Tar is, in fact, a fictional character. That is the unique power of this film. It creates a fictional life, and gives us a front row seat as that life unravels.
There are certain Jewish resonances in the film — Leonard Bernstein as Lydia’s inspiration, and her imaginative uses of the terms kavannah (sacred intention) and teshuvah (repentance).
But, for me, there was one scene that struck home — and with it, one of the rawest chords in our culture.
It is the scene when Lydia Tar is teaching at Juilliard, and she is trying to convince a student, Max, that he should be playing more Bach.
The student replies that “nowadays, white, cis male composers is just not my thing.”
To which Lydia responds: “Don’t be so eager to be offended. The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring conformity.”
That defines the world in which we live today.
We are all eager to be offended. We cultivate offense. It is as if we are a mass of exposed ganglia. Any comment can and will set us on edge. We eagerly deem any currently unkosher cultural viewpoint as not only wrong, but evil. The holder of that opinion must not only be corrected, but humiliated. Any dissent from the accepted range of ideas (which are increasingly narrow) within our own bubbles will present you with unimaginable costs.
We live in fear of the uncool thing that we said a decade ago; the sin or faux pas that we had forgotten, but that others cannot; the position that we once took, but have now reconsidered.
We are constantly on edge, walking on eggshells. We are afraid of offending. Paradoxically, a piece of us craves being offended, because it affords us a kind of imagined moral superiority.
It is what I have come to call the culture of vituperation. It exists, loudly and violently, on the Right; witness the verbal mayhem, the attacks on President Biden during the State of Union address (and how deftly he maneuvered around and even with them). It exists, less loudly and less violently, on the political and cultural Left as well.
The term for this is “cancel culture.” Critics may deride the term; some might even deny its very existence. But, as I pointed out recently, it exists in the form of intellectual and literary boycott, as in banning books. It exists in the form of soft censorship of views, loss of relationships, loss of professional opportunities, and sometimes, outright insults.
Sadly, it exists within the contemporary Jewish world as well.
I first experienced this, decades ago, when I lost a professional opportunity because it was suspected that I was a member of Breira, the short lived left wing group that advocated negotiation with the Palestinians (think: J Street in the age of disco).
It turns out that my job interview went south when I expressed admiration for someone whom, I later found out, was a member of Breira. But that was enough.
“Are you now, or have you ever been….”
Decades later, I did not get certain jobs because I was deemed too centrist in my Israel views. Go figure. I have been attacked for being too conservative, and for being too liberal — and sometimes, by the same people, just years later.
If you doubt the presence of this culture of offense in contemporary Jewish life, read the “Cancellation” issue of Sapir journal, edited by Bret Stephens.
The essay that shook me the most was “We’re All Just Waiting to Get Fired,” by Felicia Herman. It is about the plight of Jewish professionals, working in an increasingly complex environment.
Working in Jewish philanthropy affords me a 30,000-foot view of the communal landscape. I talk to a lot of people. Most are kind, generous, mission-driven Jewish communal professionals who have dedicated their careers to Jewish thriving. Many see their work on behalf of the Jewish people as I do: as a privilege and a gift.
So it’s frightening to hear the way some of the leaders I’ve been talking with have been speaking lately. Cancel culture, incivility, and illiberalism are taking a toll. Unchecked, it will lead to the loss of talented leaders just when we need them the most.
Felicia lists some of the manifestations of this current trend — what I might dub “Tarism,” the eagerness to be offended.
- We’re all just waiting to get fired,” one CEO said with a resigned shrug. The “we” in his sentence was, as he put it, the “normal” people in his organization and among his peers at other organizations. What they’re worried about is already happening: Employee and stakeholder complaints about behaviors, people, words, or policies they don’t like, complaints that quickly spiral out of control. Like the story that another leader told me of being accused by an employee of promulgating “white-supremacy culture” for reminding staff that they need to work regular hours — such language turns a normal work conflict into a radioactive encounter. (And it is unfortunately part of a broader assault on professionalism in the nonprofit sector that, if followed, will make it extremely difficult to run effective organizations.)
- Similarly: A passionately progressive CEO recounted with anguish a story of being falsely attacked as a racist in an online forum of Jewish professionals. She didn’t argue back; it felt to her like a losing battle at a time of willful misinterpretation, online cruelty, and performative virtue-signaling. “It’s hard to lead authentically when every mistake is magnified and ends up with you in the newspaper. You feel like a villain, even though you’re not. Every day, leaders are trying to be morally courageous, but that’s constantly threatened by public, external perception.”
Attacks come from the Right as well, regarding Israel. I have been called a “kapo” — a disgusting term used by pro-Israel right wingers to describe someone whose beliefs on Israel are too left for them. My sin? Merely suggesting that neither the occupation nor the settlements were in Israel’s long term best interests.
Is there any way out of this morass? There is, but it will require both personal and communal re-orientation. It will take a massive cultural overhaul.
- We will need a culture of curiosity, in which we ask our protagonists a simple question: “How did you arrive at your position?”
- We will need a culture of controversy – the oft-cited eilu v’eilu, “these and these are the words of the living God.” I don’t have a lock on the absolute truth, and neither do you. As my friend and colleague Rabbi Elyse Frishman points out: the Hebrew word for truth is emet. Write out the Hebrew alphabet, and you will see that emet consists of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet that are on the right, the middle, and the left.
- We will need a culture of compassion. “I disagree with the position that you took on this, but we are still friends.” “I think that she is wrong on this issue, but there are other issues on which we agree.” Maturity means that you can actually bracket out areas of disagreement, and work around them. Friendships are valuable, especially today.
I end by quoting Lydia Tar’s last line to that student: “If Bach’s talent can be reduced to his gender, birth country, religion, sexuality and so on, then so can yours.”
She is absolutely right. It is not only that the expansive mind and soul needs — craves? — exposure to people who are not like us, whose life experiences are different, whose stories have different resonances.
It is deeper than that. If you essentialize the Other; if you put the Other into a box of a narrow ideological creation; if you say that you can only learn from people who are like you — don’t be surprised when others turn the tables on you, and do the same thing.
Finally, Felicia Herman urges us:
to stand apart from the political and cultural and intellectual fads of the moment (especially the cruel ones). We don’t need the newfangled religions of our day — fundamentalisms of the Left and the Right that substitute narratives for truth, slogans for reason, bombast for deliberation. We already have a religion — Judaism — and we need its tenets very badly right now. Jewish stories, wisdom, and history offer a treasure trove of lessons on human complexity, fallibility, diversity, debate, resilience, and the ability to repent. These must be our guideposts.
“Human complexity, fallibility, diversity, debate, resilience, and the ability to repent.”
Sounds like a good religion. Let’s try it.