Shame Culture and Democracy: Tocqueville and Rabbi Sacks on Blame and Repentance
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Undergraduate honors thesis / YU only
“Cancel culture,” a form of ostracism practiced in America today involves people being removed from personal or professional circles on the basis of their stated views or opinions. These people are often guilty of having said or acted against the majority, and even in cases where they have apologized or served their punishment, they are not able to regain their previous standing and are unfairly castigated by news sources and on social media platforms. This thesis will examine the perspectives of former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom Lord Jonathan Sacks (1948-2020) and French political philosopher Alexis De Tocqueville (1805-1859) on blame and repentance, especially as they pertain to cancel culture. Tocqueville had already noticed a phenomenon similar to cancel culture developing in early 19th century America. Additionally, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks brings a modern Jewish perspective to the issue of cancel culture. There exists a rich Jewish literature on ideas of repentance beginning from the Torah itself, through the Talmud and Maimonides’ seminal work on repentance, all the way to Rabbi Dr. Nahum Rakover’s 2007 magnum opus that deals with rehabilitation in Jewish law. However, Rabbi Sacks application of Jewish guilt to the specific discussion of cancel culture offers a relevant Jewish outlook on this current topic. My goal in this essay is to explain the ideas of Tocqueville and Sacks regarding shame culture and democracy, the similarities and differences between them, and how they are relevant for our contemporary situation. The work will also rely on material of repentance in Jewish sources, with heavy reference to Rakover as a way to contextualize Sacks' point of view and current debates.
Kramer, C. (2022, September). Shame Culture and Democracy: Tocqueville and Rabbi Sacks on Blame and Repentance. [Undergraduate thesis, Yeshiva University].
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