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Parashat Noach: Kanye West: The Price of Remaining Silent

10/29/2022 10:47:04 AM


Rabbi Dan Dorsch

Upon canceling his documentary contract, Lucas Shaw from MRC Entertainment put it best: He wrote: “Kanye West is a producer and sampler of music.  Only last week, he sampled and remixed a classic tune that has charted for over 3000 years - the lie that Jews are evil and conspire to control the world for their own gain.  This song was performed acapella in the time of the Pharaohs, Babylon, and Rome went acoustic with the Spanish Inquisition, and in Russia’s Pale of Settlement.  Hitler took the song electric.  Kanye has now helped mainstream it into the modern era.”
In response to Kanye's vicious attacks on Jews, former Basketball player Kareem Abdul Jabar, who is an outspoken ally of the Jewish people, wrote that he is “especially horrified when a black person spews anti-Semitism without the slightest awareness that they are fertilizing the ground for all racism, including against black communities.”  Yet weeks earlier, comedian Sarah Silverman wrote that “Kanye threatened the Jews yesterday on Twitter, and it’s not even trending.  Why do mostly only Jews speak out against Jewish hate?  The silence is so loud.”
Never in a million years when I was studying Talmud in rabbinical school did I ever think I would dedicate a sermon to talking about Kanye West.  I don’t even want to take time on Shabbat to speak out about Hollywood Celebrity gossip.  But let’s be clear: we are not talking about any celebrity.  We are talking about a man with thirty-two million followers on Twitter, that is to say about 10% of America.  We are talking about a man who until recently had endorsements from apparel that we all wear.  And we are talking about a man who is clearly living out his mental illness for the entire world to see.
The problem is–with those who have pointed to his mental illness as an excuse, saying he should be left alone–is that mental illness is not an excuse to hate.  As I spoke about over the holidays, there are many people struggling with mental health challenges who live wonderfully productive, not hateful lives.  What he is doing is living with no shame and no remorse. 
Which, therefore, should lead us to question not why we shouldn’t speak out because of his illness, but why it is so deeply problematic that more people are not speaking out?  And should lead us to ask why, when arguably the most prominent celebrity in America says terrible things about Jews, it’s fine for a German company to wait two weeks to do an internal cost-benefit analysis, before they decide it's worth firing an anti-Semite.
What are the consequences of staying silent in the face of evil in the world?  We only need to ask Noah, who in this week’s parasha learned those consequences all too well.  Noah, the Talmud of Sanhedrin points out, was a righteous man, and wholehearted in his generations'' (Genesis 6:9).  Which Rabbi Yochanan says, means that relative to the other people of his generation, and that compared to Abraham, he would’ve been nothing. Why?  Because, Rashi points out, that Noah in the face of God’s challenge to Noah that he would destroy the world with a flood stays silent: whereas Abraham, at his moment when God says God will destroy Sodom and Gemorah, speaks up.   Noah gets the order to build an ark.  He gets on the ark.  The world implodes.  God tells Abraham he will destroy Sodom and Gemorah, an entire city full of people.  Does he sit by?  No, he  says hold on a second God, you can’t do that.  That’s evil.  What if there are good people there?  Under Abraham, the world becomes worth saving.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l has famously called anti-Semitism the canary in the coal mine for civilized society.  Societies rise and fall depending on how they treat their Jews and respond to anti-Semitism.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at Russia right now.  In Russia, at this moment, the Sochnut, the Jewish Agency from Israel, a humanitarian relief agency, is in court and accused of being spies.  Putin is following in the steps of Kanye, or maybe it’s the other way around.  I have no doubt that soon, in Russia, Jews will be blamed by Putin for his failing war effort.  It’s a tactic that has been used since the beginning of history.  And mark my words, I am no prophet, but this incident, which no one is paying attention to, marks the beginning of a catastrophic flood that will overtake Russian society.
What happens when a person does speak out against evil, rather than being complacent?  We see Avraham Aveinu argue directly with God, challenge God’s understanding of justice, and get God to agree that a minyan of honest people makes a city worth saving.  In the end, Abraham doesn’t save Sodom and Gemorah.  Look at the brave women in Iran standing up today against an oppressive regime.  That society may not be saved.  But their actions restore value to human life.  They turn our heads and remind us there are good people in the world worth fighting for, instead of leaving them to be obliterated in a flood.
Noah waits.  He waits and watches the evil overtake his world.  He builds an ark.  His fix is a technical one.  He doesn’t want to fix the world’s problems.  Then the flood comes.   That’s why Noah does not merit becoming the first Jew.  He’s just a guy.  But Abraham makes God realize the world is worth saving.  He becomes a leader among men.  His language is that of adaptive leadership.  He creates a new religion that is grounded in what we call ethical-monotheism.  He is the first to be called an Ivri, a Hebrew, “the one who crosses the river.”  He isn’t afraid to go against the current and speak up for what is right. 
There are many ways to read the story of the flood,  but in a Kanye dominated week, Noah is the cautionary tale about what happens when we isolate ourselves against evil instead of doing something.  Refusing to speak out against hate is a lesson that the world has refused to learn at our own peril, each time to our own detriment.  It only takes a Kanye, one prominent voice, to open up the floodgates.  It’s happening right now.  It’s happened before.  It will happen again. 
That is why we cannot sit back and let our usual allies fail to speak out.  That is why we must pledge this week to be Ivrim, to be Abraham. 
We must remember that one lone voice is capable of making a city worth saving. Together, all of us in this room could save the world.
Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784