Sermon: Shabbat Chazon – Heroes and Villains in the Disney Generation

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 25 July 2018

Ask my mother about the summer of 1993 and she will get a wistful look in her eyes and a smile creeping onto her lips. I remember little of that summer except the stories. You see, I was too little to join my sisters at our stage school for their summer scheme and so I spent the days with the sole attention of my mum. It was a hot British summer and true to my Cancerian nature I was a fish in the water.

Day after day she would take me to David Lloyd’s leisure centre and spend hours with me jumping off of her knees and doing handstands in the shallow end. I may not remember the intricacies of the summer, the wrinkles on my skin as it turned nut brown after hours in the sun and underwater, but I remember one thing very clearly, my Snow White swimming costume, which remains to this day the most favourite item of clothing I have ever owned. I loved that swimming costume so much that I would fight my mum as she tried to change me into normal clothes in the evening and I shed tears when it had finally out run its course. In that little one piece I was transported into a world of fantasy, where I was the princess, where villains existed and where there was always a hero ready to fight them off.

Life is simple for a child brought up in the Disney generation, in the battle of good versus evil, good always wins and heroes always defeat villains.

As I grew up I began to discover that real life wasn’t that clear cut. Sometimes the hero wasn’t there to rescue you from a villain. Sometimes the hero does not exist. And confusingly, sometimes a hero to one person, can be a villain to another.

So often in life do we look to label people, especially when we find ourselves in times of conflict. It can help us process when we see the world as black and white, good and bad. When we compartmentalise the other as the villain, we feel exonerated from blame and guilt, and grant assurance to ourselves that our stance is correct.

Stephen Karpman, a student of transactional analysis and psychotherapy, developed a social model to analyse the human interaction that occurs between people in conflict, called the drama triangle. It relays that in conflict we each take on one of three roles; the victim, who feels helpless and powerless, the villain who appears authoritative and controlling, or the rescuer who feels they gain self worth by solving all problems. During the conflict, each person acts selfishly without awareness for the role they are playing, and with no ability to see how their actions impact on those around them.

The Jewish community has been no stranger to conflict over the past few months. We have fought internally over issues to do with the Israeli Government, over the Israel Gaza conflict and over party politics here in the UK.  And once again, this week, our community has felt divided when the Labour party on Tuesday refused to ditch their controversial new code on antisemitism. The new code of conduct removed examples from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. The examples removed say that accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to the state of Israel than their own nations is antisemitism, or that claiming the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour is antisemitism, and comparing Israeli actions to those of the Nazis is antisemitism. It is tough to see why the Labour party wouldn’t want to adopt such a definition, and so 68 Rabbis of different denominations, who usually agree on very little, signed a letter urging the Labour party to engage with the Jewish community on this issue and to not rewrite the definition for antisemitism.

Yet whilst the situation seems black and white, and the Jewish media has been quick to name Jeremy Corbyn the villain of the hour by brandishing demonic looking pictures of him against a black background to make front page news, this situation is truly not as clear cut. The letter written was one of heroes and villains, that labelled the labour party arrogant, and did not take into account the denial from the Labour party that they were not seeking to redefine antisemitism but rather developing practical guidelines for use within a political party. The letter was not an invitation for dialogue but rather a means of condemnation.

Once again, we are a community in conflict. We have thrown around labels to stop us from talking about the issues at hand. We have categorised the heroes and the villains, refused to talk with them and instead we have talked about them, often viciously. The Jewish community has used the safety of their defined groupings to become unkind, hiding behind social media or newspaper articles to reprimand those with whom we do not agree, and throwing around violent threats to those with differing views.

But this Shabbat, the final one before Tisha B’Av, gives us the opportunity to take a breather from the conflict, and to look forward to the future of our Judaism. Shabbat Chazon, the third Shabbat of affliction leading up to the destruction of the Temple, is our Shabbat of vision. On this Shabbat we hear those famous words, ‘learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.’

These words, urge us out of the viscous cycle of internal hatred. They help us to move forward from our differences, to embrace the hope of reconciliation which will come about when people cease from avoiding conversations and instead learn to debate and live in harmony despite their differing opinions.  Understanding that, I urge us today to reject the language of heroes and villains. Let this Shabbat of vision set the tone for the year to come, a year where although our views may not be unanimous, we do not allow those views to divide us. A year when the Jewish community no longer labels those with differing views and instead engages in deep, meaningful and sometimes difficult conversations.

And we have already made a shaky start at this in the JW3 ceasefire debate which asked over 200 Jews from all sides ‘how do we de-escalate the hostility in our discussions around Israel.’ It may not have been perfect, but it was a step towards a future of conversation.

Today as we begin the book of Deuteronomy, our final book of Torah, we find ourselves once again on the brink of the promised land. Our Biblical ancestors are a brand new generation, unburdened by the baggage of their ancestry. They were not slaves in Egypt, they were not the warriors in the battles of their wandering, they did not personally receive Torah on Sinai. They are fresh faced, ready to move forward and to continue the legacy of the Israelites.

The book of Deuteronomy is carefully crafted to tell the Israelites what they need to know, most of the rules and the history from where they came, but not every miniscule detail of the journey. As they move forward they know just enough about the past to build their Jewish future, without the past determining that future. We too can learn from them. It is time for us to let go of our baggage and to remember the past, but not be slaves to it. We need to move away from our narrative of good and evil, heroes and villains, so we can become a community ready to engage in conversation.

My Snow White swimming costume remains a faded memory. And with it the narrative of heroes and villains that this Disney child grew up with also fades. No longer will I look around for the hero to save me from the villains, no longer will I wait to be rescued.

We as a Jewish community have a lot of work to do to move towards and not away from the vision of the future. A future that is harmonious, but varied, peaceful but giving space for difficult conversation full of richness and meaning. May our journey not be like that of a Disney princess, but rather one where we talk together about our differences. May we no longer choose heroes and villains, but instead choose to embrace our differences. And may we never hide behind labels but rather may we choose to engage in dialogue and build a vision of the future that is united in our differences.