How do we tell our own stories? Which parts do we stress, emphasize, double-over with a smile and knowing wink, and which do we elide, skip over, exclude? We often think of the process of meaning making and storytelling as one of inclusion, in what we do tell, but just as important is that of exclusion. In some ways, the parts of the story we don’t tell are just as important as the parts we do tell. This too is its own story: The story of censorship.
Hayden White, a historian and cultural theorist (life goals) birthed the following term for the process by which we make meaning from the plenitude of what occurs in our life: emplotment. For White, we engage in emplotment by “including some events and excluding others, by stressing some and subordinating others,” writing some truths into the story and by necessity cutting other truths out.
Censorship, the word we used before the pundits and thought leaders of the West gave us ‘cancel culture,’ is the story of the parts of the story that didn’t make it into the story. Which itself is a story. Which we are now telling a story about. Put less obtusely: For every story, or meaning-system, or history, there is a story about what we include in that story and what we do not.
How does a religious community tell its own story? What do we write in and out of our stories, and what do we gain or lose through these inclusions and exclusions? This is the story of censorship. Each country, community, and family has a plot, a story, a narrative about where they came from and where they are going and what matters in the space in between. Through emplotment, we take part in writing this history, in making meaning and mystery out of the facts of our own lives. This is a process of inclusion and exclusion, by which some facts, ideas, values, and often people, are excluded from the story of our lives. By considering censorship, we hope to better appreciate the ways that we have written our own stories, and how we might make more meaning from the facts of our lives.
1. Censorship and Society: Is there a place in a contemporary religious society for censorship?
2. Censorship and Communal Voices: How does a community determine what ideas, or which people, deserve a platform?
3. Censorship and Storytelling: How should communities choose the stories they tell themselves?
A classic for any people interested in Jewish ideas and the way we tell our stories, Changing the Immutable is the OG of popular scholarship on Jewish censorship. As the title indicates, this book looks at the ‘rewriting’ of Jewish history, focusing not just on censorship but on what censorship accomplishes, how it is used in the pursuit of a workable history. This book ranges from the historical to the religious to the philosophical, considering how our ideas of truth and history are developed and understood, often in reaction to the needs of the present time, in subtle and far-reaching ways. If you want a deep dive into all the ways that we have cut in and around our past to construct a better present, check out Changing the Immutable – it was probably on your to-read list for a while now anyway.