Ben Shapiro, a political pundit and Editor-in-chief of right-wing rag The Daily Wire, wowed the crowd at Yeshiva University with a vitriolic speech in which he decried the scourge of political correctness, complete with boilerplate, religious right-wing jabs at liberals, non-Orthodoxy, and transgender people.
Shapiro’s ridiculous claims include his belief that “transgender people are…suffering from a significant mental illness,” that “Torah Judaism…does not support social justice” and that it “explicitly” states that “poor people should not be preferred over rich people.” Shapiro’s speech is the hallmark of everything that is perceived to be myopic and ugly about the denomination that my family calls home. Shapiro’s speech is a false, cruel representation of “Torah Judaism,” one that paints religion and observance as an archaic and cold institution that good-hearted and enlightened people should rightly abandon.
And I have a problem with that. It makes me recall Raphall Morris, “New York’s pro-slavery rabbi,” whose twisted and deliberately disingenuous reading of Torah produced this unconscionable sentence: “I grieve to find myself saying a good word for slavery, but God and the truth must prevail!”
Shapiro’s interpretations are just as horrifying.
So let’s start by debunking Shapiro’s most egregiously misleading statement: Torah Judaism does not support social justice.
This is cleverly and technically true, mostly because of the fact that tikkun olam—despite being applied colloquially to mean “repairing the world via social justice”—is not, technically speaking, synonymous with “social justice” as a political matter. Tikkun olam is, in fact, the concept that the world can be repaired only through the fulfillment of Torah mitzvot and observance. However, Shapiro’s statement purposely takes advantage of the code-switching between the two terms in order to craft an insinuation—nay, an illusion—that the Torah does not care for the pursuit of making humanitarian efforts. This is a baffling contention given that a pillar of Judaism is the humanitarian giving of charity, or tzedakah, the root of which—tzedek—means “justice.”
Equally misleading is Shapiro’s declaration that “the Torah explicitly says that poor people should not be preferred over rich people.” Again, this is true—that is, specifically in the case of not showing favoritism during legal litigation in courts. This does not mean that the Torah does not believe in special consideration for the poor as evidenced in commandments of pe’ah (leaving a corner of one’s field for the poor to glean), leket (leaving stalks that fall from sheaves of grain for the poor), and shikcho (any sheaf of grain that is forgotten in the field is the property of the poor), among others.
Lastly, this statement by Shapiro: “Transgender people are unfortunately suffering from a significant mental illness that is deeply harmful and it’s not a solution to pretend that transgender people are the sex that they think they are in their head.” I am not going to pretend to know the mental state of every transgender individual, nor am I commenting on the halakhic permissibility of gender reassignment surgery, as both of those are beyond the scope of this article. However, Mr Shapiro, I would like to bring to your attention this week’s Torah portion of Vayetze. In it, both Leah and Rachel are pregnant. Leah knows she is pregnant with a boy, but to spare her sister from humiliation, she prays for her own fetus, destined to be a male, to become a female instead. Rachel then subsequently gives birth to a boy.
The Targum and others explain that both sisters were pregnant, and due to Leah’s prayers, the fetuses switched wombs, with the physical female being born to Leah and the physical male to Rachel. But the souls remained their original genders. Remember that time that Leah’s daughter Dina went out to “look after the girls of Shechem”? Or how about that time Rachel’s son Yosef spent his time “gossiping” and “doing his hair”? I’ll just leave that right there.
“Facts don’t care about your feelings,” Shapiro is fond of saying.
Well, I hate to tell you this, Ben, but facts don’t care about your fictions, either.
MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.