Ben Shapiro at YU

I am proud of Yeshiva University for so many reasons, but was disappointed by Ben Shapiro's recent talk at YU. Below is a letter I submitted this morning to The Commentator, YU's student newspaper.

As a proud alumnus, musmach, and past Kollel Elyon Fellow at Yeshiva University, I was deeply disturbed by Mr. Ben Shapiro’s recent talk at Yeshiva University, which I viewed afterward on YouTube.

It should go without saying that Mr. Shapiro’s vengeful mocking of transgenders has no place in halakhic Judaism. That such venom received applause at a Makom Torah was distressing. And the fact that Shapiro is an Orthodox Jew makes the spectacle all the more unsightly.
Of course, such debased political commentary is merely a mirror of America’s current political climate. And for Shapiro, this is just business as usual. But as Bnei and Bnot Torah, we can do better. One need not be a first-rate Torah scholar to know that revenge and ona’at devarim (verbal abuse) are biblically proscribed, and that vulgarity has no place in our tradition and community. The impression that large numbers of Yeshiva University students endorse such crass behavior is a first-rate Chilul Hashem.

Equally distressing were Shapiro’s opening remarks concerning Torah Judaism. In the course of approximately two minutes dedicated to demonstrating Judaism’s unambiguous support for the conservative political agenda, Shapiro made a series of wildly unsubstantiated assertions.

Strangely, he twice mistakenly described Rav Soloveitchik as “the founder of YU.” Although this point was not essential to Shapiro’s larger argument, it did offer something of a taste of what was to come. A citation of Rav Soloveitchik regarding abortion was taken out of context and given no (needed) discussion. The claim that the institutions of terumah and ma’aser prove that the Torah supports a flat tax is indefensible: in halakha, the government is empowered to levy a tax above and beyond the tithes, which support not the state but religious functionaries.

Shapiro’s insistence that “Socialism rejects three of the Ten Commandments outright: belief in God, rejection of theft, and rejection of coveting your neighbor’s property” is mere propaganda, the sort of ugly rhetoric that riles up the base without bothering to pay attention to the facts. And the assertion that “Torah Judaism does not support social justice” is so vague as to be utterly useless as a statement of fact.

In short, verbal abuse of one’s political adversaries, gross misrepresentations of Torah ideas and simplistic analyses of complex political problems have no place at any institution of higher Jewish learning, much less Yeshiva University. That significant numbers of Yeshiva students might harbor sympathy for such underhanded, churlish tactics implies an assimilation to the basest elements of today’s political culture.

In today’s world, civil disagreement has been all but sidelined by provocateurs on both ends of the political spectrum. “Thought leaders” prey on the public’s preference for pat answers over complex solutions, and they ride the social-media-driven culture of political commentary as entertainment. As Torah-committed, university-educated Jews - in short, as a Torah Umada community - we cannot be ensnared by these troubling trends. Quite the opposite: we must model a political conversation that is principled yet humane, passionately argued while, in the spirit of elu ve’elu divrei Elokim hayyim, recognizing the possibility of multiple legitimate conclusions. Quite frankly, it is not only society at large that stands to benefit from this sort of discourse. As a deeply fractured group, Modern Orthodoxy is in desperate need of precisely this sort of mature community conversation.

Offering a platform for, and especially applauding, Ben Shapiro sends the wrong messages. Instead, I would urge student groups at YU to craft and publicize programs that explore today’s controversies in ways that cast light, not darkness. Those would be events I would celebrate as a proud alumnus of YU.

(Rabbi) Tzvi Sinensky
Rosh Beit Midrash, Kohelet Yeshiva
Lower Merion, PA