On Social Justice, Jewish Law and Contemporary Political Discourse
It should go without saying that one of the most sacred and fundamental functions of a university is to advance knowledge and understanding through the exchange of ideas. The Y in YU thankfully does not stand for Yale, which distinguished itself over the past year as the near polar opposite of what a university is intended to be -- at least in the minds of many student activists there and the administrators who coddle them. Watch the video of students drowning out the calm voice of Nicholas Christakis. For them, a safe place means a place where they can censor ideas. Parents contemplating a university for their academically talented child should watch this video, so they know what questions to frame before they make the biggest investment decision of their lives, investing in an asset more precious than the finest jewels -- the mind and soul of a child.
Correspondents write me to ask if there are not limits to open discourse on our campus. One challenged me by asking if Yeshiva University would invite J Street to speak on campus, since many of its ideas and tactics are odious to many on campus. That is not the right question. Yeshiva University did not invite Mr. Shapiro to speak to its students; a student organization did. I seem to recall that other student organizations have invited J Street or other controversial groups from the Left to speak. If my recollection is incorrect, let me assert that I absolutely support the right of student groups to sponsor talks by speakers anywhere on the extremes of public acceptability, a continuum which is very broad. Although Shapiro’s tone wasn’t always appropriate and I did disagree with some of what he said, he is certainly on the spectrum of acceptable discourse.
One of the ironies of American society is that calls for censorship increasingly come from the Left. Whereas the progressive wing of the political spectrum began as a protest of the establishment, it has, over the past several years, established its own orthodoxies which it now seeks to defend in much the same way that the establishment repressed discussion in the past. It is my sense that the so-called “tyranny of the Left” increased during the Obama years and is guilty in part for the rise of a know-nothing presidential candidate who celebrated the lack of education of his earliest followers. What the Establishment Right does not understand is that it is viewed by many as enablers of the tyranny of the Left by its failure to engage with ideas. When all you do is play politics, you add to the frustration of the center and right-of-center electorate. Plenty of educated centrist voters felt disenfranchised by the Left and voted for a candidate who rejected free trade and other fundamental Conservative principles.
If you travel the congested roads of social media, as I do, you discover that outside the Yeshiva University community, YU is popularly branded as a narrow-minded bastion of conservatism which refuses to challenge its members with anything but accepted orthodoxies. Read the debates in our student publications about the ideas put forth by Ben Shapiro and then watch the Yale University videos available online and ask yourself which YU censors ideas.
I also discovered on social media that Modern Orthodoxy and its flagship school are frequently confused with more right-wing communities and institutions. Yes, there were likely more supporters of Donald Trump on our campus than at Columbia. While there is a certain element of our population to whom Trump appealed as a strongman or for his supposed business acumen, the largest single factor in his support appears to be the assumption that he is a stronger supporter of Israel than Hillary Clinton. (As an aside, that is unproven to me. The only thing that I am certain Mr. Trump supports is himself. We will have to wait and pray for the rest.)
This brings me to the controversial topic of Judaism and social justice. Let me begin by saying that if you are one of the many people who does not like Orthodox rabbis, or me personally, please keep in mind that you are reading this by choice. You can stop at any point. I am not imposing my ideas on unsuspecting readers. I was invited by people who are interested in my thoughts and routinely read what I write to ponder the question of social justice and Jewish law, and so I have. If my perspectives are anathema to you, you need not read them. If you can express your differences without attacking me personally, feel free to write to me privately. I am always willing to learn something new, but I won't endure baseless and frivolous insults, even when they are so absurd as to be funny.
There are progressive wings of the Jewish community who have elevated social justice above all else in the Jewish tradition. For them, Torah is the platform of the Democratic Party in Biblical Hebrew. I saw many comments challenging Ben Shapiro by pointing out mitzvot of the Torah that they identify with social justice. Addressing Shapiro directly, one commenter reminds him that the Torah commands us to provide tithes to the Levi. Mr. Shapiro's point was, in the grand old journalistic tradition of The Forward, ripped from its context. I will explain where I agree with him and where I disagree, on the basis of my textual understanding of the Jewish tradition.
The Torah is replete with many mitzvot that appear to map nicely to what folks generally seem to mean by social justice. One in particular is of interest. In the Torah portion of Ki Teyzeh: “If in your travels you come across a bird's nest on any tree or on the ground, and it contains baby birds or eggs, and if the mother is sitting on the baby birds or the eggs, you must not take the mother along with her young. You must first chase away the mother and only then may you take the young for yourself. Things will then go well with you, and you will enjoy a long life.”
This mitzvah is an exemplary lesson in the empathy Jews much show toward even poor unintelligent birds. How much more so should we treat the less fortunate and defenseless of the earth. Is this not a mitzvah?
In the Mishnah in Berakhot, we find what must then appear to be a strange law: “One [leading prayer] who says 'may Your mercies extend to the bird's nest' or 'may Your Name be remembered for good,' or 'we gives thanks, we give thanks' is silenced.”
The Mishnah here in the fifth chapter of Berakhot calls upon the congregation to silence the one who prays for God's mercies to reach the mother bird in her nest just as the Torah appears to command. Why?
The Talmud offers two explanations, the latter of which is accepted as the authoritative one (see below for the decision of the Rambam):
"We understand why he is silenced if he says ‘we give thanks, we give thanks,’ because he seems to be acknowledging two powers; and [when he says] 'may Your Name be remembered for good,' because this implies, for the good only and not for the bad. And we have learned: 'one must bless God for the evil as one blesses Him for the good.' Regarding the reason for silencing him if he says, 'may Your mercies extend to the bird's nest’: two Amoraim in the West, R. Jose b. Abin and R. Jose b. Zebida, give different answers. One says it is because he creates jealousy among God's creatures. The other, because he takes the measures prescribed by the Holy One, blessed be He, as springing from compassion, whereas they are but decrees."
It is the second opinion that is brought as authoritative by the halakhic tradition.
"One who says in prayer 'may He who had mercy on the bird's nest not to take the mother with the chicks, and not to slaughter an animal with its offspring on the same day, have mercy on us,' and similar sentiments, is silenced, because these precepts are Scriptural decrees and not acts of mercy. For if they were, He would not have permitted slaughter at all."
I cannot speak for Ben Shapiro, just as he cannot speak for YU and its rabbis. But this is what I think the Gemara means, and what it says about social justice (I alluded to this in my class and in exchanges on social media). The mitzvah of shiloo’ach haken may indeed promote sensitivity to the unfortunate. The rationale for observance, however, is commandment, not social justice ideals. Like Cordelia, we honor our parents because that's what we are bound to do. We love them, of course, and may genuinely respect them for the content of their character. We are, however, obligated to honor them whether we are so moved or not. The essence of Torah is positivist law, not moral aspiration. If Mr. Shapiro meant this, then I agree.
Where I may disagree, however, is whether moral aspiration is only personal. The Talmud teaches that Jerusalem was destroyed because its judges operated only on the basis of strict Torah law. The system requires individuals AND the community to go beyond the letter of the law.
This is itself part and parcel of the body of Jewish law we call the Halakhah. Wherever there is an “underlap” in the law, i.e., where there is no explicit law that can be applied, we are obligated to do what is right and good in the eyes of the Lord.
In my classes on contemporary business and Jewish law, I describe the Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Bernard Madoff. I ask if this was a violation of the Torah. Students offer various theories as to which law his fraud does or doesn't violate. I explain every year that it should be obvious that stealing from one's investors is wrong, that we need neither a pasuk nor a sugya to teach us this.
Those who would maintain that Judaism is identical to the platform of the ideological Left might listen to the lecture by Ben Shapiro with an open mind. I think he got an important part of the story right, but perhaps omitted what I have herein emphasized.
A good friend suggested that I look to debate what he called "lefties." This post is not about politics. I admit to being a social liberal/economic conservative but I do not believe those positions are dictated by Jewish law or even Jewish tradition more broadly. They are about tactics. They represent what I think is in consonance with the U.S. Constitution and macroeconomics, respectively. This means they are merely tactical. My understanding of economic history is that economic growth in capitalist countries has outstripped economic growth in socialist ones. This is not a halakhic judgment and is irrelevant to discussions of Jewish law. Rabbis with presumed expertise in the interpretation of halakhah and rabbinic texts have no privileged position in a discussion of economics. I may well be wrong and do not espouse those positions in rabbinic/academic contexts.
My post, then, had nothing to do with Shapiro's politics. It had nothing to do with his comments about transgender people, which I think were unacceptable in tone. I don't know enough about the issue to have an opinion about the psychiatric/medical/sociological dimensions of the question. I do have an opinion about how to treat people and speak publicly. On that level, I oppose the tone and language of Shapiro's remarks.
So proposing that I debate "lefties" makes no sense to me. What qualifies me to invite people to debate me on politics? I am just a private individual. Neither politics nor gender identity were the subject of my post; in the interest of candor, I admitted where I stand personally on those issues but that was not the thrust of my remarks.
What I wrote is not original to me. It has been attributed to the Rav z"l. It has been espoused by Rabbi Walter Wurzburger z"l and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z"l. It can be reduced to this: Halakhah is a floor, not a ceiling. The Ramban articulated it clearly when he wrote that the Torah commands us to do what is right and good where the halakhah is not explicit.
I understood Ben Shapiro to acknowledge this, at least implicitly. My difference with him is that I believe it is also an obligation of Jews as a community and not just as individuals. These are just my personal views. I do not like snarky comments (there were plenty) and ignore them. If I don't interest you or anger you with my views, just ignore me. My family certainly does.