Controversial Ben Shapiro Talk Still Rocks Campus, Dr. Joy Ladin Speaks Up
On Monday, May 8, Dr. Joy Ladin spoke on the Beren Campus of Yeshiva University in a talk entitled “Tolerance in a Polarized World.” Yeshiva University’s only openly transgender professor, Ladin said that she hoped to respond to Ben Shapiro’s speech in December in which he called all transgender people mentally ill.
“My goal is not just tolerating people who are different,” she said, “but it’s actually understanding them. And I think that’s an obligation we have as fellow citizens.”
Dr. Joy Ladin is the David and Ruth Gottesman Professor of English at Stern College for Women. She is the author of seven books of poetry and a memoir entitled Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders.
Ladin discussed this idea of tolerance in relation to her own experience as a transgender woman. She explained how the gender binary (the idea that you can only be male or female), while useful for simple categorization, was impossible for her to fit into. She cited the Gemara’s mention of non-binary sexes (in regards to the tum-tum and androgynous) as a powerful precedent for the notion that human beings are not necessarily only created male or female. Before she transitioned, however, Ladin was “terrified” that someone would discover that she was pretending to be someone she was not.
When she was still living as a male, after she was hired as a teacher at Yeshiva University, she was told that she was hired because the department needed more testosterone.
“Another little bit of humor from God,” Ladin quipped.
At a certain point, Ladin could not bear pretending to be someone she knew she was not. “It’s very depressing to look in the mirror and not see somebody you recognize as you. It’s more than depressing. It’s really disturbing.” After she received tenure at Stern, Ladin decided to go through a gender transition.
“From my experience, Stern College for Women is about the safest place to be an openly transgender professor in New York City,” she said. “I have never been treated disrespectfully.” According to Ladin, Dean Karen Bacon assured her that she would have a job when she returned to school after her transition and was always warm and understanding.
The YU College Democrats and the YU Feminists Club hosted this event in response to an event the YU Republicans held in December at which conservative pundit Ben Shapiro spoke. About 700 students came to hear the controversial political commentator in Lamport Auditorium.
During the event, Shapiro discussed his opinions regarding transgender people. “Transgender people are unfortunately suffering from a significant mental illness that is deeply harmful,” he said to applause from the audience. Shapiro’s vocalization of his opinions about transgender people led to a significant reaction from many administrators and students of Yeshiva University.
“The morning after his talk [a student] went into our class and I thought ‘Oh, do I have to start by explaining that I’m not mentally ill?’” said Ladin.
“Hearing viewpoints you agree with and, more importantly, those you disagree with is part of any real education,” said President of the YU College Republicans on Campus Yossi Hoffman about the Ben Shapiro event. “Students make informed decisions by understanding different aspects of an argument and being open to the views of others.”
Dr. Chaim Nissel, University Dean of Students, echoed this sentiment. “We want to embrace diverse opinions, which means we may not agree with some or all the views of a particular speaker. At the core, though, we must always have Kvod Habriot, respect for all people, and we want everyone to be respected and feel safe,” Nissel said. “We also hope to help foster a more informed and engaged student body.”
Although it may have taken five months for an event in response, the YU Democrats delivered in the last month of school. Tsippora Cohen, senior board member of the YU Democrats on Campus, explained, “The inspiration for me to propose, plan, and then advocate and fight for this event to take place was when Ben Shapiro was given a massive stage at the Wilf campus last semester and said incredibly offensive and untrue things about the trans community.”
Dr. Ladin acknowledged what Shapiro had said, but she did not denounce him outright. “I refuse to allow myself to see Ben Shapiro as someone who is utterly different from me, who is the opposite of me, who is the antimatter of me,” Ladin remarked, musing that their shared membership to the nation of Israel and love for G-d is a strong common ground for a mutual understanding of one another.
The turnout for the event was significantly less than the turnout for the Ben Shapiro talk. However, with over 55 people (who were not exclusively YU students) present, Cohen regarded the gathering as “irrefutable proof that there is a sizable audience for discussions like this amongst the YU student body and community.” Because of a mix-up involving the event request form, the event took place on the Beren Campus in a classroom meant for about 30 people.
Atara Huberfeld, Social Media Manager of the Democrats Club, said that the turnout was one of the largest the club has seen at any of its events this year, despite the venue. “Others involved expected that we would attract a lot of people, but honestly, I had thought that was wishful thinking,” she said. “I was pleasantly surprised, to say the least.”
Many believe that Yeshiva University is becoming more welcoming to members of the LGBTQ community as whole. Rivkie Reiter, an LGBTQ activist and student at Stern college, is hopeful about the improvement in the attitude towards LGBTQ students on campus. “There is a network of support for students, and we hope to one day move to make that official and improve queer visibility on campus in concrete ways.”
Dr. Ladin is also confident about the strides being made for transgender Jews. "Though many Jewish communities struggle with the complexities of transgender identity and questions about how traditions based on binary gender can accommodate Jews who are not simply male or female,” Ladin said, “slowly but surely transgender Jews are being acknowledged and included."