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Facts Sometimes Have Feelings

“Torah Judaism does not support abortion, Torah Judaism does not support same-sex marriage,” right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro explained with a confident smirk to a cheering audience of Yeshiva University students. I expect it’s a lot easier to blindly subscribe to one binary view on what is seen as one of the most enigmatic documents in existence, rather than to actively engage with this foundational text, and question its claims. Shapiro said many troubling things at his talk at YU, most of which were based in a narrow-minded view of the Torah, and Jewish values in general.

There were almost too many offensive things to respond to in the talk, so let me zero in on one. Of the concerning and inaccurate claims Shapiro made, his comments on transgender individuals were by far the most upsetting. What made them more heinous than others was that he claimed they were rooted in the Torah. Ben Shapiro’s opinion is that transgender people are, as he puts it, in the unfortunate circumstance of severe “mental illness.” To indulge the subjective reality triggered by said “mental illness,” he continues, would be extremely cruel. He equates it with telling your schizophrenic grandpa that the radio is in fact talking to him. He then explains that the rabbis and the Torah are very clear on this issue. God creates people in his image, therefore “mutilating your body doesn’t magically make you a member of the opposite sex.” Later on in the talk, he recounts a time he repeatedly referred to a transgender woman as sir, and questioned her knowledge of actual science.

Personally, I find his view horrifically insensitive, and entirely untrue.  And to base this view in the Torah and Jewish values degrades Judaism as a whole. To call someone’s true sense of their own identity “mental illness,” is discrediting and demeaning. Was the Torah Shapiro was reading the same as the one I have on my shelf? My copy has the line, “treat others as you would want to be treated.” Maybe Shapiro’s Torah is missing that line.

Taking a step back, I guess we have to cut Shapiro a little bit of slack. He grew up strictly Orthodox, and when bigoted interpretations are taught as unquestionable fact, it’s nearly impossible to see what’s just and what isn’t. I understand wanting to accept a tradition that is so black and white. If there is no grey area, there is nothing to consider when deciding whether something is right or wrong. It is clearly laid out for you. And, if you’ve never met a transgender person, it can be a confusing concept to grasp. But, once you realize it’s not purely an abstract concept, and that actual human beings feel and live this way, continuing to denigrate them is unforgivable.

Shapiro and I have widely different stances, largely because our framework for looking at the Torah is fundamentally different. I believe there’s a difference between a value and a rule. A rule is there to set a boundary and preserve a value, but the values always supersede the rule. So yeah, the Torah says that homosexuality is an “abomination,” but it also says “Justice, justice you will pursue,” and other phrases that give weight to our obligation as Jews and as citizens of the world to pursue and uphold justice. Unfortunately, Shapiro sees the rules as unbending, while completely disregarding the values.

Another catchphrase of Shapiro’s is: “Facts don’t care about your feelings!” And sure, it’s true and it’s a nice soundbite, but it’s not a justification for putting someone down. For example, if I run up to you in the hallway and say, “Your dad has cancer!” and justify that by claiming that facts don’t care about your feelings, that would make me a pretty bad person. The core problem is that most of Shapiro’s rhetoric is based in theory. Sure, theory is important, but life is not about abstract concepts. Life is about the way we treat each other. Truthfully, Ben Shapiro is right, facts don’t care about your feelings. But, guess what? People do. 

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Ben Shapiro
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Photograph of Ben Shapiro, an American conservative political commentator.
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How to cite this page

Fisher, Abigail. "Facts Sometimes Have Feelings ." 8 February 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 13, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/facts-sometimes-have-feelings>.

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