In his recent op-ed in The Jewish Press, “Modern Orthodoxy’s Moral Failure,” Ben Shapiro cites the obligation to deliver rebuke as a basis for his attacks on the leadership of Yeshiva University, the Orthodox Union, SAR Academy, and Modern Orthodoxy as a whole. But it is in fact Shapiro’s arguments that are deserving of criticism.
This response notes Shapiro’s intellectual sloppiness; his mean-spirited attacks, which are rooted in tendentious and uncharitable interpretations; and his emphasis on dogmatic commitment, which reduces compassion to a talking point instead of a moral imperative. In closing, I briefly sketch a path forward for an authentic Modern Orthodoxy that avoids the extremes adopted by both Shapiro and some of his more liberal-minded critics.
I. Shapiro’s Intellectual Sloppiness
Shapiro sorely misrepresents Modern Orthodoxy, secularism, and the failings of contemporary Modern Orthodoxy. All three of these treatments are riddled with poor argumentation that does not stand up to scrutiny.
Misrepresentations of Modern Orthodoxy
In outlining the basic views of Modern Orthodoxy, Shapiro marshals Maimonides, Rav Soloveitchik, and Rabbi Norman Lamm in support of his thesis. Yet each of these thinkers propounded other ideas that can be cited to deflect Shapiro’s depiction of “authentic Modern Orthodoxy.”
Take Maimonides, whom Shapiro cites to the effect that one must “hear the truth from whomever speaks it.” Shapiro fails to note the seriousness with which Maimonides took secular wisdom as a direct source of truth that can compel us to reinterpret apparently axiomatic Torah principles. Thus, Maimonides famously argued (Guide II:25) that were Aristotelian science to prove decisive, he would have reinterpreted scripture to allow for the eternity of the universe. Indeed, this more expansive position is implicit in Maimonides’ very assertion that we must accept the truth from anyone who speaks it.
Shapiro’s citation of Maimonides and his description of Modern Orthodoxy as holding that “that the secular world can provide information and methodology that enriches a Torah worldview and lifestyle, granting evidentiary support for the eternal truths supplied by the Torah itself” fails to account for Maimonides’ nuanced, expansive view of the role of science and philosophy in crafting an authentic understanding of G-d’s will as expressed in the Torah.
Shapiro makes a similar error regarding Rav Soloveitchik. Shapiro correctly notes that the Rav spoke out about the importance of not watering down our beliefs or traditions. Shapiro does not note, however, that the Rav was deeply skeptical about the possibility of using science or philosophy to prove the existence of G-d or other Torah values. This contradicts Shapiro’s remark that according to Modern Orthodoxy, science can “grant… evidentiary support for the eternal truths supplied by the Torah itself.”
Along similar lines, Shapiro fairly cites Rabbi Lamm’s conception of Torah Umadda. But Shapiro fails to also note that Rabbi Lamm spent more than a half-century decrying the rising rhetorical extremism in our intellectual culture, and strongly opposed precisely the sort of highly-politicized partisan rhetoric upon which Shapiro has built his career. Rabbi Lamm emphasized tolerance, mutual respect, decency, and civility. This aspect of Rabbi Lamm’s thought was no less central to his religious worldview than his commitment to Torah Umadda. Yet Shapiro neglects to reference Rabbi Lamm’s lifelong emphasis on this subject. Instead, Shapiro has capitalized on the popularity of partisan politics in our polarized world.
Beyond these cherry-picked citations, at a later point Shapiro simply leaves us scratching our heads. He proposes, “perhaps Modern Orthodoxy was always destined to collapse into the morass of secular morality. After all, the term itself is limiting and self-contradictory. It wasn’t Hirsch but Reform Jews who coined the term ‘Orthodox’ as an insult.”
This argument is downright bizarre. The term Orthodox of course refers not only to Modern Orthodoxy but to the Orthodox community as a whole. Following Shapiro’s argument, not only Modern Orthodoxy, but also its counterparts to the right, must be disqualified. This, of course, undermines Shapiro’s critique of Modern Orthodoxy in particular.
Shapiro is not a trained rabbi or historian, and it comes as no surprise that his presentation is filled with errors and misleading citations. His claim that Modern Orthodoxy was founded in response to the Enlightenment, and by extension determinist philosophy, lacks any historical basis. And his association of R. Hirsch with Modern Orthodoxy, without the clarifying note that Hirsch is identified by historians with Neo-Orthodoxy, is misleading.
Nor is this new territory for Shapiro. On previous occasions when he has weighed in on Modern Orthodoxy, Shapiro has made elementary mistakes. For instance, when Shapiro spoke to a student group at Yeshiva University a few years back, he declared that the same Rabbi Soloveitchik was the founder of Yeshiva University. The level of ignorance in this remark is astounding, and is exceedingly difficult to wave away. To the best of my knowledge, Shapiro has never acknowledged this flagrant mistake.
Why, then, some have asked me, did I choose to write a response in the first place? While an essay written by someone lacking the relevant expertise typically does not merit a response, Shapiro’s popularity in the Orthodox community necessitates a rebuttal.
Misrepresentation of Secularism
If Shapiro’s presentation of Modern Orthodoxy is oversimplified and cherry-picked, his depiction of secularism is rife with gross misrepresentation.
Shapiro characterizes the entirety of what he terms “secular modernity” as follows: “Secular modernity suggests that social duties represent an obstacle to happiness. Free will, in this view, is an illusion: we are merely agglomerations of biological material, placed in a chaotic universe against our consent.” In support of his contention, Shapiro cites Spinoza’s determinism and Marquis de Sade and Percy Shelley’s libertinism as representative of all post-Enlightenment thought.
This description of secularism makes the proverbial straw-man argument look like an iron-clad logical syllogism. Frankly, it is hard to know where to begin in formulating a response to a grotesque caricature that paints subtle, complex phenomena that developed over hundreds of years with an impossibly broad brush. True, there were and are determinists and naturalists among the camp of modern secular thinkers, but they are hardly the only ones. Does the average secular person living in 2022 think that we bear no responsibility for combatting our desires against, say, theft or murder? While it is fair to say that these and countless other intellectual currents have influenced contemporary thought, Shapiro does not and cannot provide evidence that all modern secularists are naturalistic determinists who deny free will and believe that biology is destiny.
Shapiro makes other telling, tendentious errors. For example, he attributes to secularists the following view: “Since human beings are naturally social, our identity must be celebrated by those around us in order for us to feel truly happy.” This is one possible explanation for the support provided in many quarters for members of the LGBTQ+ community. But there is an equally plausible alternative interpretation, which happens to also be a far more generous one: when people are suffering, their friends, families, and communities provide social support in order to reduce their suffering.
Misrepresentations of Modern Orthodox Individuals and Institutions
After mischaracterizing both Modern Orthodoxy and secularism in the process of positing an irreconcilable conflict between the two, Shapiro aims his slings and arrows at Modern Orthodoxy’s institutions and individuals. Unfortunately, here too Shapiro makes logical leaps and offers extraordinarily uncharitable interpretations, which lead him to serve up some good red meat while unfairly vilifying individuals and institutions alike.
Shapiro begins this part of his argument by inventing three “categories”: the Secular Orthodox, Nervous Orthodox, and Clumsy Orthodox. He charges that these “three groups within the Modern Orthodox movement have embraced the secular worldview and, in doing so, threaten the obliteration of Orthodox Judaism itself.” While Shapiro may intend to be somewhat humorous here, it is hard to take these “categories” seriously for reasons I will outline below. But for the meantime let’s reciprocate and humor him.
As a representative of the Secular Orthodox, Shapiro nominates SAR High School Principal Jonathan Kroll, who once remarked: “We wanted to create an environment that let our gay students know that they were not just being tolerated in our community but welcomed and embraced.” Shapiro opines: “Unsurprisingly, LGBT activity and identity have skyrocketed at such institutions; societal subsidization breeds imitation.”
Shapiro completely misconstrues Kroll’s words. There is no indication whatsoever that Kroll is endorsing LGBTQ+ activity. Rather, Kroll is saying that his school seeks to create an environment in which LGBTQ+ students are not second-class, but first-class citizens. Their actions are wrong, but just as the school does not treat non-shomer Shabbat students differently than shomer Shabbat students, so too students who identify as LGBTQ+ are embraced in his school like any other student. Kroll presumably emphasizes this because such students tend to have particularly high depression and suicide rates.
And the fact that more students have enrolled “at such institutions” (we will take this for granted for the sake of argument, though Shapiro cites no evidence) does not suggest approval of the behavior, but rather that such students can find their place in the Jewish community notwithstanding their struggles and shortcomings. That Shapiro ignores this possibility and prefers to tar-and-feather Rabbi Kroll, and by extension his institution, as a model of “Secular Orthodoxy” strongly suggests that Shapiro is arguing in bad faith.
The Orthodox Union
Next, Shapiro swipes at the OU, which he characterizes as representing “Nervous Orthodoxy.” He critiques the OU for supporting the Respect for Marriage Act. Yet, as Shapiro acknowledges, the OU did so on the basis of a purely pragmatic argument: as a minority faith community in the United States, it is sometimes most wise not to fight for the implementation of our particular beliefs in the public sphere for the sake of the long-term benefit of our community.
Shapiro portrays this “nervous response” as treasonous. But, of course, one person’s “Nervous Orthodoxy” is another’s prudent judgment. And the assertion that the OU’s pragmatism places it in the camp of those who have “embraced the secular worldview and, in doing so, threaten the obliteration of Orthodox Judaism itself” is utterly unsubstantiated.
After congratulating YU for litigating up to the Supreme Court, Shapiro goes on to deride YU as having embraced “Clumsy Orthodoxy” in its recent support of the proposed Kol Yisrael Areivim club.
Specifically, Shapiro objects to YU’s statement that “the club will provide students with space to grow in their personal journeys, navigating the formidable challenges that they face in living a fully committed, uncompromisingly authentic halachic life within Orthodox communities.” He complains that in this statement, YU invokes “the language of the secular Left on the issue, tacitly endorsing the notion of LGBTQ+ identity directly at odds with halacha.” At another point he suggests that the context suggests that YU thought they could placate their community with this new announcement, which he sees as naive.
The precise nature of Shapiro’s critique of YU as threatening Orthodox principles is left unclear. Does he object to the usage of the term LGBTQ+? That would be strange, considering that Shapiro does the same throughout his present essay. Is it the acknowledgement that these individuals face “formidable challenges” in leading authentic halachic lives? This is equally bizarre. Does Shapiro deny that LGBTQ+ individuals face unique challenges?
Alternatively, perhaps his complaint is that YU started this club, but not other clubs, in support of those struggling to properly observe Jewish law. If this is Shapiro’s intention, it is simply untrue, as evidenced by the widely-referenced shemirat ha-berit student club. Or maybe Shapiro is just upset that YU implicitly signaled unease with its Torah-true philosophy. But this is problematic on two counts. First, Shapiro suggests otherwise when he accuses YU of adopting the language of secular Leftists. Second and more important, providing emotional and spiritual support for its LGBTQ+ students does not signal discomfort with YU’s core philosophy; it fulfills it!
It is hard to respond to a criticism of what Shapiro describes as “the single most valuable Modern Orthodox institution on the planet” without knowing what exactly he finds so objectionable. That he jumps from there to accusing YU of endangering the future of Orthodoxy and embodying “Clumsy Orthodoxy” leaves us with yet another baseless broadside. By this point, Shapiro is tilting at windmills.
II. Shapiro Violates his Own Tenets
One of Shapiro’s arguments is that the very recognition of LGBTQ+ as a category or identity in itself is counter to the Torah’s refusal to recognize these as identities but merely as proclivities or activities. This claim is hypocritical in the extreme. Shapiro regularly refers to individuals as fascists, communists, socialists, conservatives, and capitalists, not to mention “Secular Orthodox,” “Nervous Orthodox,” and “Clumsy Orthodox.” Similarly, Shapiro embraces his identity as a young conservative and a Republican.
But which of these is a Jewish category? Shapiro’s strict “Halakhic Man” construction is not one he upholds, and is not one he is in position to demand of others. The very invocation of LGBTQ+ as a group does not ipso facto make any particular statement regarding one’s views regarding the movement as a whole.
Shapiro’s internal inconsistency is equally evident in his demand that we embrace conservative ideas that are not evident in the Torah. Following Rabbi J. David Bleich, Shapiro notes that “at the core of Orthodoxy lies a simple proposition: to be a Jew is to follow the Torah.” Similarly, Shapiro cites R. Hirsch’s insistence that “if Judaism has been established by G-d, then its business is to teach the age, but not to let itself be taught by the age.”
We would expect, then, that Shapiro’s conception of Modern Orthodoxy would be solely based on Jewish law. Yet in his critique of the OU, he invokes natural law. This is problematic; his strict construction of revelation as the basis of Jewish law is inconsistent with a commitment to “the natural law basis of marriage.” Indeed, unsurprisingly R. Bleich himself champions precisely this view that natural law is an unnatural graft onto Orthodoxy.
(To be clear, I am not contending that natural law has no place in Jewish thought. I believe that it does. My point is merely that Shapiro is inconsistent in this regard.)
Of course, this is not just about natural law; natural law is just one example of Shapiro’s larger conflation between Judaism and contemporary Christian conservatism – a conflation that is disrespectful toward both groups. His embrace of Catholic views on abortion in other contexts, for example, is inconsistent with a rigorous study of Jewish views on the subject, and fails to account for the wide range of views within the halachic literature on the subject. Conservatism or libertarianism is not Judaism or Modern Orthodoxy any more than liberalism is.
Shapiro cannot in one breath demand full commitment to the Torah as the sole source of our values, and in the next breath turn to modern conservatism as a legitimate basis on which to construct a worldview.
It is hypocritical for Shapiro to rebuke the Modern Orthodox community for having abandoned their values by assimilating to contemporary fads. For that is precisely what Shapiro himself does each and every day.
III. Beyond Ideological Purity
By this point it is clear why I consider Shapiro’s essay to be riddled with deep holes from beginning to end.
Still, while his argumentation is crude and poorly developed, stripped of most of its detail, there is merit to Shapiro’s larger argument.
He is correct that there is a reticence in Modern Orthodox circles today to confront head-on the most difficult questions of the day. We do tend to become sheepish when the stakes are most high. And while there are understandable reasons for this reticence, much is lost when our leaders do not speak their minds on the issues of the day. (My sense is that this is one very significant reason for Shapiro’s popularity.)
And I believe he is correct that in the end, it is not possible or desirable to claim that the dominant cultural views on LGBTQ+ and halachic Judaism are, for the most part, compatible. They are not.
But in his zeal for ideological purity, Shapiro’s angry indignation falls flat. He offers no concrete suggestions for caring for the people he has condemned, only platitudes to the effect that “Judaism has sympathy for those drawn to sin.” Shapiro preaches compassion, but he fails to take seriously our halachic mandate to act sympathetically toward members of the LGBTQ+ community within proper halachic parameters.
(One might respond that compassion for sinners is sometimes misplaced. But I don’t think that’s correct in this case, nor is that Shapiro’s argument, so I will not elaborate this argument here.)
Moreover, Shapiro offers no constructive vision for dealing with the real-world questions surrounding LGBTQ+ issues that principals and rabbis face on the ground. Instead, he prefers preaching on topics that enable him to avoid the sort of hard questions we confront as a community.
Would he refuse a Jewish education to the child of a gay couple? Would he deny shul entry or membership to a gay couple who do not claim that their actions are halachically proper? On which side of the mechitza, if any, would he ask a transgender person to sit? We don’t know. Dogmatic assertions are easy ways to earn points, but painful judgment calls on the ground are where our most difficult challenges lie.
Shapiro’s condemnations also would be more credible if he had real-world experience leading any of the institutions he is so quick to criticize from his ivory media tower.
But Shapiro’s errors run even deeper. Contemporary thinkers in general tend to overlook the ubiquity of tradeoffs in the social world. As Roy Baumeister – not exactly a card-carrying liberal – notes in his provocative book Is There Anything Good about Men, “modern social scientists, and probably modern citizens in general, do not adequately recognize how pervasive tradeoffs are” (p. 39). This means that almost any decision we make in one direction will have inevitable implications in another. This explains, for example, the need for the constant institution of new laws.
Applied to our discussion, this means that the greater the demand for ideological purity, the greater the countervailing need for compassion for those who, through no fault of their own, struggle desperately with their inclinations and their genuine desire to be true to the Torah. To the extent that one demands ideological purity, zeh le’umat zeh, one must increase efforts to provide appropriate support for LGBTQ+ members – without endorsing prohibited behaviors and without holding that biology is destiny.
Compassion and Authenticity
In the end, Shapiro’s essay is riddled with errors, argues in bad faith, and exposes him to charges of hypocrisy. It offers pat answers to hard questions, neglects the concrete mandate of compassion, and fails to address the real-world challenges that actually confront our community on the ground.
On the larger issues, Shapiro contends that in a time when many obscure the very serious prohibitions that are challenged by modern sexual mores, we must redouble our emphasis on asserting Torah truths. Others take the opposite tack, arguing that as we look to meet the profound needs and challenges confronting both members of the LGBTQ+ community and the larger Modern Orthodox community, we should avoid staking out clear-cut ideological positions so as not to alienate, and instead invest our energies into providing support for these individuals.
But this is a false choice. Both approaches are correct; in our current reality, they can and must coexist. We must be forthright and confident in articulating our values, but we should also avoid being needlessly antagonistic, intellectually dishonest, or uncharitable in our interpretations. Further, such confidence does not diminish, but in fact increases our obligation to support and, yes, embrace the most vulnerable members of our community.
A fuller account of this synthesis awaits a fuller exposition. The halachic and philosophical issues are too complex to elaborate in this space. But as we seek to navigate the minefield that lies ahead, one phrase may serve as a lamp to our feet:
Chesed ve’emet nifgashu. Kindness and truth met. (Tehillim 85:11)
May Hashem grant us the strength and wisdom to choose both truth and kindness as we continue to steer a path through the treacherous waters of our complex times.