Sorry Ben Shapiro, Judaism Doesn’t Care about Your Feelings
“Do you listen to Ben Shapiro?”
I guess it’s the kippah. I wear one, he wears one, so I must listen to him. Maybe I even know him personally. After all, don’t all kippah-wearing folks know one another?
As Ben Shapiro’s popularity continues to skyrocket, I receive this question with increased frequency. These days it is one of the more common questions I am asked, right after “why did the Jews reject Jesus?” or some question about Israeli politics.
Now let me say at the outset that I do not believe that Ben Shapiro is the logical, fact-based, genius that his supporters laud him for being. Many of his political views and beliefs are clearly based on cognitive biases where one over-values facts that bolster a viewpoint and devalues facts that counter it.
But this article isn’t about politics. It’s about Ben Shapiro’s misrepresentation of Judaism.
This past summer Ben Shapiro found himself under fire from the liberal Jewish world as he tweeted that virtually every halakhist (Jewish legal scholar) has banned abortion unless the life of the mother is threatened. This comment sparked a string of responses with many pointing out that the traditional Jewish view on abortion is much more nuanced than Ben Shapiro credits.
For one, while it is true that most Jewish scholars have historically been generally anti-abortion, only a tiny percent of them would agree with the modern pro-life movement that an abortion is akin to murder. Instead, many scholars equate abortion to a type of personal damage, like breaking someone’s arm. Bad, yes, but there are definitely more cases where it is morally acceptable to break someone’s arm than cases where it is morally acceptable to murder (not to even mention the fact that according to the talmud a fetus in its first 40 days it likened to “mere water”).
In stride with this view Jewish scholars have actually permitted abortion in a whole range of cases from a baby conceived in an adulterous relationship, to one that was tested to have Tay-Sachs, and even in various cases where the psychological well-being of the mother would be compromised. Of course, in the Evangelical world of anti-abortion hysteria there is seldom room for the nuance of 3,000 years of Jewish literature and discussion. And if Ben Shapiro wishes to remain both a part of that world and still have his moral views shaped by Judaism then he must reduce the nuances of Jewish tradition to the black and whiteness of modern political polarization.
We saw an astonishing example of this phenomenon last week as Shapiro spoke at the “March for Life Rally” in Washington, DC. In a controversial statement that has actually caused many of his own sponsors to since drop, Shapiro told the crowd of thousands that he would not abort baby Hitler.
“And the truth is” Shapiro said “that no pro-life person on earth would kill baby Hitler. Because baby Hitler wasn’t Hitler — adult Hitler was Hitler. Baby Hitler was a baby.”
If this is one’s moral opinion then fine. But it must be pointed out that according to the two criteria that Shapiro claims to use, facts and Judaism, his analysis falls awfully short.
First it must be pointed out that one’s opinion of abortion cannot be decided solely on facts. At the end of the end it is a philosophical belief regarding when a life is considered a life. No amount of knowledge and facts can tell us which belief is right. In other words, no matter how much we know of this “is” it will never become an “ought.”
Ok, so once it is a philosophical decision we must use some other form of reasoning. In Shapiro's case, as he has admitted many times before, it is Judaism. Well Judaism actually has its own version of the killing baby Hitler argument, and although it is thousands of years old, it is light years ahead in nuance than Shapiro’s binary moral worldview.
The Torah writes that if you have a rebellious son, a drunkard and glutton who doesn’t heed the voice of his mother and father, then the community should stone him (Deut. 21:18). The Rabbis of the Talmud in their philosophical, inquisitive, and skeptical nature have a field day with this verse.
“Just because this kid is a bit of a trouble maker, you should stone him?” they ask!
Rather, the rabbis answer, it must be because if this is what he is like in his youth, then he will continue to head down this path and eventually become a murderer. But, of course, that still didn’t sit well with the Rabbi’s moral conscious. So they increasingly add necessary prerequisites before the court can actually rule to stone the kid. Eventually so many prerequisites have been added that it becomes clear that it is impossible to ever convict a child according to this law, so they conclude that there has actually never been a child stoned for being rebellious.
But that sparks another question:
“Why does the Torah even bother to include a case like this if it is impossible to ever carry it out?”
It must be so we can learn it and gain reward, they answer. What reward? Both the reward of studying the Torah and a deeper and more nuanced moral understanding (to read all of this inside look at Talmud Sanhedrin 68b).
A level of moral nuance that Shapiro would do well to heed before making polarizing, black and white comments on abortion.
Remember that the case in the Talmud was deliberating about killing an already born child because he would become a murderer. While most of the rabbis reject this idea (there was actually one rabbi who argued against them), the implication is that it is conceivable that there is a scenario where it would be ethical to kill someone because of what they will do in the future. Even if those cases are so rare as to be nearly statistically impossible. But, since the rabbis don't even equate abortion with murder, it is safe to say some of them would almost certainly elect to have a baby aborted if it would grow up to be Hitler.
I totally understand the desire to have Judaism neatly fit into political viewpoints. But it is completely wrong and dishonest to claim so. Judaism is not pro-life or pro-choice, rather somewhere in between. Same with euthanasia, the death penalty, capitalism/socialism, and a whole string of other political issues.
And if that upsets you then fine, but the facts don’t care about your feelings.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
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