Forgetting Decency at Yeshiva University

mindy-schwartz-screengrab-from-youtube

Ben Shapiro ended his widely attended speech at Yeshiva University on Monday night, December 5th, with a bold statement: “I preach decency… If you act like a mentsch you should be treated like a mentsch.”

Sitting in the audience, I felt utterly dumbfounded.

Decency?

Ben Shapiro preaches a lot of things, but my big takeaway from his sermon: hypocrisy, both in his philosophy and—more disturbingly—in my own community.

Ben Shapiro claims to preach menschlichkeit and decency; Yeshiva University is an Orthodox institution that also lays claim to the imperatives of upright, moral behavior. But Shapiro’s cruel jokes at the expense of transgender people on Monday night and the steady, enthusiastic laughter and claps that these jokes garnered from the audience of YU students run counter to both of these claims.

Forget for a moment—if you can—Shapiro’s view that “transgender people are unfortunately suffering from a significant mental illness…and when you lie to people by humoring their delusion you are actually exacerbating mental illness,” a view that was met with robust applause and cheers from the audience.

Shapiro’s claim of “mental illness” directly contradicts the positions of the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Student Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, all of whom believe that at least some transgender people do possess a medical need for hormonal and or surgical treatment. But put the general consensus of medical professionals aside. While we can, and certainly should, discuss the science, I am simply addressing our behavior bein adam lechavro, between man and his fellow. Ben Shapiro claims to champion decency between men; “If you act like a mentsch you should be treated like a mentsch.” Our university similarly preaches the importance of behaving with decency, of showing kindness to our fellow man.

So where was this decency when Ben Shapiro mocked transgender women like Zoey Tur and Caitlyn Jenner? Where was this decency when he bragged that he called Zoey “Sir” to her face on national television? Where was this decency when he quipped that Tur’s voice was “at least an octave below” his own? Where was this decency when he joked that Tur’s admittedly hostile actions towards him on CNN Headline news constituted “deeply unladylike behavior?” More troubling still, where was this decency when many of the students in Lamport laughed and clapped in response to his boast and his clever witticism?

Kira Paley rightly pointed out Shapiro’s hypocrisy during the ‘Q&A’ portion of the event. She asked, “At the end of the speech you talked about how you preach decency…but you were clearly making jokes at the expense of transgender people. So…where do you draw the line between being a metsch and clearly offending people?”

Unfortunately, Shapiro deftly dodged the question by clarifying that he only “made fun of one person, who grabbed me by the back of the neck and threatened me with violence,” and so “to be fair” he has “the right to make fun.” Perhaps this is true about Zoey Tur, although I am not sure that disregarding the principle of rising above really falls under his alleged banner of decency? Even so, Shapiro fails to hold up to his own standard for who he will or will not mock. This same rule cannot justify the numerous jokes made at the expense of Caitlyn Jenner throughout Shapiro’s talk. As far as I know, Jenner has never threatened Shapiro or grabbed him “by the back of the neck.” But that didn’t stop Shapiro from mocking the praise of Jenner in the media with a handful of jabs. “Was Caitlyn Jenner gadol hador or gedolah hador [great woman or great man of our generation] was the big question?” , “Should we actually create an Elijah-like chariot to guide Caitlyn Jenner into the sky?” Shapiro asked facetiously, drawing spirited laughter and applause from the crowd.

Shapiro’s tone deaf claim to “preach decency” is upsetting when I think of the number of fans he has, both on this campus and in the wider world. But honestly, I had hardly heard of Ben Shapiro  before this event and I have no investment in him or his views (as, I am sure, he has none in mine). As an intellectual exercise I could step back, listen to his cogently argued points on conservative ideology, and evaluate them on their merits. Hearing his cruel jokes and blatant hypocrisy might trouble me, but I could listen to him speak and, at the end, I could just walk away, secure in the knowledge that Shapiro is not part of my community.

But when the cheers and laughter and applause have all died down, I cannot just walk away from Yeshiva University. I am personally invested in YU, not because I pay tuition but because on a deeper level, this school serves as my religious landing pad. YU is my community; YU is my home.

I ask my fellow students sitting in Lamport that night who laughed at those cruel jokes: Where is your kindness? Where is your much-lauded decency? Just think for a moment, even a moment, what a transgender person might have thought if he or she was sitting in that room. If he or she saw himself or herself treated as a joke, as some sideshow, some tool for cheap laughs. Whatever you think about transgenderism, a transgender person is still a person. Created in God’s image. Worthy of your respect.

We believe in the words of the prophet Micha, who proclaims: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micha:6:8) We believe in goodness, in kindness, in decency. So where was this belief in Lamport Auditorium?

Many students attended the Ben Shapiro event. Certainly, the entire student body was not all in Lamport, but a large number, a clear representative sample size, sat in those wooden chairs that night. Of course many students in attendance expressed no approval throughout the entire speech. There were surely others who cheered Shapiro’s conservative ideological points, but chafed at his crude jokes at the expense of transgender people. It is impossible to know for sure the exact number of students who whooped and cheered and laughed and clapped specifically at those moments. But it was certainly a decent number. Enough that this sentiment cannot merely be shrugged off.

The reality: this thoughtless cruelty in laughing at the expense of another is indeed reflective, to some extent, of the student body at Yeshiva University.

Of course, YU students are good people who do a great deal of good things. There are clubs on campus exclusively devoted to chesed and to random acts of kindness. Students run blood drives and fundraisers, lead sessions teaching inclusion of those with disabilities and organize trips to soup kitchens. I am sure that the majority of the students who laughed at these jokes did so thoughtlessly; they are, and remain, good people who contribute to the goodness done on this campus and in the broader community.

But that does not excuse the reality: there was laughter and it was cruel. For me, and I assume for a number of my fellow students, this is a profoundly upsetting reality.

After the speech, News Editor Yardena Katz briefly interviewed Shapiro for The Observer. Her last question: “If a transgender student at Yeshiva University were to hear you speak, what would you hope that they would take away from your words?”

Shapiro gave a predictable response: “That we can have an honest conversation about all of these issues, and the fact that [one’s] identity does not trump the content of the issues.” He continued, “I don’t care if a transgender person wants to get a surgery or take a drug. What I do care about is when they demand that I start pretending that biological sex does not exist. That’s when I have a problem. That’s a demand made of me.” He conveniently ignored the imperative of decency; how he could make cheap and sometimes wholly uncalled for jokes at the expense of another, and how that other would feel hearing those jokes.

YU seems to have no out transgender students as of this moment and the number, if any, of students who identify as transgender, but have yet to come out, is impossible to know. Even if there are no such individuals, the premise of Katz’s question still deeply troubles me. It hurts to think what would have run through the mind of such a student if he or she were sitting in Lamport that night. It hurts to think that there must be people who identify themselves as transgender who saw this live stream and heard the laughter, the applause, the cheers—-our laughter, our applause, our cheers.

A few days after the event, I am still left feeling unsettled and isolated from the community which I love and respect. It was isolating to sit in a room so devoid of decency and kindness, to feel like my home, once full of familiar faces, was suddenly crammed with strangers. It was unsettling to hear that laughter and wonder how much of our Torah education here at YU is truly being absorbed and incorporated into our daily actions.

I cannot walk away from YU. But I can demand better from its student body.