The biggest surprise was the quality of the speeches, which were of an extremely high intellectual caliber
Conservative superstars Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro were in Jerusalem just before Succos, and they sold out the main hall of Binyanei HaUmah (3,000 seats), in just a couple of weeks, at $100 per seat. I was curious enough to wheedle a press pass from the Tikvah Fund, which sponsored the event.
Despite being an admirer of Jordan Peterson, and having a couple of sons who are major fans of Ben Shapiro, I confess that I went without any great expectations. I have been at enough Jerusalem events where a largely Anglo crowd, old enough to make me a boychick, enthusiastically applauded some speaker whom I respect saying perfectly reasonable things. But the effect always struck me as akin to throwing red meat to the lions — a sin of which I have been guilty myself.
But if I expected more of the same, I was pleasantly surprised. The crowd was young, approximately half religious (mostly kippah serugah) and half less obviously so. And though most of the evening was in English, my impression was that the audience was not overwhelmingly Anglo.
The biggest surprise was the quality of the speeches, which were of an extremely high intellectual caliber and bore no resemblance to stock stump speeches, with frequent applause lines. Shapiro speaks so fast that it is hard to figure out how he breathes at the same time. But he did not stumble over a word even once in his rapid-fire address, even while quoting frequently from the Chumash in English.
Every revolutionary movement since the French Revolution, he argued, has been predicated on liberating human reason from religion. But in reality, Biblical religion has been the basis for the flowering of human potential. Shapiro enumerated three crucial principles from Sinai that underlie Western thought and culture.
The pagan panoply of gods presupposed and attempted to explain a chaotic universe. Biblical monotheism, however, teaches the opposite: The world is not chaotic but subject to rules put in place by a unitary Creator.
Avraham’s challenge to Hashem — “Shall the Judge of the entire earth not do justice?” (Bereishis 18:25) — assumes a set of binding moral rules. That challenge further assumes that the rules of morality and the physical universe are subject to investigation by man. That is the basis of all science.
Second, Hashem demands that man act morally, and His expectations are high. Because man is created in the Divine image, he has free will. As Hashem tells Kayin prior to his murder of Hevel, “sin crouches at the entrance... yet you can rule over it.” That free will means that man is subject to reward or punishment for his freely chosen actions.
Finally, the Bible sets G-d, Who is above time, in a time-bound universe, one in which history progresses toward a specific end — Hashem’s revelation to the entire world. History is not a straight line, but at the center of the movement toward its goal is the love affair between Hashem and His people, Israel.
Today, the foundational text of the West, the Hebrew Bible, is being shredded. But without it, we end up with the human carnage of the utopia of pure reason, without G-d, of the Soviet Union or the neo-paganism of the Nazis.
At the conclusion of his talk, Shapiro received a standing ovation from the entire audience; the applause of the young man with the shaved skull sitting next to me was no less fervent than that of the religious audience members. What struck me was how eager even the secular Israelis in the crowd were to hear about what the Hebrew Bible — their Bible — contributed to the West and why those Biblical ideas remain essential today.
WHEREAS BEN SHAPIRO stood at the podium speaking machine gun style. Jordan Peterson wandered around the entire stage, as if he were Hamlet delivering a soliloquy. And though the structure of his talk was harder to discern than Shapiro’s, and I had to look up some of the words he used, his speech was a brilliant tour de force, and, like Shapiro’s, not overtly political.
Peterson began with a critique of postmodernism, the idea that every text is subject to an infinite variety of individual readings. And therefore, there can be no canonical texts and no agreed-upon morality. All that remains is power and domination. And once one reduces the entire world to hierarchies of power and domination, then one is free to employ power to dominate others.
To refute the postmodern reduction of all life to power relationships, Peterson turned to the work of Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal. The most successful male chimpanzees, de Waal found, are not the strongest, but rather those most skilled at reciprocal giving and peacemaking. De Waal also found that those chimps who rely on dominance tend to come to violent ends and die young. As a life strategy, dominance is a poor choice.
Rather Peterson advocated for the pursuit of a unified, transcendent goal as the best path for individuals, couples, families, and ultimately for entire societies. Without a high degree of unity, there can be neither psychological health nor social peace.
Peterson attributed the ability to pursue unified goals to monotheism. He pointed out that when Moshe Rabbeinu was first sent to Pharaoh, his message was not “Let My people go” but “Let My people go that they may serve Me.” He examined a number of Biblical stories as characterological studies of what is needed to pursue unified goals. He cited, for instance, Yisro’s advice to Moshe not to be the exclusive judge of the people, but rather to develop hierarchical levels below him, as an antidote to a dangerous form of nationalism: one in which the state becomes a god and subsumes all lower levels in the social hierarchy — individual, couple, family — under its aegis.
The key ingredient that allows the pursuit of goals together is responsibility, which means, first and foremost, not acting like an extremely poorly behaved two-year-old pursuing every momentary whim. Growing up means recognizing that one will have to live tomorrow with the consequences of what one does today. Development of responsibility requires that spouses engage in a constant process of discussion and negotiation, and so too the immediate family. At the societal level, liberty can only flourish when there exists an agreed-upon set of rules of cooperation and competition.
Like Shapiro, Peterson closed his speech, and the first part of the program, with a paean to Jerusalem. Are you participating in telling the greatest story ever told? he challenged the audience. I understood him to be referring to the survival of the Jews under circumstances of constant adversity. In the modern context, that refers to the constant adversarial criticism of Israel. And telling the greatest story means showing the world what the holy city of Jerusalem could look like.
“We need it,” Peterson said, as a non-Jew from a tiny town in western Canada.
THERE WAS a great deal more, too, in the subsequent hour and a half of questioning by former US ambassador to Israel David Friedman and members of the audience. But I’d like to focus on just one point: the emphasis on family.
Ben Shapiro told the audience at one point, “You still know how to have kids,” noting that Israel is the only developed country with above-replacement-level birthrates. And Peterson too brought home the crucial importance of family.
Asked what Israelis can do to foster peace, he responded, “Make peace in your own houses.” That requires confronting all one’s own weaknesses, with courage and without self-deception. The same ability to make peace with one’s spouse and one’s children can then be transferred to a larger stage.
Therefore, act as if the entire weight of the world is on your shoulders, he counseled. Because it is. As Solzhenitsyn said, “One man who stops lying can bring down an empire.” —
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 935. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at email@example.com)
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