Marc Shapiro Interview

After havdala Saturday night, I seize on the sentimental moment to ask Marc B. Shapiro for an interview before he leaves town.

He says he’s leaving tonight.

"May I drive you to the airport?" I ask.

He agrees.

There’s a big problem with my offer. My car is in the shop.

So I call around.

"Do you have a plan B?" asks one friend.

I call around and eventually get a car.

I park outside Shapiro’s Beverly Hills abode at 10:30.

I meditate and examine my soul to prepare for the interview.

At 10:47 p.m., I knock on the door.

By 10:50 p.m., we’re away.

I get him to hold my tape recorder and I grill him as I drive.

Luke: "What kind of Orthodox Judaism were you raised in and how did you like it?"

Marc: "I was raised in what they call "Modern Orthodoxy," the same sort I practice today. It was fine."

Luke: "Where did you go to yeshiva?"

Marc: "I went to the Hebrew Youth Academy. It’s now the Joseph Kushner Academy. Then I went to the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Both pretty well known schools."

Luke: "When you were a child, what did you want to do with your life?"

Marc: "Children. I don’t know if they know what they want to do. Certainly by high school, I knew I wanted to devote myself to academic studies."

Luke: "How much was your father [Edward Shapiro] an influence on that?"

Marc: "My father’s not really a Jewish scholar, so he wasn’t an influence in that respect, but in terms of being interested in academic things, he was a great influence. In the house, intellectual things were always present."

Luke: "How do intellectual things reside with Orthodox Judaism?"

Marc: "In the circles I traveled in, there’s a great respect for intellectual interests. It’s not obscurantist by any means. I teach at Chovevei Torah, which is very open to these things. It’s not an issue for me."

Luke: "How did you get into the chareidi world?"

Marc: "The chareidi world is very interesting. You see a tradition changing. A group of people who affirm they are traditional yet they are very different than traditional Jews were in the past. It’s a phenomenon that grew up in the past generation."

Luke: "Did you have an entre into that world?"

Marc: "There are so many different types of chareidim. They are the ones who are serious Jews and Jewish literature. I was interested in Orthodoxy. You can’t do that without being in contact with them. Many of them are open-minded. They’re not the typically obscurantist chareidi. They’re in it for social reasons. They feel that Jewish continuity is best served in that environment. Not having a television and things of that nature."

Luke: "Did you spend time in a chareidi yeshiva?"

Marc: "No. I’ve lived in Scranton, Pennsylvania which is a chareidi community. I have many contacts in the chareidi world and been to many chareidi areas but I’ve never been to a chareidi yeshiva. I don’t regret that. It’s very close-minded. They’re not friendly to people whose minds wander."

Luke: "How friendly is the Modern Orthodox world to that same thing?"

Marc: "Very. You can study about other religions in the Modern Orthodox world. You can have interests in academic pursuits and culture. There’s no intellectual sophistication in the chareidi world outside from Torah study. For people who have wide-ranging interests, it’s very stifling."

Luke: "How old were you when you learned about the documentary hypothesis ad why didn’t you just chuck Orthodox Judaism when you did?"

Marc: "I learned about that in high school. I don’t see why you chuck Orthodoxy because of the documentary hypothesis? I’m not a Bible scholar.  I can’t say one way or another if it is true. I don’t believe in it, but I am certain that if I were to be convinced that it is true, my life would be the same If it’s truth, then it is what G-d wants. I don’t think Judaism rises or falls on that. Judaism is about truth."

Luke: "If Judaism is about truth, and if virtually everybody who has studied the evidence — has a Ph.D. in Bible — has concluded the Torah is a post-Mosaic composite work, then ipso facto Orthodox Judaism is false?"

Marc: "No. Orthodoxy does not depend on every word of the Torah being mosaic. You can certainly believe that parts of the Torah are post-Mosaic and still be Orthodox. The question is, if you take someone who’s convinced by the documentary hypothesis, does that mean he should start eating non-kosher and stop fasting on Yom Kippur? Chaim Hershenson wrote about lower criticism. Higher criticism is problematic not because of the authorship but because of the development of religious beliefs.

"I’m not a theologian but I will say that you are certainly within the bounds of Orthodoxy to affirm more than one author for the Torah. However, I think Orthodoxy requres that the bulk of the Torah, and in particular the mitzvot, is of Mosaic authorship."

Luke: "If you believe the Torah is riddled with thousands of human errors (which everybody with a PhD in Bible believes), it’s hard to look at it as divine."

Marc: "Which errors?

Luke: "I’m just echoing Louis Jacobs."

Marc: "He was talking about multiple authorship."

Luke: "You don’t see a threat to Orthodox Judaism from Biblical scholarship?"

Marc: "I can’t say. Theologians would have to work out a theology. As long as you affirm it is divinely given, the authorship is secondary. I don’t know how you would prove that something is not divinely inspired."

Luke: "Once you start seeing all that human development in the text, the more you study the text from the perspective of secular scholarship, you see the human element, you start sucking the divine out of it, and then why should people keep it?"

Marc: "Maybe that’s why I never went into Biblical studies because I don’t know that I have all the answers to that. I believe the Jewish religion is bigger than any of these questions. I know Tamar Ross has tried to write about Biblical criticism and how that could coexist with traditional Orthodoxy. I don’t know that the two can coexist."

Luke: "What is your ideology?"

Marc: "I get asked existential questions a lot about Orthodoxy, but I’m really just an academic. I don’t mind giving my opinion but I do academic scholarship that many people find religiously significant, but I don’t have an ideology per se other than trying to be a good person and a good Jew. I’m not an ideologue for Modern Orthodoxy. I don’t see the modern state of Israel as the beginning of the Redemption and all that stuff."

Luke: "How did you find your niche?"

Marc: "There are few people in the academic world who have an interest in traditional writers on Jewish theology. I’m not talking about the philosophers, but the responsa literature. Louis Jacobs wrote a whole book about theology in the responsa literature. I was able to do a book on Germany Orthodoxy and Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg. Nobody had done anything like that. I was able to uncover stuff about Jewish theology in sources the average person wasn’t looking for. If you look in my book, most of my sources do not come from theological texts. They come from traditional rabbinic texts which have been used by halakhic authorities for different purposes than I use them for. That’s how I found my niche."

Luke: "How controversial a figure are you in the Orthodox world?"

Marc: "There’s no question that there are certain shuls who won’t have me but that’s precisely the reason why other shuls will have me speak. It’s a net gain. If you say anything of significance, you are always going to get certain people upset and cut yourself off. I’m not a rabbi with a shul. I’m an academic. I can say what I like without worrying about backlash."

Luke: "Are there things that are important that you don’t write or speak about publicly because you don’t want to deal with the tsures?"

Marc: "Yeah, I don’t write about certain things because I feel that it will create conflict. If I don’t feel it is in my area… If it’s in my area, I’m going to write about it. If there’s a figure and I’d have to get into certain personal details and if I didn’t write about them, I couldn’t get into an honest study, so I’d choose not to write on the person. It’s not that I’m worried about my reputation and it’s not that I’m worried about losing speaking gigs, it’s that I don’t feel comfortable touching these personal issues. Maybe it’s too soon. I should wait another 30 years. There are scandals in the Orthodox world that I know about but I don’t need to write about them."

Luke: "How important a value is truth in Orthodox Judaism?"

Marc: "That’s the subject of my next book (Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History). It’s not that important a value. Traditionally it has not been that important a value. Historical truth."

Luke: "Yeah, empirical truth."

Marc: "Truth is instrumental for many. You’ll find traditional sources that say as much. If it leads to good behavior, then that’s what’s important. Knowing the absolute truth is secondary. We see that already in the Talmud where it talks about you can lie for a higher purpose. You can tell a bride that she’s beautiful if she’s not beautiful. The Modern Orthodox are so influenced by modern understandings of transparency and objectivity, so academic-style truth is important to them, but it  is not a traditional Jewish value."

Luke: "What encourages you and what discourages you about the Orthodox Judaism you encounter?"

Marc: "In most of the Modern Orthodox world, there’s no interest in intellectual matters. It’s just a lifestyle, which is fine. It’s a good Jewish lifestyle. They’re interested in good kosher restaurants and Pesach hotels. That’s been a frustration. It’s mostly a lifestyle movement as opposed to an intellectual movement.

"The problem with the Orthodox is the parochialism, the focus on Jewish interests to such an extent that larger interests are ignored. Issues of social justice and suffering. It’s hypocrisy that Orthodox Jews want the world to feel guilty about the Holocaust, not doing enough, yet many of them think there is something unJewish about being concerned with people outside the small group. This becomes more of an issue the further right you go on the Orthodox spectrum. A Judaism which is only parochial has lost its bearings. The prophets such as Isaiah talk about social justice. If you quote it today, people think you’re quoting a Reform rabbi.

"There are reasons for this parochialism. With problems in the state of Israel, there’s a focus on Jewish concerns and a feeling that we can not have the luxury of more universal concerns."

Luke: "What’s the topic of your next book?"

Marc: "It’s just two essays on Maimonides. Did Maimonides make mistakes? Maimonides and superstition. The real book is the one on censorship and truth. I’m halfway through writing it. How certain forms of Orthodoxy have had to create a tradition which would align with their current weltaunchang and that entails rewriting the past and censorship. I have a long chapter on the value of truth in traditional Jewish literature."

Luke: "Did you read Noah Feldman’s New York Times Sunday magazine piece on his claim he was cut-out of his yeshiva’s newsletter because of his intermarriage."

Marc: "Sure. I think it is very telling that someone who is a Harvard law professor, one of the country’s young intellectuals, was a clerk for Justice Souter, he’s so concerned about his local school magazine. He’s obviously harboring all sorts of anger. In addition, he was the pro bono attorney for the city of Tenafly fighting the eruv, which shows he has all sorts of issues with Orthodox Judaism. He made some correct points but he came off whiney.

"We know now that he was not cut out as he claimed. That might be the end of his Supreme Court appointment. It’s going to come back to haunt him. Not that I’d have a problem if they did cut him out. If you inter-marry, you can’t expect to be included in the yeshiva newsletter. I think it hurt him a lot. It made him seem petty."

We talk about breaking the Sabbath to save the life of a non-Jew.

Marc: "You have to violate the Sabbath to save everyone, but the reason given in the sources is utilitarian (non-Jews won’t save us if we don’t save them). Rabbi Soleveitchik said he was troubled by this. My point was that all legal systems have to operate in a legal fashion. That doesn’t mean there aren’t moral considerations pushing you, but those are not in themselves enough to get to the result you want. You have to go through the system, the halakhic rules. When you get to the utilitarian factor, that’s the rule. That’s the way to get to where you want to go. That no more means you are ignoring ethical factors than when a rabbi tries to free an agunah whose husband is missing. He’s certainly motivated by ethical factors, by great concern for the suffering of the woman, but that’s not enough. You need to work within the system."

Luke: "Are there a significant number of Orthodox Jews who believe you should not break the Sabbath to save the life of a non-Jew?"

Marc: "No. The idea that you can break the Sabbath to save a Jew is questionable. During the Maccabee’s day, they allowed themselves to be killed. The rabbis say you violate one Sabbath so you can observe many Sabbaths. Today everyone says you violate the Sabbath to save a life. Some Orthodox Jews may wish we lived in a time when non-Jews understood we can’t break the Sabbath to save their life, but we live in an era when no non-Jew is going to understand that."

"The important thing is not the reasoning but the result."

Luke: "What’s the most common criticism you get?"

Marc: "That I’m needlessly provocative. But I don’t accept that."

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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