Category Archives: Writers & Thinkers

Jews in the Wonderful World of Literature, Thought, and Scholarship

Jew of the Week: Ben Shapiro

America’s Top Political Pundit

Ben Shapiro (Credit: Gage Skidmore)

Benjamin Aaron Shapiro (b. 1984) was born in Los Angeles to a Jewish family of Russian and Lithuanian heritage. His family became Orthodox when he was 9 years old, and Shapiro has been a Torah-observant Jew ever since. He skipped two grades and graduated from high school at 16, and from UCLA at 20 with a degree in political science. That same year, he published his first book, Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth. By this point, his political column was nationally syndicated, and Shapiro still has the distinction of being the youngest person in American history to have a nationally syndicated column. Shapiro then went to law school at Harvard, after which he worked as a lawyer for several years. In 2012, he became the editor of Breitbart News, though he resigned in 2016 over disagreements over Breitbart’s direction. He subsequently became the number one target of anti-Semitism in America, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Since then, he has been the editor of The Daily Wire, which is currently the top news page on Facebook (and has more engagement than The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News and CNN combined!) He is also the host of The Ben Shapiro Show, now the second most popular podcast in the US (ninth-most in the whole world!) and carried by over 200 radio stations across the country. Shapiro is famous for his many stimulating speaking engagements on campuses, and for his quick wit and debate skills. Altogether, Shapiro has written 11 books thus far and is among today’s leading conservative commentators. He has sometimes been confused with the alt-right, who he actually strongly opposes, and has been a frequent target of. Shapiro is an avid violinist (see a 12-year-old Shapiro play “Schindler’s List” here). Last week, he was in Israel for a CPAC conference and several thousand people crammed into an auditorium to hear him speak. He also made sure to visit the Temple Mount and pray there.

7 Reasons Why Ben Shapiro is So Hard to Debate

Ben Shapiro: Why Kids Can’t Choose Their Own Gender

Investment Advice from the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Words of the Week

Before the thinkers of Athens came along, the Torah arrived at the notion of equality before the law. All public institutions in the Torah – the judiciary, the priesthood, the monarchy, the institution of prophecy – are subordinated to the law. Moreover, the law is a public text whose dictates are meant to be widely known, thus making abuse of power more obvious and safeguarding the common citizenry… the most important body of authority in the polity envisioned by the Torah is none other than the people themselves.
Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman (Ani Maamin, pg. 174)

Jew of the Week: Philo of Alexandria

The First Jewish Philosopher and Torah Commentator

A 16th-century illustration of Philo Judaeus

Yedidya “Philo Judaeus” HaKohen (c. 20 BCE – 50 CE) was born to a wealthy Jewish family of kohanim in Alexandria, Egypt, which was then part of the Roman Empire and had one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. His father had earned Roman citizenship from Julius Caesar, and his nephew was a Roman prefect and military commander. Philo received an extensive education in Judaism, as well as the wisdom of Rome, Greece, and Egypt. He became a well-known philosopher and scholar, and a leader of Alexandria’s Jewish community. Around 37 CE, he led a diplomatic mission to the emperor Caligula to seek the end of the oppression of Jews in Alexandria and to reaffirm Jewish civil rights. He also convinced Caligula not to put a statue of himself in Jerusalem’s Holy Temple, for that would surely instigate a war, and explained why the Jews could not accept him as a deity or worship him in any way. Philo is most famous for his written works, producing what may very well be the first commentary on the Torah. He also wrote several texts to explain Judaism to the non-Jewish world, and a number of detailed works about the Roman Empire—now a gold mine for historians. He was also the first to synthesize Greek wisdom with Jewish wisdom (and in this regard, predated the great Maimonides by more than a millennium), and demonstrated how many fundamentals of Greek philosophy had already been laid out in the Torah long before. Philo advocated for a democratic government with the Torah serving as the constitution. Because of his numerous easy-to-understand Greek explanations for the Torah, Philo’s works ironically became more popular among Christians, and mostly forgotten in Jewish tradition. Nonetheless, he was a noted defender of Judaism at a difficult time of persecution, an important scholar and advocate on behalf of the Jewish people, and an inspiring philosopher and political figure. Interestingly, he is the first to mention the custom of staying up all night on Shavuot to learn Torah and recite holy hymns, in his description of a group of Jews associated with the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Shavuot Begins Saturday Night! Chag Sameach!

Video: Six Days of Miracles

The Mystery and Mysticism of the Essenes

Video: Why NBA Legend Amar’e Stoudemire Learns Torah

Words of the Week

The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the Five Books of Moses and the Bible as a whole.
– Arno Penzias, Nobel Prize-winning discoverer of the Big Bang

Jew of the Week: Rav Chaim Kanievsky

Prince of Torah

Shmaryahu Yosef Chaim Kanievsky (1928-2022) was born in Pinsk (then Poland, now Belarus) and made aliyah with his family to Israel when he was six years old. He never left the Holy Land thereafter. His father was the great “Steipler Gaon”, Rabbi Yaakov Kanievsky, and his maternal uncle was the famed Chazon Ish. Following in their footsteps, Kanievsky became a rabbi, too, and was recognized as a sharp scholar at a young age. As a yeshiva student during Israel’s Independence War, he briefly served in the newly-formed IDF and defended Jaffa (though he did it spiritually, spending most of the time at his post learning Torah!) He then married the daughter of another great rabbi, Rav Elyashiv. Rabbi Kanievsky typically studied Torah for about 17 hours a day. He would wake up at midnight to pray Tikkun Chatzot (mourning for the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people) and then learned for the rest of the day, starting with eight (double-sided) pages of the Talmud Bavli, followed by eight pages of the Talmud Yerushalmi, and then selections from a number of Jewish legal codes, the Tanakh, as well as Midrashic and Kabbalistic texts. What normally takes a typical rabbi a lifetime to study, Rav Kanievsky would complete every year! He was famous for his total mastery of all Torah texts, with photographic memory and an ability to mentally “scan” these texts for any word or phrase. He was often called the “Prince of Torah”. In addition to his studies, Rav Kanievsky wrote over a dozen popular books and commentaries. Hundreds of people would line up daily to ask questions and request blessings. His blessings were known to be fulfilled, often miraculously, and his legal rulings were followed closely by religious Jews, especially those in non-Hasidic Ashkenazi communities. He regularly responded to thousands of letters, too. Rav Kanievsky lived simply in a small apartment in Bnei Brak his whole life. After the passing of Rav Shteinman in 2017, he was widely-recognized as the supreme authority on Jewish law, and the top gadol hador. Sadly, the Prince of Torah passed away shortly after the conclusion of Purim last week. He had completed his yearly study cycle the previous day. Some 750,000 people came to his funeral, making it among the largest in Israel’s history.

Words of the Week

In a lottery, it is not the ticket that wins but the person.
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky