A recent public forum at Yeshiva University that took on the question of homosexuality in the Orthodox Jewish world has prompted a backlash from students and teachers, who fired back with petitions and public lectures condemning the event.
Critics of the event, held December 22, say it lent legitimacy to those who are trying to water down aspects of Jewish law, which explicitly bans homosexuality. With some students and rabbis calling the event a desecration of God's name, YU President Richard Joel and Rabbi Yona Reiss, dean of the rabbinical school, circulated a statement in the days after the forum reiterating the "absolute prohibition of homosexual relationships according to Jewish law."
In a lecture at YU on December 28, Rabbi Mayer Twersky sharply criticized the event, while acknowledging that its organizers probably had good intentions. "Not only in my lifetime, but I think in your lifetimes, there was a point in which such a shmooze [discussion] would have been unimaginable, inconceivable. Not only unnecessary, but inappropriate. Wrong," he said.
"If the Torah says something is a toevah [abomination], it is that," he said. "And there's no need and, more importantly, no justification for being politically correct in terms of what it is. The Torah says it, the Torah's value judgments are eternally true."
The controversial forum seeking to address the painful conflict of being a gay Jew was prompted by two anonymous accounts in YU's student newspapers. Attracting several hundred people to a packed auditorium, four gay students and graduates shared their stories in a discussion that deliberately avoided the question of halacha.
Although praised by many in the crowd, the forum set off new arguments on campus and effectively reopened a decades-long debate over homosexuality at YU, which has grappled with whether to allow gay clubs or housing for gay couples at some of its graduate schools. It also thrust YU itself into the center of an ongoing struggle over homosexuality in Orthodox Judaism.
In a statement, several leading rabbis at YU also reiterated Judaism's prohibition on homosexual acts. And in the days after the event, students circulated a petition characterizing the forum as a "desecration of God's name."
Joel and Reiss wrote "We are deeply concerned with the message the recent public forum on homosexuality in Orthodoxy sends to the rest of the world."
A public display of support for gay Orthodox Jews, they wrote, "indicates an implicit, if not explicit, acceptance and approval of a lifestyle that goes against the ideals of the Torah."
Responding to the backlash, Mordechai Levovitz, a YU graduate who helped found gay support group JQ Youth and who spoke at the December 22 forum, refuted Twersky's lecture in a point-by-point response that he posted online. Careful to articulate his respect for Twersky, a "Godol [giant] in learning and leadership," Levovitz wrote that use of the term "desecration of God's name" was "particularly disturbing."
"No one talked about their sex life. No one demanded a changing or ignoring of halacha," he continued. "The subjects were about the extra-halachic prejudices, silencing, pressures that the community may be responsible for."
Indeed, he said: "It is this type of 'name calling' that actually exemplifies the need for events like the panel… Just because the truth that we exist in YU, or in your shul, or in your family, causes you personal shame, does not make it a desecration of God's name."
Levovitz wrote that such insensitive language is "part of what makes being gay at YU so hard."
Several school officials contacted were not immediately available to respond.
In their statement circulated after the event, Joel and Reiss acknowledged that individuals struggling with homosexuality require "due sensitivity" but said such sympathy "cannot be allowed to erode the Torah's unequivocal condemnation of such activity."
"Sadly, as we have discovered, public gatherings addressing these issues, even when well-intentioned, could send the wrong message and obscure the Torah's requirements of halachic behavior and due modesty," they said, stressing YU's obligation to ensure its events promote the sacredness of a Torah life. "We are committed to providing halachic guidance and sensitivity with respect to all challenges confronted by individuals within our broader community, including homosexual inclinations, in a discreet, dignified and appropriate fashion."
Avi Kopstick, the president of the YU Tolerance Club who helped organize the event, expressed dismay but said he was prepared for such criticism. "Obviously, on a certain level I knew there was going to be this reaction," he said.
But Kopstick said he disagreed with those who claimed organizers wanted to take a lax approach with Torah law. "Obviously we weren't advocating to break halacha," he said. "We said specifically, we are not going to talk about halacha because we all know it's forbidden."
In an email to Joel and Reiss, Kopstick said he hoped their statement would not detract from the goal of the event, which was to raise awareness of the painful experiences of gay Orthodox Jews.
And while Kopstick did not take issue with their communiqué, he said Twersky's lecture on campus, while acknowledging that organizers had good intentions, did not take into account the reality of gay Orthodox Jews. "This isn't a couple of people who feel that they want to be gay and they want to let loose," Kopstick said. "I don't think he sees the implications of what the panel was meant to do."
But he said he was still grateful that YU agreed to host the event. "There was convincing," that had to be done, he recalled. "But in the end of the day, they realized that an issue like this can't be pushed under the rug."