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Where Do We Go From Here?

Published: Friday, February 12, 2010

Updated: Saturday, February 13, 2010

On December 22, 2009, YU’s Tolerance Club and the Wurzweiler School of Social Work held a panel entitled “Being Gay in the Orthodox World,” which drew passionate reactions from both students and YU faculty alike. A panel like this one can go wrong in many ways and will never be perfect according to all opinions. That being said, I think there is merit to discussing the positive and negative aspects and outcomes of the panel in order to determine what should be the Orthodox world’s next steps in dealing with gay Orthodox Jews.

            One of the most startling successes of the panel was that, as promised, the panel did not in any way legitimize homosexual activity. Rabbi Yosef Blau began the panel by emphatically stating Halakhah’s unequivocal prohibition against homosexual actions; that position was not challenged by any member of the panel or audience. The panel restricted itself to the human realm of the suffering and isolation felt by the panelists and steered clear, for the most part, of probing into the actual practices of the panel members.

            Rav Twersky, in a sihah given in the Glueck Beit Midrash the week after the event,[i] argued that the panel indicated that secular mores are infiltrating Yahadut and are pushing boundaries where they should be most staunchly safeguarded. I agree that much of the increasing publicity about homosexual Jews is the result of a wake-up call we have received from our secular neighbors. I would ask, however, if that fact alone delegitimizes any message from the outside. As Western morality develops, it seeks to enfranchise and tolerate increasing numbers and types of people. Rights for women, the handicapped, the mentally disabled, minorities and animals are just some of the issues over which battles have been fought and are being fought around us. Is this inclusive drive antithetical to Judaism? Would anyone claim that having a shul with handicap accessibility is evidence of a nefarious penetration of secular values into core Jewish institutions, even if shuls in previous generations did not have them? Of course not. Sometimes, I believe, Yahadut would be well served if it took Musar from its neighbors. Obviously, secular society’s goal of legitimizing homosexual activities and lifestyles is antithetical to Yahadut. But a panel like this one distills the Jewish value of compassion for gays out of the objectionable trend toward legitimization of gay activity. Halevai that we had such a panel fifty years ago and became the trendsetters of tolerance and kindness, rather than remedial, post-facto, begrudging participants in this movement! 

            One of the likely benefits of the panel is that the hurtful, homophobic use of “gay” as pejorative slang in the Orthodox world will decrease. While obviously Halakhah disapproves of all insulting words,[ii] ba-avonoteinu ha-rabbim (due to our many sins) many Jews (myself included) are not sufficiently careful with this issur, especially in this context. The panel allowed me to put real faces to the gay “issue” that I read about in YU publications and the news generally. After having seen openly gay people who think like I do, talk like I do, learn like I do, attended the same yeshivah as I did and love their families like I do, I will (beli neder) never use “gay” as an insult again. I suspect that I am not alone in this resolution.

            Furthermore, the panel was a religious and social inspiration for currently closeted homosexuals who are struggling with a God and community that they feel hate them. The panelists described their struggles adhering to Yahadut and their eventual success in overcoming their doubts. One of the most important exchanges in this context was – and I am paraphrasing – Q: “Why would you come to YU if you knew that it would be easier to gain acceptance on a secular college campus?” A: “I wanted a place with morning seder and night seder.” This panelist’s response was that his sexual orientation does not constitute the entirety of his being and that he craves serious talmud Torah with the same passion as a heterosexual peer. It is this type of statement that can inspire homosexuals to remain Orthodox Jews despite the loneliness of the lifestyle they must lead to conform with Halakhah. A forum like this one shows homosexuals that there is a community of others who share their struggle and that while abandoning Orthodoxy may be the easiest path for a gay Jew, it is not the right path. At the same time, the overwhelming size of the audience at the panel demonstrated that much of the Orthodox community does not revile them as people but respects their courage and shares in their sorrow, even while affirming the eternity of the biblical prohibition.  

            In addition, the panel reassured closeted homosexuals that many Orthodox rabbis are extremely sensitive and supportive toward struggling gays. For a closeted homosexual who felt that he could not talk about his struggles with anyone, hearing the panelists’ successes in personally approaching rabbeim – as well as Rabbi Blau’s invitation to those struggling with these issues – must have been a huge relief. To be able to take counsel with a sympathetic religious authority figure is a first step toward coping with oneself and with God, one that is necessary in avoiding depression and self-destructive behavior. 

            On a personal note, the panel was an inspiration for me. I am in awe of the sacrifice that homosexual Orthodox Jews make in order to adhere to Halakhah. I think about the sacrifices that I make: not eating certain foods or indulging in other restricted carnal ta’avot, not doing schoolwork one day out of the week, needing to plan my daily schedule around minyan and seder. But, I realize, when all is said and done, these struggles pale in comparison to the prospect of never being able to be intimate with someone I love. Accepting Orthodoxy, despite its absolute and permanent restriction on one’s greatest ta’avah, requires a level of emunah I can hardly fathom. Despite Rav Twersky’s objection that awe at the struggle for a gay Jew to observe Halakhah amounts to permission to violate it, I believe that these are separable issues. The panel made clear that there are no exceptions to this issur. This in no way detracts from the recognition of the immense yetser hara that must be combated to adhere to this prohibition and the admiration deserved by one who does so.  

           

            Despite its successes, the panel was problematic in certain respects. For one thing, the panel should not have been presented to a co-ed audience. Even those (myself included) who are generally advocates of mixed activities would agree that discussions relating to sexuality should be held separately for the purposes of tseni’ut and avoiding kalut rosh. While the Orthodox community is generally in the business of encouraging forums for shiddukh-making, listening to the heart-wrenching trials of four homosexual men is probably not an ideal place to mingle.

            Inherent in any such type of public event regarding sexuality is admittedly a certain degree of compromise of tseni’ut. After all, a culture that refuses to compromise on issues of propriety would never discuss sexuality whatsoever; clearly, this is not the case with the Orthodox culture that exists today. Consider, for example, a public schmooze on dating with the Rashei Yeshivah or a public shiur about issur negi’ah (prohibition against touching members of the opposite gender). These matters are inherently personal and involve discussions of ta’avot that are generally not spoken about other than with one’s most intimate friends, relatives or rabbis. If, for any reason, there is a communal to’elet (practical benefit) to temporarily compromising the Jewish value of tseni’ut, it seems that we are generally willing to do so. The subject of homosexuality should be no exception.

Directing our gaze to the future, I would like to submit a query to the Rashei Yeshivah and members of the RIETS administration, who ultimately will decide the religious path of YU and likely the course of Modern Orthodoxy as a whole. The panel happened. Where do we go from here? Should we continue, as we have in the past, not to address the challenges of homosexuality in public forums and hope that the distraught homosexual individual finds his own way into the office of a psychologist or rabbi? Or do we now understand how important it is that we find ways of publicly addressing these issues further? If the latter, would a forum with communal rabbis and Orthodox psychologists be a more fitting venue for such a discussion? Is there a  curriculum for communal education and dialogue on this pressing matter? Is there room for a forum that discusses the theological implications of Hashem creating people in a way that dooms them to loneliness and pain? Will counseling for homosexuals become an integral part of the Pastoral Psychology semikhah class?

Like it or not, YU has thrust itself into the middle of this difficult issue and the eyes of the Modern Orthodox world are on YU to see how it addresses homosexuality among Orthodox Jews in the future.

 

Raphy Rosen is a junior at Columbia College majoring in Religion.

 



[i] A recording of Rav Twersky’s sihah is available at: http://www.torahweb.org/audioFrameset.html#audio=rtwe_122809.

[ii] See the issur of ona’at devarim in Va-Yikra 25:17.

 

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