A standing-room-only public forum last week at Yeshiva University could take the discussion about gay Jews in the Orthodox community from a single meeting hall to the entire movement, focusing on the balance between empathy for individuals and the halachic ban on homosexual activity.
An estimated 600 to 800 people last week attended “Being Gay in the Modern Orthodox World,” a panel discussion on the university’s Washington Heights campus sponsored by YU’s year-old Tolerance Club and its Wurzweiler School of Social Work.
More than 100 people were turned away for lack of space, according to news reports.
The event, which featured gay students and alumni from the college, with YU administrators serving as moderator and post-panel commentator, focused on the participants’ personal stories rather than halachic or psychologicalissues regarding homosexual behavior.
And it appears to have widened a schism at the university between liberal and conservative elements, reflecting a division over homosexuality in the general Modern Orthodox community as to how much attention to give it and whether to cast it in a softer or harsher light.
Separate statements issued by President Richard Joel, and by leading members of the rabbinical school’s Talmudic faculty, distanced themselves from the event while not outright condemning it.
The program was the latest example of an internal debate that has taken place at the school for several years over the limits on acceptance of behavior condemned, according to leaders of the Orthodox community, by the Torah and Jewish law. And, as the most visible sign of a slowly increasing toleration within Modern Orthodoxy for largely isolated gay Jews, it may spark a further reexamination of Orthodox attitudes, say gay Jews with ties to the university.
“The first step is to tell the stories that break people’s hearts,” said Rabbi Steve Greenberg, who was ordained at YU and is a senior teaching fellow at CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
“I like to say that only a broken-hearted Orthodox leadership will move forward to consider any halachic re-evaluation of the issue.
“The next step in this conversation,” he continued, “is [to answer] ‘How can the halacha incorporate that reality’” of homosexuals who wish to maintain their level of observance and ties to the religious community?”
Rabbi Greenberg, the first Orthodox rabbi to publicly identify himself as gay, likened the YU forum to “Trembling Before G-d,” Sandi Simcha Dubowski’s 2001 documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews. The film portrayed them not as deviants but as sincere individuals trying to balance their commitment to halacha with sexual drives condemned in the Torah.
Last week “was the first time an Orthodox institution has been willing to listen to our stories in a public forum,” said the rabbi, who attended the event. “It’s a game changer. It challenges people to come up with thoughtful ways to respond.”
Struggling With Sexual Identity
Avi Kopstick, a YU undergraduate who founded the Tolerance Club in 2008 to combat prejudice against many groups, including gays, said YU’s social work school co-sponsored the event and YU sanctioned it because “the school recognized the need for such a conversation.”
The Jewish Week sought comment on the issue from several Yeshiva University administrators and faculty members, but all declined.
While the university’s undergraduate programs — Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women — serve an entirely Orthodox student body, the graduate schools are much more diverse, with many non-Jewish and liberal Jewish students and faculty.
At last week’s event, three Yeshiva College alumni and Kopstick, a current undergraduate, described their internal conflicts over admitting their sexual orientation to a largely disapproving religious community, and told how they continue to live and identify as observant Jews. They told about self-discovery and depression, supportive rabbis and critical family members, some of whom later became supportive.
“I’m speaking up for people who can’t,” for gay Jews still “in the closet,” Kopstick said.
“I’m gay and nothing I’ve done can change that,” he said.
“I didn’t go down without a fight,” trying to overcome his same-sex attraction, he said. He prayed “for Hashem to take this test away,” before he decided that “Hashem made me gay. My test is not that Hashem made me gay and that I have to become straight, but my test is to live with it.”
Kopstick spoke of his yearlong shidduch experience with a close female friend. He finally ended their dating relationship, he said, without admitting his homosexuality to her, deeply hurting his “best friend. What I did to her was unforgivable.”
Graduate Joshua Teplitsky told of contemplating suicide as he struggled with his sexual identity. He told of trying to bury his sexual feelings “deep, deep down,” and of going from “ ‘us’ to them” in the eyes of some Orthodox Jews.
His friends and family are now largely supportive, he said.
Fellow Yeshiva graduate Mordechai Levovitz, telling his story with the aplomb of a stand-up comedian, said that when he was younger, he was an embarrassment to his family because of his effeminate mannerisms and anxiousness to discuss homosexuality in Orthodox settings. He said he was told, “Nobody wants to talk about this. This is something we’re ashamed of.”
Looking at the capacity crowd, he declared, “This is something people do want to talk about. We’re no longer alone.”
The crowd was respectful, listening quietly to the speakers’ remarks, interrupting only for applause, and laughter at the men’s humorous remarks.
Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani (spiritual adviser) at the school’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, served as moderator of the program, and David Pelcovitz, a professor of education and psychology at YU, delivered remarks at the conclusion.
“It’s incredibly important for all of you here to understand that this was not an easy path for anyone we just heard,” Pelcovitz said, adding that “validation [of the speakers’ sexuality] and agreement are two different things.”
Issue Has Surfaced Before
While in recent decades the gay issue surfaced at YU in the form of a lawsuit over accommodations in graduate student housing, and over the approval of a gay student club, the acceptance of homosexuals has become a subject of frequent public debate in the last few years. That includes:
* a panel discussion at Wurzweiler, with a much smaller crowd than last week’s program attracted, featuring members of JQ Youth, a support group for young gay and lesbian observant Jews.
* an essay entitled “Opening Doors,” by Rabbi Greenberg in Kol HaMevaser, a student magazine. He wrote that an unnamed “well-known” YU rabbi and scholar who had come to meet several Orthodox gay men and women, “tells gay people now that … while he cannot permit, he also no longer feels in a position to condemn.”
That issue of the magazine, which also contained a controversial article about the halachic ban on men and women touching each other outside of marriage, was withdrawn from circulation under pressure from the university’s administration, according to The Commentator, a student-run newspaper.
* an anonymous article in the magazine, “A Burning Fire and a River of Tears: One Day in My Shoes,” by a gay YU student. “Never would I dream of trying to say that homosexuality is permissible; I know that there is something intrinsically wrong with such an act,” he wrote. “Many tears have flown from my heavy eyes and there will be many more. One day in my shoes, a trial that will last a lifetime.”
* an anonymous essay in The Commentator, “The Gay Question: Time for Modern Orthodoxy to Take Off the Blindfold,” by someone who identified himself as a gay student in the school’s Mazer Yeshiva Program. “The time has come for our rabbinic leadership to realize that gays are as common in the Jewish community as they are in the secular community,” the student wrote. “I urge the rebbeim [rabbis] of Yeshiva University and other rabbinic leaders to recognize our existence, and to take a proactive role in organizing open discussion of the issue of homosexuality. We need to eliminate the stigma.”
‘Deeply Conflicting Views’
Reactions in the YU community to The Commentator essay were credited with leading to last week’s panel discussion, the audience of which reportedly included students from other universities, as well as YU.
“The event … modeled a kind of compassionate listening and human decency which neither trumped nor trivialized the deeply conflicting views about gayness held by people in the audience,” Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, co-president of CLAL, wrote in his blog on the Beliefnet Web site. “Instead, it proved that we all have the ability to listen and feel beyond the borders of any particular doctrinal conclusion.”
In their subsequent statement, the five roshei yeshiva of YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary; as well as President Joel and Rabbi Yona Reiss, dean of the rabbinical school, cited Judaism’s traditional ban on homosexual acts.
“Homosexual activity constitutes an abomination,” according to the statement by the roshei yeshiva. “As such, publicizing or seeking legitimization even for the homosexual orientation one feels runs contrary to Torah. In any forum or on any occasion when appropriate sympathy for such discreet individuals is being discussed, these basic truths regarding homosexual feelings and activity must be emphatically re-affirmed.”
Issued several days after the event, the statement by Joel and Rabbi Reiss reiterated that “homosexual relationships” are absolutely prohibited according to Jewish law. It added: “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.”
Observers believe that some Orthodox leaders now see gay Jews as victims rather than aggressors, and are seeking to deal with them with compassion — without undermining halachic authority.
Rabbi Greenberg, who graduated from Yeshiva University nearly three decades ago, called last week week’s forum a sign of an attitude change at the school.
“It’s better” even if “It’s hardly NYU,” he said, referring to liberal New York University.
“Students in general have a live-and-let-live attitude about this [gay] issue in greater numbers.”
When he attended YU, the topic was not discussed, according to the rabbi. “Since the mid-‘90s, it’s been a piece of the conversation,” he said, noting with wonder that this past year, for the first time, his book, “Wrestling With God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition,” was on sale at the annual YU Seforim [Book] Sale.