Signaling a red line on how far Modern Orthodoxy is prepared to bend to adjust to societal changes, a liberal seminary in Riverdale will not ordain an openly gay student who is engaged to be married and completing his fourth year of rabbinical studies this spring, The Jewish Week has learned.
In a statement to The Jewish Week, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) student Daniel Atwood, 27, wrote: “Four years ago I came out as gay during my first year at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, and it was decided that I would receive semicha [ordination] as their first openly gay student. After four years of study and my completing almost all of the program’s requirements, YCT decided not to give me semicha, news delivered to me only a few weeks ago, three months before my graduation, without any prior conversation on the matter.”
Atwood’s statement continued: “I always knew that being in the position that I am in would be a difficult process. I was always willing to navigate those challenges and work with YCT throughout this process. And I have always been fully committed to living my life according to Orthodox halacha. At the same time, I refuse to live anything but a dignified life, something I was always transparent about, including not being closeted or secret about my Torah, my identity, my beliefs, or my relationship. … Most importantly, I am grateful for all the support my immediate family and my partner, Judah Gavant, have given me over my years in rabbinical school.”
He stated that he is pursuing an independent ordination.
In an email to The Jewish Week, Rabbi Dov Linzer, YCT’s president and rosh yeshiva, declined to comment on the specifics of the case. “We accept all students regardless of sexual orientation, provided that they are fully committed to Orthodox halachic observance,” he wrote. “There have been students in the past that did not receive semicha, each one for reasons specific to his case. Out of respect for all our students, the yeshiva does not discuss particular students and why any student may or may not be receiving semicha,” the rabbi wrote, adding that “the yeshiva could have handled the process of informing Daniel, and coming to a timely decision, in a much better manner, and we are sorry for the hurt that was caused as a result.”
The decision marks a turning point for the rabbinical school, which has served for nearly 20 years as the flagship institution for a subgroup of Modern Orthodoxy often dubbed “Open Orthodoxy.” Founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss as an alternative to the more right-leaning Yeshiva University, the school ordained its first class in 2004 and has since ordained more than 100 rabbis.
Since its founding, the yeshiva has sought to balance its Orthodox credentials with its progressive values. This decision is being perceived by some as an attempt by the yeshiva to more firmly ground itself in the traditional Orthodox world, which maintains that Jewish law prohibits homosexual relations. While there has been a significant increase in empathy for LGBT Jews in recent years within the community, inclusion has rarely reached the level of communal leadership.
“I’ve never been more disappointed in Modern Orthodoxy and its institutions,” Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the previous president of YCT, said of the decision to deny Atwood ordination. “We are supposed to stand for an unfearing loyalty to halacha, and it seems to me that there are so many who are acting out of fear and not who they really believe halachically can be a rabbi. We’re supposed to fear God alone, we’re not supposed to fear what other Jews are going to say about it.”
“So it’s a real shameful moment,” Rabbi Lopatin continued. “I hope that there will be dozens of Orthodox rabbis that step forward and say that we want to give this student semicha and not dozens that are cowering behind closed doors.”
Seminarians at YCT interviewed for reactions to the Atwood situation said they were pained by the decision.
“The last few weeks have been a very challenging and painful time to be a student at YCT,” one student, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the situation, wrote in an emailed statement. “We feel upset and angered about the process that led to this decision. When Daniel got engaged, I was excited because I thought YCT would affirm his choice and still grant him semicha. It was deeply saddening for me to learn that they wouldn’t.”
Alumni of the school say they were informed that Atwood would not be ordained last month in a conference call. Several described feeling distraught at the news, having felt hopeful that Atwood’s ordination would set a path for future gay students.
Several graduates of the school say alumni are divided over the school’s handling of this decision.
If the leadership at Chovevei can’t find a way to make space for gay Orthodox rabbis, that sends a pretty devastating message to that community…
“People look to Chovevei to be a beacon for people who are trying to stay committed to the Orthodox world and at the same time not have to compromise their moral values,” said Rabbi Aaron Potek, an alumnus of YCT and the rabbi of GatherDC in Washington, D.C. “If the leadership at Chovevei can’t find a way to make space for gay Orthodox rabbis, that sends a pretty devastating message to that community and to the broader Orthodox community about what is and is not possible to be included in that world.”
Rabbi Avram Mlotek, founder of Base Hillel and a graduate of YCT, said he felt “heartbroken” for Atwood and his family.
Others defended the school, noting the requirement for YCT students to be fully committed to Orthodox halacha, or Jewish law and Atwood’s engagement in the fall to his partner with whom he lives.
“We’re living at a time when people are trying to figure out how someone can be gay and keep halacha at the same time,” said Rabbi Chai Posner, associate rabbi of Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Baltimore and a graduate of YCT. “This would be the first time an Orthodox rabbi would be granted semicha while being openly gay, and fair or not, that reality carries with it a certain level of expectations” in terms of adherence to halacha. “The bar is certainly raised for someone who is going to be a rabbi.”
The bar is certainly raised for someone who is going to be a rabbi.
Rabbi Aviad Bodner, a graduate of YCT, is rabbi of Stanton Street Synagogue on the Lower East Side. He said close to one-third of his synagogue’s leadership is LGBT. “The Orthodox community must do more and can do more to be more welcoming to the LGBT community,” he asserted. “Without addressing this specific case,” Rabbi Bodner said that YCT “must ensure that every one of its musmachim [ordained rabbis] is observant and follows halacha.”
Several alumni emphasized the constant tension YCT deals with in navigating between the broader Jewish world and more traditional Orthodox elements.
“Chovevei is being pulled in two directions,” said Rabbi Potek. “There’s a group of alumni and students who want Chovevei to be taking these important steps toward greater inclusivity, and then there are alumni who are paranoid about what right-wing Orthodox Jews will think about their Orthodoxy.”
“We’ve come very far in Modern Orthodoxy, and I think Chovevei has been a leader in trying to create welcoming space for people of all orientations … but I understand that this, for many, will feel like a real blow,” said Rabbi Ari Hart, rabbi of Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob Synagogue in Chicago and a graduate of YCT. He said that controversy over this issue indicates that “we as a Modern Orthodox community have more work to do.”
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, a graduate of YCT and founder and president of the Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek, wrote in an email to The Jewish Week: “In response to the millennia of torture and abuse perpetrated against LGBTQ folks, I believe we need a real tikkun (spiritual repair) today” and a dramatic shift “toward radical inclusivity. There is a desperate need for Orthodox rabbinic leadership to gain moral clarity on its communal policies of inclusion.”
This is not the first time YCT’s actions have sparked debate among its alumni. In 2016, several YCT alumni wrote an open letter opposing the practice of “partnership minyanim,” traditional-style services in which women lead parts of the service and a practice embraced by several YTC alumni. “We, the undersigned musmachim of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah became rabbis because we felt and still feel a passionate love for Judaism, Torah and the Jewish people,” the rabbis wrote. “We love the beauty and vibrancy of Modern Orthodoxy and have no desire to start a new denomination or break away from our Orthodox community.”
In 2009, Rabbi Weiss privately ordained Rabba Sara Hurwitz in a controversial move that further alienated the movement from the mainstream Modern Orthodox community. Rabbi Weiss and Rabba Hurwitz subsequently founded Yeshivat Maharat to ordain women as Orthodox spiritual leaders.
Rabbi Linzer, who has been the rosh yeshiva of YCT since its founding and assumed the role of president last fall, has long been an advocate for acceptance of LGBT members of the Orthodox community.
In his email to The Jewish Week, he pointed out that YCT has been engaged since its inception in “what can be done for the LGBTQ members of our community.” He noted that the yeshiva “regularly brings in members of Eshel, JQY, and the LGBTQ community, as well as rabbis, poskim, and community leaders, so that we can best chart a path forward that is rooted in Torah, halacha, and responsible rabbinic leadership, and that honors the inherent dignity of every human being created in God’s image. We continue to grapple with this issue and are always learning in the process.”
In an online discussion organized by JOFA, Rabbi Linzer discussed the Jewish legal ramifications of two men living together and wrote that “our focus has to be not on halacha, but on communal acceptance and on making gay men and women, and their spouses or partners, as well as their children, fully welcome and fully a part of our communities, synagogues, and schools.” He continued: “On a communal level, we should be very wary of assuming that we know what goes on behind closed doors. It also is none of our business. We do not presume to know, or believe it our business to know, which family is or is not keeping the laws of niddah (ritual purity), and to judge them accordingly, and this should be no different.”
In an op-ed in the Forward from 2017, Rabbi Avram Mlotek quoted Rabbi Linzer’s speech at the school’s annual dinner that year. “‘And let it be that we all may know your name and study your Torah.’ Let us make sure that everyone — rich or poor; Orthodox, Reform or unaffiliated; straight or gay; cis- or transgender; those with disabilities and those without; white, black, or brown — that every Jew knows that the Torah is for him or her, and that he or she has a place in our schools, synagogues and communities.”
Editor’s Note: The article has been updated to more clearly reflect the fact that Atwood became engaged in the fall and is living with his partner.