Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Everything we feel is born out of the perspective we come from. There is some truth in what everyone feels - even if different people feel contradictory things.

When I was in high school, Stern was seen as the "frum" college choice. When I was in Stern, I met people who came from the opposite end - they came from worlds where Stern (and YU) was seen as a more "modern" college choice. The same Stern and YU.

In certain circles, I hear people complain about YU and how it's growing so much to the right. In other circles, people are afraid of YU shifting too much to the left.

So which is it?

YU (and the CJF) has many different kinds of events: the seforim sale, Torah Tours, etc. Sometimes, YU has events that are more questionable or more "to the left." The Gay Panel was one of those events. Here are my thoughts on the gay panel event.

1. I believe that we have an obligation to be sympathetic to the plights of any of our Jewish brethren. Jewish homosexuals have a particularly difficult struggle in that they can never really get married and have children.

1a. Getting married and having children is only one major aspect of living a Jewish life. Devoting one's self to Torah and to the community can be another. There is more than one way to find meaning in life, and there is more than one way to have a fulfilling Jewish future. That said, I am completely sympathetic to the pain of knowing you will never marry and raise a family.

2. As harsh as this sounds, there is nothing the public Jewish community can do to help homosexuals. All we can do is feel sympathy. We cannot decide to make something halachikly okay when it is clearly not. We cannot turn a blind eye to any halachik transgressions because we feel bad. As R' Twersky said, there is such a thing as having too much sympathy. The more sympathetic a person is, the more that person wants to lessen someone else's pain, and then the more that person might allow certain things to slide that should not. Our sympathy has to remain only in the "feeling sensitive" category, not "feeling so bad that we'll do anything to lessen the other person's pain." We just can't make things okay that are not okay, no matter how badly we feel.

2a. Therefore, a public event like the panel serves a confusing purpose. It brought about some good - I have heard a bunch of people say that they used to not have any feelings towards the homosexual issue and now they feel sympathetic, which is a valuable outcome (if it is a healthy amount of sympathy). It also has the potential to bring about harm - someone might feel that YU is condoning homosexuality, that YU students support homosexuality, and/or that this is just one step forward down a tricky road of possible serious halachik transgressions. Do we really think the subject of homosexuality at YU will remain in the area of just discussing how difficult it is for Orthodox homosexuals? Or is this only the beginning towards a questionable future? I don't know. I don't think anyone can know. It remains to be seen. Am I offended by the event? No. Am I angry it occurred? I wasn't. After reading the notes of R' Reiss's speech, however, I feel his deep sadness that something like arayos needs to be discussed in this manner at YU - a makom Torah. I do find it upsetting that we should need a reminder that such a thing is not allowed. But I also believe that not all the panelists, and certainly not the people who organized the event, or R' Blau, or those who attended the event, ever intended to give off the impression that acting on homosexuality was acceptable. Such a perception grew out of the reactions of those against the panel. Now that this perception exists, however, YU and the Orthodox world must combat the idea that an Orthodox institution could ever condone such a thing, and we all must remind ourselves that no matter how sympathetic we feel, we can never be supportive of actual homosexual behavior.

3. Homosexuality is a private, personal issue. A person dealing with homosexuality 100% should receive guidance and inspiration on how to continue to lead a frum Orthodox life while grappling with this struggle, but that person should be turning to rabbonim, friends, and family for this guidance and support.

Saying homosexuality is a private issue is not the same as sweeping it under the rug. When something is accused of being "swept under the rug," it is when there is something that ought to be exposed and is not. This goes for abuse, molestation, etc. When it comes to homosexuality, there is nothing to expose that is being hidden away. There is no evil we as a community ought to bring out into the open in order to deal with and protect people from. Homosexuality is a personal issue. It involves the person and the people in that person's personal life. Such an intense struggle is something sensitive that ought to be treated as such, not by airing it out for the whole community to hear but by dealing with it discreetly and respectfully. That is also the most productive way to deal with it: the way a person will actually receive the most help and guidance.

4. There has been a lot of outcry about the direction Orthodoxy is headed. Some say it's heading too much to the left, some say too much to the right. I say this: Throughout Jewish history, we as a religious entity have had to deal with various difficult issues. We have survived and survived and survived. And we will survive this, too. Orthodoxy will not disappear and it will not turn into something unrecognizable. Things change all the time, but our core values are always the same. The Torah is truth and that is what guides us. As long as the Torah and halacha is still the focus of how we live our lives, we will be okay. The thing we have to watch out for, which is something that R' Twersky mentioned briefly, is being true to what halachos really are, not reinventing them to make things okay that are not actually okay just because we would like them to be okay.

And that's another thing. We are not entitled to anything we feel like we ought to have. As Orthodox Jews, we should know better than to think that way. This extends far beyond the issue of homosexuality. You know the slogan of Hebrew National - "We answer to a higher authority?" Well, they might not, but we do. We can't forget that there is a higher purpose in life than getting everything we want. As a nation that is kadosh, we have been given specific guidelines for how to live a life of kedusha. We are so lucky that most of us grow up aware we have meaning and a purpose in life. So many people in this world don't have that. We do. We should cherish that and try to live the way we are supposed to.

5. I don't think YU is a bad place. YU is a very good place trying to figure out how to deal with its wide array of students. Perhaps a lot of what they do is for money and image. But I really do think there's this understanding that YU students are a major part of the Orthodox future - certainly the Modern Orthodox future - and the institution tries to cater to the different kinds of students there are. Maybe that is part of the problem. Maybe YU as an institution ought to do some self-reflection and philosophizing, coming up with a real hashkafa that it stands by. If something does not abide by that hashkafa, then YU should not stand behind that thing. Then there will be no, or less, confusion, and YU will not find itself in quite as many situations as this. The argument against that is that YU wants to keep its diverse university face, as well. But I do think lines need to be drawn anyway, while still leaving room for productive intellectual discourse.

I'm just one Stern alum and these are my thoughts.


Ezzie said...

Great post.

Poor Hebrew National. :)

Lvnsm27 said...

interesting essay :)

Jughead's Hat said...

That's the problem many people have with YU to begin with. They don't know who they are. You wouldn't date someone who wasn't sure of where they stood in their hashkafas. People just get frustrated with others who don't have a solid identity; people who don't want to accept certain truths about themselves.

Have you ever tried to mix two circles of friends? It rarely works. You always have to do some sort of explaining, like "these people don't think I drink, and just ignore my British accent."

That is the same thing with YU. They have to constantly mix too many circles. This forces them to try to appease too many people at once, and always, ALWAYS on the apologetic side. An organization can't function that way, especially one of the importance YU is believed to have.

Shades of Grey said...

This is a really great post! I think you successfully synthesized most, if not all, of the ideas that have been bouncing around my head since the panel and the ensuing controversy/discussion. Well done!

Anonymous said...

Great post - you have effectively shown that YU is acting as a true University with all the difficulties which that involves, while trying to remain an objective body at the centre of everything.
This is where it perhaps departs from a pure yeshiva-only institution: its up to each student to fnd their own way, not for YU to chart a course for them.