These articles from the New York Jewish Week and the Jewish Daily Forward do a wonderful job telling us what happened. The usual suspects are all there: a faith-based organization, a homosexual scandal, a Facebook protest group.
What it doesn’t properly convey is, how did we get here? So a gay alumnus was barred by his yeshivah high school’s administration from attending his 10-year reunion with his same-sex partner — so what?
The Orthodox don’t like the gays. Isn’t that all we need to know?
I’m trying to collect my thoughts about high school, about openness, about sexuality and spirituality and about the history of the Yeshivah of Flatbush, at one time a standard-bearer of Modern Orthodoxy in America. But I keep coming back to the prophet Yeshayah.
In chapter 55, towards the start of the Haftara reading for public fast days, Yeshayah haNavi speaks in God’s name: “כִּי כַּאֲשֶׁר יֵרֵד הַגֶּשֶׁם וְהַשֶּׁלֶג מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְשָׁמָּה לֹא יָשׁוּב–כִּי אִם-הִרְוָה אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְהוֹלִידָהּ וְהִצְמִיחָהּ; וְנָתַן זֶרַע לַזֹּרֵעַ, וְלֶחֶם לָאֹכֵל. כֵּן יִהְיֶה דְבָרִי אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא מִפִּי, לֹא-יָשׁוּב אֵלַי רֵיקָם: כִּי אִם-עָשָׂה אֶת-אֲשֶׁר חָפַצְתִּי, וְהִצְלִיחַ אֲשֶׁר שְׁלַחְתִּיו.”
(Just as the rains and the snows fall from the sky and do not return without saturating the earth that it may sprout and blossom, giving seeds to the sower and bread to the diner: so will these words exiting my mouth not return to me empty, but they will complete their mission and accomplish my will.)
Therein lies the difference between us and God. God, it is traditionally asserted, knows the inner thoughts of every living thing, and sees the future to its farthest conclusion. We rarely know the end results of any of our actions.
Flatbush was a great place for me. I grew up in Brooklyn in a Modern Orthodox family. I was a smart kid with a vivid imagination and a bit of a passive-aggressive streak. I believed in fairness, in the Judaism I was taught, and that God was truly good and was looking out for all of us.
I still smile when I think about high school. I didn’t want to graduate and leave it behind. I have fond memories of most of my teachers, and fonder memories of rikudim (Jewish dancing) in the gym every Rosh Chodesh, pizmonim (Sephardic songs) in the school sukkah every fall, and yearly “Seminar” shabbatonim where had my first encounter with what you might call a “hippy-dippy-singing-soulful” way of being Jewish.
And while I do credit the Yeshivah of Flatbush Elementary School & High School for giving me a Jewish education that has been the envy of my peers for my entire young life, I know that the biggest thing I learned there was to love Judaism.
Judaism was deep, and challenging, and profound. It was there in the slowest songs and the quickest layups. Judaism was informed and compassionate. Science, history, and literature were crucial to being Jews. So was caring about current events and social action. We were skilled Hebrew speakers and Zionists because we were taught to see Jewishness in our bodies. And just as all of us kids were a collection of individuals, so was Judaism.
I learned that “the living words of God” actually were plural. In Chumash class we learned commentaries of the Sefer Hachinuch, the Rambam, Ibn Ezra, Rashi, and more. In Gemara class we learned using the multiple lenses of the Ran, the Meiri, the Bach, Tosafot, etc. Rationalists. Mystics. Universalists. Particularists. Chassidim. Mitnagdim. Every unit in Halacha class addressed the differing practices of the various Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities.
This is the lesson: We all had a place in Judaism. And most of the Judaic studies teachers I had were willing to sit and listen to you outside of class if you didn’t feel like you did.
Friends of mine who grew up outside the Orthodox world are frequently astonished to learn just how diverse Orthodox communities are. They’re often more astonished to discover that respect for diversity was something I learned in my yeshivah.
But here’s the problem: Sometimes, after you’ve given kids positive Jewish formative experiences, and taught them to be true to themselves, they go off and do things you don’t approve of.
Until this particular issue came up however, everyone was welcome at the high school reunion. There was no “tsitsiss check” or religious litmus test, no approved favorite movie or banned political opinion. People showed up, they brought guests, they shmoozed and ate and re-connected with their classmates. It didn’t matter what you named your kids. And it didn’t matter what halacha you may have broken in your life. Nobody asked you to testify as to which hashgacha certified your existence as kosher.
So when Mr. Eisenberg, the administrator, claims that “there are standards of halacha that guide the Orthodox community. All of our graduates are welcome to attend our reunion but only those involved in recognized halachic relationships may register to attend as a couple,” I don’t buy it. The standards of halacha that guide the Orthodox community surely exist — but they cover a lot more than the gender of who you date and marry.
Modesty rules. Ethical business rules. Rules for sabbath observance. Sexual practices of heterosexual couples.
Would you like more examples?
Holiday celebrations. Mourning customs. Communal prayer.
The Flatbush administration has no answer for what makes homosexuality so different from other violations of Orthodox norms, that gay and lesbian alumni may not even be acknowledged to exist.
Is gay male anal sex prohibited by the Torah? Sure, but so is a man having sex with his menstruating wife, and no one has ever gotten kicked out of a reunion for that. And I’ve never heard of anyone – gay or straight – getting it on at their high school reunion.
What about lesbianism? According to the majority of halachic sources, anything two women might do sexually together is prohibited as pritsut (immodesty). Maybe Flatbush should start dis-inviting alumni whose Facebook profile pictures don’t conform to the school dress code, too.
All other prohibited sex acts between two Jews of the same gender occupy middle grounds of halachic severity. Sort of like muktzeh on Shabbos. Uh-oh, pet somebody’s dog on Saturday afternoon? Your presence at the “10-year” will be shameful to the school! The administration may deny that you ever attended!
So much for “Orthodox standards”.
On the other hand, there are many compelling reasons why Flatbush should have taken another path. As a Modern Orthodox institution, YOF supposedly believes in the value of secular knowledge. Every month, more data and reports are published by researchers exploring the biological basis of sexual orientation. We know that homosexuality is not something that can be chosen — shouldn’t that simple fact be cause for an approach based in empathy? Can you honestly blame someone for finding a partner who makes them happy, though they must violate halacha in the process, if their alternative is a life of solitude and loneliness? Agunot get all the sympathy in the world because they have no halachic way to get hitched. Mamzerim too. Consistency would dictate a similar attitude towards gays and lesbians.
Someone posted to the “Open Flatbush Reunions” Facebook protest group that the talmudic dictum “Whoever embarrasses his fellow in public, it as if he has committed murder” should have been heeded here.
Another imagined the scene among the Patriarchs in Canaan: When Avraham Avinu greeted visitors at his tent, did he check if they were homos first?
I wonder if the Flatbush administration thinks it can send 28-year-olds to detention. Someone who attends their 10-year reunion is looking to reconnect with peers. Or maybe show off a little. They’re not there seeking approval from Rabbi Levy, Mrs. Sanders, or any other principal.
As for me, one day I hope to be as lucky as the alumnus around whom this controversy started, with his iron self-confidence and his happy five-year relationship. I only began to come to terms with my own sexuality years after he did, when I’d already gone through most of my college career. It was a very difficult time for me, and I lost hope more than once that I’d make it out whole and content with myself. But among the thoughts and struggles, and the condemnations and resentments that churned through my mind, two memories from back in high school stood out. In a weird, strange way they were my first positive encounters with what it meant to be gay.
Number one: A chumash teacher of mine, addressing the famous verse in Vayikra “You may not lie with a man the layings of a woman” and some misconceptions about its implications, bellowed across the classroom to make sure he was understood: “Gay sex isn’t prohibited by the Torah because it’s ‘gross‘, or because it’s ‘dirty‘, or because ‘gays are bad‘. It’s prohibited by the Torah because it’s prohibited by the Torah — and you should always treat everyone with respect. “
Number two: A classmate had returned from visiting colleges, and turned around to face another classmate who’d just made a (teenage-boy-typical) joke questioning another kid’s sexuality. “You’ve got to stop,” he said, “I was just up seeing a college and I made a joke just like that to someone. He actually was gay and he was insulted! You can’t say stuff like that to people.“
Is it typical for a seventeen-year-old in the late 1990’s to have a better instinct for derech erets than a 50-year-old in the late 2000’s? If so, I’ve got faith for that coming future of rainbows and sunshine chugging down the line towards all of us. But I’m more inclined to believe, in my cynicism, that everyone is basically the same, and that the YOF administration is just playing politics, like every other communal institution. They don’t want to endanger funding from wealthy homophobes in the local Syrian community. Or engender more derision from the local Ashkenazi charedim, who always could be counted on to say that a co-ed school – where girls learned gemara, where most of the students went on to university, and which taught classes like Biology & Tanach as if they were serious subjects – “wasn’t a real yeshivah anyway”.
Back in the day, the Yeshivah of Flatbush was a revolutionary school. It was founded in the 1920’s, before almost every other jewish day school in the U.S. It was religious and Zionist before the State of Israel was even founded – and through the end of the century, when I attended, all religious classes were still taught exclusively in Hebrew, to students who had been taught to communicate in Hebrew. Y.O.F. was the first Orthodox school I know of to employ a female Talmud teacher, who herself was one of the first graduates of the Drisha Scholar’s Circle program. For a long time, not only was it the largest yeshivah day school in the western hemisphere, but an extremely high percentage of the student body had parents who were alumni, and who couldn’t imagine sending their children to another school, even if they had to be bussed in more than an hour each way from exotic Highland Park, New Jersey, or far-off Cedarhurst, Long Island.
After 80 prestigious years, you’d think the administration wouldn’t feel a need to whitewash their alumni’s biographies. A friend once quoted a Leonard Cohen song to me. Standing in the shy morning light, surrounded by chilly breezes and the smell of pine trees, she taught slowly, intently: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything — that’s how the light gets in.” In the end, all we’ve got left is truth and reality, and it’s only by being true to yourself – gay, straight, Jewish in an orthodox or heterodox way – and to the reality of the people your life has bound you to – children, parents, teachers, students, friends, coworkers – that you come into your own in dignity. I think my old high school could use a little more dignity right about now.