Culture, Identity, Justice, Politics, Religion, Sex & Gender

Homosexuality at YU

Last week, a discussion was organized at Yeshiva University in NYC called “Being Gay In The Orthodox World: A Conversation with Members of the YU Community.” graffiti stencil from Jerusalem, circa 2007The event, which took place on December 22, was sponsored by the YU Tolerance Club and the Wurzweiler School of Social Work. It was an open event; people from the YU and Stern communities were invited to attend, as were members of the Jewish communities at large. (I received several invitations to go but was unable to make it.) Many of you found out about it on twitter; our most popular tweet, which more of you clicked through than any other, was a link to The Curious Jew‘s transcript of the panel discussion, which Chana posted within a couple hours of the event’s conclusion. This transcript has been as close to hearing about it as those of us who weren’t there could get, since Rabbi Yosef Blau said in his opening remarks:

What we WILL be doing is addressing the pain and the conflict that is caused by someone being gay in the Orthodox world. Our four panelists, one present student and three alumni of Yeshiva, will be speaking about their own lives and experiences. I would ask you not to take pictures of them and not to record to respect privacy. Recordings have an unfortunate tendency to enable someone to take out a snippet and then use it for various and sundry purposes.

Each speaker then went through his own personal story of being gay in the Orthodox world. Dr. Pelcovitz, a psychologist on faculty at YU, presented a psychological/Orthodox perspective; he made sure to emphasise that there is a difference between “feeling” and “doing” gay, and said that “nobody has the right to judge a feeling,” regardless of halakhic understanding. Questions were then taken from the audience of 800 people, and the event ended more or less on time.
But, of course, it didn’t actually end there. Chana (aka, The Curious Jew; a former editor of YU’s student newspaper The Commentator The Observer), has been posting as the story continues to unfold. And it’s created quite the buzz in the Orthodox community (or, at least in the YU-affiliated Orthodox community). I think it’s worthwhile to read not only her views and, later, concluding thoughts, but also the unfolding story and reply in the greater community.
First, Rabbi Mayer Twersky, Rosh Yeshiva of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, YU’s rabbinical school, held a closed event replying to the panel. As it was a boys only event, Chana enlisted a friend to take notes for her; unfortunately, they were only available to YU students as she thought it was an internal (YU-only) response. (But right away, other YU students blogged R’ Twersky’s main points.) Then we got the transcript and a link to the audio recording of R’ Twersky’s response.
I’ll let you read through all of that. There’s a lot to think about and discuss. Unsurprisingly, I disagree with R’ Twersky’s opinion that having the panel discussion was a “Chillul HaShem.” His views support the students who wrote up the following petition:

Dear President Joel and Rabbi Reiss,
The question of sexual orientation is one of the most sensitive, complex, and relevant issues facing Orthodoxy today. Our institution has the unique privilege of standing at the forefront in addressing this issue, attempting to balance sensitivity and openness with an uncompromising dedication to Torah and Halakha.
It is for this reason that we are deeply concerned with the message the recent public forum on homosexuality in Orthodoxy sends to the rest of the world. There certainly is a need to address this important issue; however, it must be addressed with privacy, discretion, and care. A public display of support for individuals who have chosen to openly identify themselves by their alternative lifestyle and desires indicates an implicit, if not explicit, acceptance and approval of a lifestyle that goes against the ideals of the Torah. While trying to be sensitive to the needs of these individuals, the event showed insensitivity to the values we stand for and live our lives by. Instead of creating a Kiddush HaShem, we have unfortunately created a Chillul HaShem.
We, the Talmidei HaYeshiva, express our profound disappointment and embarrassment for the regrettable message that was sent and the Chillul HaShem that was caused.

It upsets me that this view continues to be held in some parts of the Jewish world. Having a discussion does not mean overruling Leviticus 18:22. Trying to force conversations into secret rooms, or trying to silence them at all, is anti-Jewish. It’s at the core of our religion that we discuss, wrestle with, and debate texts. Why should Leviticus 18:22 be any different? I hope that the conversation continues at YU and in the Orthodox community.
Yasher koach to those individuals who participated in the panel.

18 thoughts on “Homosexuality at YU

  1. PS The R. Twersky transcript really depressed the heck out of me. I should know better than to read such stuff, it’s not like I don’t already know what they’re going to say. I am glad to know, however, that there were hundreds of people who showed up to the event to make it clear that they dont’ think these conversations should take place behind closed doors (or not happen at all)

  2. @T, thanks for the video link.
    I agree that it’s great that so many people attended the panel (far more than were expected, as indicated by the venue change), but if they all walk away with views similar to Chana’s, is it worth it?

  3. There are two student newspapers at YU:
    The Commentator, at the Wilf (men’s) campus
    The Observer, at the Bern (women’s) campus
    From reading The Curious Jew, it is obvious that “Chana” is female and was a student at Stern, not Yeshiva College; she would have been the editor of The Observer.

    1. Accuracy writes:
      The Commentator, at the Wilf (men’s) campus
      The Observer, at the Bern (women’s) campus

      Is this choice of names intentional?

  4. WanderingJew,
    Chana’s opinion was one of profound thought and compassion. She called for understanding and respect for a struggle that people suffer from , while not condoning homosexual activity, which is against the Torah, and ultimately against the will of Hashem. As a Jew suffering through this very struggle, the author of the original article that was released in Kol hamevaser last year, i felt nothing but respect for Chana and what she said. She is a well thought out and respectful person, and from the communication we have had, i know that she has had nothing but praise and support for my own struggles while still respecting any decisions i may or may not do , even though she has her own perspective guided by halacha(which does guide my life as well). It is a deep hope that everyone in the Jewish community could be as supportive to struggling Jews as Chana has been for myself and my struggle. Unfortunately it is not her opposition to homosexual activity which is the problem, it is the people who look at ALL gay Jews, no matter what they do, as evil and terrible people, simply because Hashem gave them a difficult, no a horrible and painful, challenge. It is they who ultimately cause teens to be fearful-fearful that they will be thrown from there homes and communities, ostracized for something they had no control of. These kids aren’t sitting in their rooms thinking of slitting their wrists (i apologize if this is to graphic)because they cannot fulfill there sexual desires, but because they see no future in the community they were raised in and are petrified that everyone will attack them and throw them from everything they know. They hear comments from members of their community and their friends calling each other ‘gay’ , screaming that “those people” are abominations and disgusting. It is those people’s who’s opinions we need to cry over, and worry about- No, Chana saying she supports those who struggle but cannot support an active homosexual lifestyle is not something that i worry about.
    Also, just to be clear, Chana was the editor of The Observer, the stern newspaper, not the commentator , which is the YU paper. Also, Dr. Pelcovitz is a prof. at Azrieli, the school of Jewish education, not the dean of Wurzweiler.

  5. (Ive been profiled by the commentator.. but that was a long time ago) Oh well..
    Predictably, the hats at the top are holding their ground. There are two ways to change that (and we all know them… threatening funding, or start firing). For now, homophobia in black stays and thats a real shame.
    The good news is that the students are aware of the issue and are talking about it. Back when I was there, no such forum happened. But then again, my friends were ok with just about everything, so I felt comfortable. Change is happening, and it might happen in our lifetime.
    PS: In regards to the particular Rabbi that called the gathering a chilul hashem… frankly, his words are a chilul hashem and as a leader, he should be ashamed of himself and his pathetic views. I am embarrassed for him, and for the YU community for continuing his tenure especially now that he has made his views public not only to the world of Orthodox Jews, but to the world at large.

  6. It’s a 3,400 year old book written in a time that was very different from our own. If you take it literally you may take stock in things that no longer apply due to the changes in our situation. Unfortunately, I can see this right-wing trend easily spreading because there was an Israeli in the Knesset who claimed that homosexuality causes earthquakes. Hyper-religious politicians came along in my grandmother’s homeland of Germany and things turned out badly. Hopefully homophobia likes this never again goes beyond petitions against the homosexual lifestyle. But, in my opinion, the Christian community is even worse.

  7. Hashem gave them a difficult, no a horrible and painful, challenge
    Give credit where credit is due — the Rabbis:
    Vayikra Rabbah quotes Kohelet and explains,
    “I further observed all the oppression that goes on under the sun: lo, the tears of the oppressed, and there is none to comfort them; their oppressors have power, and there is none to comfort them” (Kohelet 4:1)
    “‘I further observed all the oppression’ – Hanina the Tailor relates this verse to mamzerim: ‘I further observed all the oppression’ – These are the mamzerim. ‘Lo, the tears of the oppressed’ – of their parents. They transgressed, and we banish these unfortunates? This person’s father engaged in illicit sexual relations, but this person – what has he done? Of what relevance is it to him? ‘There is none to comfort them,’ but ‘their oppressors have power’ – this is the Great Sanhedrin of Israel that comes upon them with the power of the Torah and banishes them in the name of the verse, ‘no mamzer shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord’ (Devarim 23:3). ‘There is none to comfort them’ – the Holy One Blessed be He said: I must comfort them, for in this world there is a defect in them, but in the world to come… they are of pure gold.”.

    (translation courtesy of ‘s article on mamzerut)
    Kohelet Rabbah (a.k.a. a Rabbinic text) clearly lays the blame for pain and oppression caused by Halacha at the feet of the interpreters of the law.
    Find me a gay Jew with an uncontrollable desire to practice mishkav zachar. What gay Jews actually have is an uncontrollabe desire for love, companionship, and intimacy with a member of their own gender. None of that is assur de-Oraita according to halacha, unless you happen to be a dude and go shtup another dude in the tuchess.
    It wasn’t Hashem who made no provision in halacha for gay marriage, it wasn’t Hashem who outlawed non-anal forms of gay sex between men, it wasn’t Hashem who extended prohibitions explicitly directed to men onto lesbians.
    And it certainly wasn’t Hashem who made the frum community (rachmana litslan) as homophobic as it is today.

  8. Right on, Chillul Who.
    And WanderingJew – That article is excellent and a worthwhile read indeed. I plan to forward that link to some straight Orthodox friends who are struggling with how to feel about the fallout of this YU event.

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