From the Desk of the Editor-in-Chief: A Brief, and (Hopefully) Final Analysis of the Gay Panel and Its Implications
Many people have commented to me that this academic year has been a “slow news year.” While this is at times frustrating for aspiring journalists, it would seem to be a good thing for YU. Few scandals or controversies, and certainly not many fiascos of epic proportions, have plagued our institution, and I am sure that a “year in review” type article for this year would appear to be quite tame compared to those of past years, and especially compared to one written last year. There were no Madoffs this year, no massive budget cuts (at least no additional ones), and no mass layoffs. We can only hope that this reflects some sort of meaningful shift rather than a lucky coincidence. Whatever the case, we on-campus journalists will always find something to write about, (and we hope that you will still read what we write). We may actually even be able to accomplish something lasting in an environment bereft of attacks on absurd one-liners, damaging faux pas, and worse.
But perhaps this is one reason why the “gay panel,” as it has become known, became such a hot topic. Anyone who watches The West Wing knows that, sometimes, slow news days can be the most dangerous kind of days. In a drought, people will flock to even a relatively small supply of water. Maybe that’s why the event seemed to take YU by surprise. And maybe that’s why the gay panel has drummed up so much interest in internal student publications and external news outlets alike. Of course, another possible reason that it has tugged at us is that it’s a particularly pressing, but perhaps solvable, issue that affects our community.
For those of you who are somehow unfamiliar with what I am referencing, allow me to briefly present what happened by quoting liberally from my article on the online edition of The Commentator from December 23:
On Tuesday, December 22, four gay men, one an undergraduate student at Yeshiva and the other three YU alumni, spoke to a packed crowd in the Wilf Campus’ Weissberg Commons. For two hours, the four panelists presented their personal narratives dealing with being gay in Yeshiva and in the general Orthodox world.
…Estimates of the crowd’s size put it at roughly 700 people, with at least 100 people denied entrance entirely due to overcrowding.
…The crowd largely supported the panelists, with many bursts of applause interrupting the speakers, and numerous audience members writing messages of support on the index cards given out to the audience for the purpose of submitting anonymous questions.
…However, the response to the event has not been entirely positive.
The panel generated weeks of continuous coverage, with articles in the Jerusalem Post, The Jewish Week, The Jewish Star, and elsewhere, and arguments raging over the blogosphere and beyond. Conversation still has not died down on campus; the topic is still abuzz among students, Roshei Yeshiva, and administrators; and the current and coming editions of Kol Hamevaser and The Observer sport articles on the topic. Off campus, this past week’s Jewish Week contains an article that references the panel in its headline, and the topic has even made it as far as the school paper at the high school I attended, The Yeshiva Atlanta Palette.
Spurring the debate, at least in part, have been the various types of reactions that have popped up on campus and in the broader Jewish community. As my earlier article mentioned, the attendees reacted in an overwhelmingly positive manner. However, nearly a week after the panel, RIETS Dean Rabbi Yona Reiss and Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Mayer Twersky both publicly weighed in with speeches in the Glueck Beit Midrash. Somewhat disturbingly, the title of the email that a student sent out to the student body to advertise these speeches was, “TODAY!! Sichas Mussar Regarding Recent Issues in Yeshiva” (my emphasis). One of the particularly important points made at the panel was that reluctance to use the word “gay” unfortunately leads to more taboos surrounding the term itself.
These two speeches followed on the heels of two letters that were posted around YU, one signed by various Roshei Yeshiva and posted hours before the event, the other signed by Yeshiva University President Richard M. Joel and Rabbi Reiss and posted a few days after the event. In varying degrees of explicitness, all four communiqués effectively denounced the event and argued that it should never have been held.
I don’t want to address the letters and speeches, except to make two points.
First, each letter and speech took care to have at least one line to the effect that, “Although we must be sensitive to the issues that these people face, we can’t condone homosexual activity.” While the sentiment in the first half of this sentence, that we must be sensitive to the various and often heart-wrenching challenges that are particular to the gays in our community, is commendable, this sentiment got lost in the overall negative tone of the letters and speeches. Any listener or reader who came to the table with anti-gay and homophobic thoughts in his or her heart could not possibly have had those thoughts wiped away by the letters and speeches. These letters and speeches from some of the most eminent leaders of our community had the potential to have an immensely positive influence in the effort to curb gay-bashing and homophobia within the Orthodox community, but instead, anyone who arrived with feelings such as these could have easily focused only on the parts of the speeches and letters that decried homosexual actions and ignored those brief lines that advocated tolerance and sensitivity.
The same holds true, if not even more so, for the “dvar Torah” written by four distinguished Roshei Yeshiva, hosted on torahweb.org, entitled “Torah View on Homosexuality.” That piece contains similar sensitive lines, but the overall tone is one of immense negativity, referring to the “insidious influence” of modern society, and contrasting modern society with an ideal “Torah society,” the latter of which would be “unaffected and uninfected by today’s society.” Do these Roshei Yeshiva subscribe to an Orthodoxy that maintains that proactively engaging with the world we live in is a lekhathilah ideal? Though interfacing with modern society forces us to confront many issues and influences, some of which are deleterious to a Torah way of life, don’t we believe in engaging with society rather than running and hiding from it? Since when do we consider the pain and anguish of our Jewish brethren – including our gay brethren – an issue that we dare avoid?
The second point regarding the letters and speeches is that each of them makes it sound like the goal of the event was to legitimize a “homosexual lifestyle” and even “homosexual actions.” I trust that the responders, who did not attend the event themselves, at least watched the recording or read the transcript of the event. As such, I am genuinely perplexed about how they came to this conclusion. It could not have been any clearer that this was not the point of the panel.
Admittedly, there were a couple of statements made that were decidedly less than wholesome from a halakhic standpoint, but must those lines delegitimize the entire event? Must two statements with which we cannot agree negate the value of the discussion itself? Especially given that the distinction between acceptance of someone’s nature (I don’t want to get into the complicated psychological/scientific debate here) as a homosexual and acceptance of someone’s homosexual actions was made no less than three times over the course of the event, I simply don’t know how someone can maintain that the objective had to do with anything more than being tolerant and understanding human beings, giving people exposure to a pressing issue which they may not have encountered previously, and letting gay Jews who are still in the closet know that they are not alone in their struggles.
But the truly upsetting part about these responses is that the average person who read these letters and listened to the speeches, but did not actually attend the event, watch the recording, or read the transcription, cannot help but believe that the people involved in planning the event – panelists, Yeshiva faculty, and administrators – actually did intend to advocate acceptance of homosexual actions. None of them did. If you are one of these people, I implore you to watch the recording or read the transcript (video – www.vimeo.com, search for “gay panel”, transcript – curiousjew.blogspot.com).
I was at the event, and I have since spoken to all of the panelists, and I know that the message that each was trying to promote was one of sympathy and tolerance, not one of halakhic acceptance of anti-halakhic actions.
I know that the “gay panel” was a momentous event for YU and for Orthodoxy, not only because it was so radically different, but also because it was so radically right.
And I know that many people agree with me.
Although we have seen numerous YU Roshei Yeshiva come out against this issue, many other Rabbis – some of them YU Roshei Yeshiva themselves, others pulpit Rabbis with real-life experience in these matters – have come out publicly in favor. The panelists have since received hundreds of messages expressing support, and The Commentator could easily have put out a whole issue filled with positive responses we have received.
But this brings me to my final point. Our hope and plan is for this to be the last Commentator article dealing with the “gay panel” (barring some sort of crazy news development). There are three reasons for this.
First, we don’t want this to be The Commentator’s “pet issue.” We have covered the latest developments that have brought to light the issue of homosexuality at YU because we felt strongly that it was an important issue that needed to be addressed. But we have more to say and more to do, and not just on this topic.
Second, we feel that any more articles on this topic would be overkill. But don’t confuse overkill with beating a dead horse. This horse is not dead; there is much discussion still to be had on this matter, and now is the time to have it. Still, the more we publish on this, the less effective each piece becomes.
Third, as someone with whom I spoke put it, “Once the yelling stops, real conversation can be had.” Some of us know that much of this yelling has come from major donors to YU, as well as from many other people who have been phoning and emailing President Joel to express their disappointment and anger because they feel that it’s important for him to hear where they stand. But once this whole thing settles down, and once President Joel is no longer under negative pressure from outsiders (and insiders, too), then we may be able to really get something done.
As I alluded to above, this topic is not one of those things that people just dismiss as impossible for mere humans to solve. This is a solvable issue, one where student thinkers and leaders may be able to make headway alongside more learned and more experienced communal leaders. I don’t yet know what the answers are, but I know that they are out there, and I know that we have the potential to find them. But this can’t happen until everyone stops using vitriolic debate toward no productive end.
We sit here in the midst of a noble institution of historical significance, developed over the course of many years through the tireless efforts and wisdom of scores of Rabbinic scholars, lay leaders, and great thinkers. We members of the YU community are situated to achieve lofty goals, and we must accept this challenge.
Now that I’ve hopefully gotten your attention, let’s stop shouting and get some work done.