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Sex, Scandal, and the Response of Our Orthodox Institutions

I would like to connect two recent events that have shaken up the Modern Orthodox world and, closer to home, our YU community. The first is the scandal over the article that ran in the YU Beacon, detailing a (truthful, it now seems) premarital sexual encounter between a guy and a woman from Yeshiva University. In the past week, “How Do I Even Begin to Explain This” has reached an absurd level of media coverage reserved only for the kinds of scandals that have sex appeal coupled with the ability to assault what is seen as “religious regressivism.” The Beacon Article will likely join the Gay Panel aftermath and the Madoff scandal as the biggest institutional embarrassments in my three years at YU. The other, lesser-known event was the issuing of a statement, signed by about one hundred Orthodox rabbis, strongly objecting to a same-sex marriage performed in a synagogue by Steve Greenberg, the self-proclaimed “gay Orthodox rabbi.” The statement declared, with force, “a union not sanctioned by Torah law is not an Orthodox marriage.”[i]

Aside from the obvious connection that both documents at issue repeat the word “sex” enough times to make Howard Stern blush, commentators on both events lobbied nearly identical criticisms about the outspoken responses. A month before the Beacon article came out, another article ran that detailed the thoughts of a serial killer as he remembered a murder he had committed. In the real world, Orthodox people have committed murder, abuse of various types, and gang violence in the past year, as well as theft and fraud totaling the GDP of some small nations. Where is the public outcry over these events? Where is the disdain over the bands of Haredim beating up women and vandalizing stores in Me’ah She’arim? Instead, writes Rabbi Josh Yuter, “there has been no declaration that those guilty are not to be considered ‘Orthodox.’”[ii] The statement issued by the rabbis was about a same-sex wedding ceremony. The article that caused such discomfort in the YU student body was the one about sex, not murder.

            This criticism is valid, but incorrect, and for a simple set of reasons. First, there is a basic difference between saying that a gay marriage is non-Orthodox and that a gay person is not Orthodox. The statement issued by the rabbis does not claim this second point, and that applies as well (with exceptions) to child abusers, murderers and money launderers. Violators of halakhah, even repeat ones, are still considered Orthodox under most conditions. And while the rabbis’ statement goes on to say that “one who performs such a ceremony is not an Orthodox rabbi,” this is not an attack on Rabbi Greenberg as an Orthodox Jew; it is, rather, a characterization of the positions he takes as being beyond the pale of Orthodoxy.

Second, and this cannot be stressed enough, the severe crimes mentioned before are all hugely problematic, more so than the two events that took place in the last few weeks. It goes without saying that basic human violations such as murder and child abuse are not in keeping with Orthodox values. This applies to those on the right as well as on the left. We could make a far easier argument that Haredim who terrorize groups of dissenting Jews can hardly be considered Jewish, much less Orthodox. No respectable Orthodox rabbi would deny that; it is a moral principle shared by any human with modern sensibilities. However, it is the other principles within the Orthodox Jewish worldview, the ones that are not as apparent – or occasionally contradictory – to a modern secular worldview, that need to be given a vocal defense.

There is a historical precedent to this as well. The general scholarly consensus today is that Maimonides had more than thirteen tenets of Jewish faith. Why does a young Rav Moshe, then, list what are known as the yud-gimmel ikkarim as being fundamental principles in his Commentary to the Mishna? Rambam lived in Muslim Spain, where it was these principles, more than any others, that would come under fire from the surrounding culture.[iii] What the statement issued by Orthodox leaders on gay marriage shows fully, and the reaction to the Beacon Article shows as well, is that we need to speak out when a principle we stand by may not be agreed upon by everyone, and is therefore far more prone to coming under assault from the general secular culture, the student body, etc. Regarding The Article, and as Commentator Editor-in-Chief Ben Abramowitz made clear in his editorial, what made most people uncomfortable was that a hot-button issue – in this case, an issue that is widely accepted by the secular world, contrary to our own religious values – was broached without sensitivity or a redeeming ability to foster intelligent and nuanced discussion.[iv] (I’ll put in one word about the article itself. Although it lacked the depth and nuance to foster a sensitive discussion on the topic of sex, it wasn’t that graphic. Herman Wouk and Chaim Potok, Orthodox authors, have both written worse. We all could have been a little less offended by it and Anonymous would have remained, well, anonymous. But that’s not the issue at play here.)

It is the need (and reticence) to speak out about those principles that come under assault that is the deeper connection between these two stories. It was surprising that more rabbis didn’t sign the statement declaring the non-Orthodoxy of gay marriage; it is, after all, immutable law in mainstream Orthodoxy. It seems instead that many opted to protect their institutions, rather than run the risk of offending members of those institutions who may, perhaps, send nasty letters in response or cut ties altogether.

This is unfortunate for several reasons. If our leaders refuse to stand by the values that define us, then we begin to lose the tensile strength of the fabric of Modern Orthodoxy.

Modern Orthodoxy has always been about walking a delicate path between two worlds. That becomes impossible when the principles that serve as signposts cannot be clearly seen. In addition, by not being proactive our leaders forfeit the right to frame the principles in the proper way, or to give them the proper defense needed. Some of our values need an animated defense, especially in the year 2011, and without it will likely be misconstrued by those looking in from the outside.

Our institutions need to speak out not just about the broadest values that define who we are; it is even more important that they make known specific policies, as well as the reasons behind them. The root of the Beacon article scandal can be traced to one such failure. This farce of a shanda should have been over months before it started, when the editors of the Beacon applied to become an official YU publication. The Beacon has stated its goal to be an “uncensored” news source, an open forum for students to get articles published without boundaries. Yeshiva University clearly disagrees with that statement, and fairly so when it comes to the broaching of certain issues in certain ways (regardless of what anyone believes about this article). And yet the student body never heard them say that. At the time the YU administration received the Beacon’s application it should have formulated a clear set of policies about what was and what was not acceptable material for a YU publication. In fact, as reliable sources have reported, the administration did have a set of policies. But it was unable to articulate those policies to either the student body or the editors of the Beacon. The subsequent actions taken under the purview of the university were therefore seen as the senseless censorings of a backwards establishment.

Granted, we now know it was the student government that asked for the article to be taken down, but that doesn’t change the reality of what could have been done differently. If the administration had made its policies clear, the article likely wouldn’t have made it to the publishing stage, and the reaction would have been far less volatile.

We can fairly say that many people have contributed to tarnish YU’s name far beyond what it deserves. The blogosphere has handled this story with its usual amount of class, which is none, and several students have contributed to the sensationalism of the scandal and may have even first contacted the media, worsening the blow to YU. Those actions are reprehensible. But the fact remains that the administration of Yeshiva University needs to act professionally despite what others might do, which means that it needs to establish clear policies and guidelines and make those policies known in advance. And to do that would require YU to stand by and defend its principles, which it has become loath to do.

These policies, and many of these principles, do not have to be ironclad, nor overly restrictive. A certain degree of flexibility and inclusiveness is absolutely required. If the administration made rules that were set in stone, it would run into the same types of problems that it faced by doing nothing; there would be outcries of censorship and an overly restrictive mindset. The policies need to be well thought out, and that process should involve input from the whole student body. But there needs to be a basic structure in place to work around, or we will end up with different opinions flung out in far-off quadrants, unable to find a point to start from.

At a recent event, Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveitchik argued for the need to define and defend the principles that define us as Modern Orthodox Jews. I hope we can see those principles being defined and defended in the future. I hope, for the sake of this great institution, we can see sensible and dynamic policies put in place and clearly and openly articulated so we can all avoid the terrible fallout from another bombshell that could have been sidestepped with relative ease.



[iii] For this argument in a simple, lucid form, see Professor Haym Soloveitchik in his “Two Notes on the Commentary of the Torah of R. Yehuda he-Hasid” in Michael A. Shmidman, ed., Turim: Studies in Jewish History and Literature – Presented to Dr. Bernard Lander, New York: Touro College Press, 2008, 2:241-251.