By: Doniel Weinreich  | 

The Sixth Option: A Response to Michael Broyde

Editor’s Note: Since the publication of his original article, which is the subject of the following response, Rabbi Michael Broyde has published a clarification

I am in no way remotely qualified to dispute Prof. Broyde on matters of law, nor do I intend to. However, much of Broyde’s analysis hinges on assumptions about Yeshiva University’s history, mission and culture, as well as the reality on the ground today. As a current YU student directly involved in the push for an LGBTQ club, as well as an amateur YU historian, I feel very comfortable questioning his understanding in these areas.

Broyde would have you believe that the current conflict over an LGBTQ club at YU is the result of changing demographics of YU students. With admissions no longer limited to the strictly Orthodox and yeshiva-oriented, an influx of bare-headed, Sabbath-violating students have infiltrated and are trying to bring their secular agenda to undermine the religious character of the institution.

This characterization is dubious in two ways. First, historically, it is not so simple to claim there are a greater number of non-observant students than there were previously. Broyde claims that there are now “a greater variety of programs for both men and women that are not classical text study.” I can only assume — at least when it comes to the men — that he is referring to the Isaac Breuer College (IBC) and the James Striar School (JSS), the two morning programs that are based in academic Judaic classes rather than traditional beis medrash learning. IBC, however, evolved from the Teacher Institute, which has existed since even before Yeshiva College, and while the program has changed significantly over the past century, it was always an alternative to learning in the traditional yeshiva and was perceived as less religious. JSS was started as the Jewish Studies Program (JSP) back in 1956, years before YU’s charter was secularized. But this didn’t stop students from being worried that “the introduction of irreligious boys on campus will take away from the Yeshiva atmosphere,” according to The Commentator at the time.

It’s also difficult to argue that religious observance has waned. Dr. Haym Soloveitchik recalls that in the early ‘60s, hardly any students attended minyan, and the beis medrash was empty at night. Or let’s look more recently to 1989 — back when the LGBTQ clubs that existed in Einstein and Cardozo were unimaginable in undergrad — when there was major controversy over the widespread lack of Shabbat observance in the dormitory.

Broyde claims that YU’s undergraduate schools “employed tight admission standards that selected only students who were deeply interested in an Orthodox life and lifestyle in a gender-separated institution.” This doesn’t seem to jibe with the reality that as far back as 1972, a Commentator survey of 502 students (about half the student body) indicated that 53% wanted Yeshiva College to become coed. The same survey indicated that 13% of students did not consider themselves observant Jews. Similar surveys did not have more encouraging results. A 1960 survey by two sociology students indicated that 8% of RIETS did not consider themselves Orthodox, 46% participated in mixed dances and 18.5% would “go further than kissing a girl.” The numbers in the Teachers Institute were about double, and 45% of them said they either violated the Sabbath, ate non-kosher food or shaved with a razor.

Contrast this with the data from the most recent Commentator survey, where only 5% of students said they mostly do not observe halacha, while 22% identified as Yeshivish.

None of these examples are to nitpick details of Broyde’s narrative or to make grand claims about a shift in the religious orientation of YU students. Quite the opposite. An analysis of that would require much more rigor than a newspaper article could provide. It should merely be noted that simplistic historical narratives are almost always much more complicated at best, if not outright inaccurate.

The far bigger issue with Broyde’s characterization of the situation is how he understands the present. Broyde seems to indicate that the movement for an LGBTQ club at YU is being brought about by students who are “not traditionally Orthodox” and who are a “bad fit for the religious mission of the undergraduate college.” He further claims that the complaint with the New York City Commission on Human Rights is “coordinated and not coincidental, as is noted in many places.”

I’m not sure where this is noted (Broyde neglects to specify in his 26 footnotes), but as the one who submitted the initial complaint in February and spoke to the investigator afterward, I can assure him that this was done on my initiative and was coordinated with no one other than the six other LGBTQ and allied students who make up the board of the YU Alliance. I can further assure him that I meet any standard for “traditionally Orthodox,” and no one who knows me would dispute my commitment to Modern Orthodox ideals.

What Broyde seems to not understand is that the push for an LGBTQ club has arisen from firmly within the Modern Orthodox community. His frequent insinuations that tightening enrollment policies could counteract the demand are nonsensical. This movement is being pushed by graduates of yeshiva high schools and yeshivas/seminaries in Israel. Many of the advocates spend large parts of their free time learning Torah and attend minyan diligently. Of course, not all fit into these categories, but no superficial winnowing will be effective in eliminating LGBTQ students and advocates.

Likewise, the idea that raising “the threshold of student signatures needed to form a social club to such a high number so as to reduce the likelihood of such a club being able to be formed” would have no effect. This semester, when the YU Alliance applied for club status, it submitted triple the necessary number of signatures, and more could have been acquired if necessary. A further petition by the Jewish Activism Club received 57 signatures just from student leaders.

As Broyde notes, the Modern Orthodox community has become much more sympathetic to the LGBTQ community in recent years. Few can even write about the issue without paying lip-service to how empathetic they are, though our author has managed. While very few deny the existence of certain practical prohibitions, they are no longer seen as obstacles to communal acceptance of LGBTQ people or their social support. The Modern Orthodox community has become further acquainted with the LGBTQ experience and have realized how intensely vulnerable LGBTQ Jews — especially adolescents and young adults — are and how imperative their expression and social support is to alleviating this.

Which brings us to the assumption underlying Broyde’s entire analysis and all of his suggested responses: that an LGBTQ club must be ideologically opposed by a Modern Orthodox institution.

But why?

Broyde asserts that “Yeshiva simply cannot view same-sex relations as consistent with Jewish law as it understands it.” But who ever asked them to? Broyde implies that “allow[ing] such clubs to open” would “permit students to conduct themselves in a manner not consistent with Jewish law.” But how?

The YU Alliance’s mission statement states:

The Yeshiva University Alliance is a group of undergraduate YU students hoping to provide a supportive space on campus for all students, of all sexual orientations and gender identities, to feel respected, visible, and represented. Conversation is at the heart of our community, in order to foster awareness and sensitivity to the unique experiences of being a LGBTQ+ person in YU and the Orthodox community, and to advocate for their unconditional tolerance and acceptance…

Where do they ask YU to recognize same-sex relations as consistent with Jewish law? What about this mission constitutes conduct inconsistent with Jewish law? Are supportive spaces for the vulnerable assur? Or is it sensitivity and communal acceptance of individuals that are proscribed?

I know Broyde doesn’t believe this to be the case. His own short essay on the topic says otherwise, as does the Statement of Principles he cites.

In fact, based on Broyde’s essay, I would think he would be in complete agreement with the Alliance’s mission. He writes “Homosexual individuals within our community regularly experience anguish, suppression, and depression, sometimes to the extent of self-endangerment. These cases deserve our empathy and understanding, albeit not to the point of any compromise in our commitment to halacha and our belief in free will.” Regarding communal toleration and acceptance, he says, “Even as halacha clearly labels the act a sin, Judaism does not seek to label the actors as evildoers whom we must shun. The halachic tradition has a longstanding policy of diverse attitudes to transgressors, and only in the most rare of circumstances does it mandate excluding people from the community, especially for wrongdoing that does not explicitly harm others.”

You might think Broyde believes that nonetheless, public identity and expression as LGBTQ constitutes some sort of breach. But this is not the case either. He notes, “Halacha condemns homosexual acts, but the phenomenon of ‘Orthodox homosexuals’ does not represent a major threat to the integrity of our community. Ultimately, we are afraid that disproportionate condemnation of this phenomenon gives unproductive focus to a red herring, leading to inappropriate responses to individual struggles and distracting us from the central problems truly plaguing our community.”

I agree, and I fear both Broyde and YU have fallen into this trap.

Neither Broyde nor any YU administrator has adequately justified how the LGBTQ club students have been advocating for is in opposition to any of YU’s principles. What about the club is so threatening that YU should seriously consider relocating, radically restructuring, or even closing? What is the “emotional appeal” of YU’s president becoming a “prisoner of conscience” over this? Is refusal to provide recognition of or support for LGBTQ constituents such a fundamental principle of Modern Orthodoxy? Is the past Broyde describes where LGBTQ students “stayed deeply in the closet, either due to their own choices or due to communal pressure (or both)” an ideal to which we aspire?

I understand that many are uncomfortable with the fact that this issue is now subject to secular legal action. The community of LGBTQ students and allies at YU is too. This was a last resort. It only arrived after years of being strung along and lied to by an obstinate administration. After hours of meetings with administrators “behind the scenes” to discuss how to do this in a way agreeable to everyone. After following all the rules and doing things the “right way” repeatedly, only to be rebuked or ignored. Eventually, dejected students have been forced to conclude that the administration is not acting in good faith, and that the only way change will come about is through compulsion. The advocates have always been amenable to p’shara [compromise]; it is the administration who has forced us to turn to din [justice].

If, nonetheless, the legal predicament YU faces still disturbs you, I propose you advocate that YU take a sixth option that Broyde does not consider: recognize that the demands of the students do not conflict with YU’s mission and enthusiastically yield to them. There’s nothing wrong according to Jewish law with a club for the expression and support of LGBTQ students. No part of YU’s mission or values mean that LGBTQ students must continue to live in shame, fear or silence. If there are stakeholders at YU who do not currently realize this, invest your efforts into convincing them rather than conceiving of complex legal and practical strategies to enable continuing to marginalize and victimize LGBTQ Jews.

The Rav’s fears remain unrealized 50 years later. The ghosts are still dead.

Photo Caption: YU Alliance logo
Photo Credit: The YU Alliance