By: Natan Pittinsky  | 

Letter to the Editor: Enough with the Status Quo — A Response to “The Seventh Option”

To the Editor, 

There exists a major issue at Yeshiva University in the rhetoric and actions surrounding the creation of an LGBTQ club. While many will make some statement declaring empathy for the struggles of LGBTQ individuals, that nominal declaration is constantly undermined by the actions of the administration and the obstinance of the student body to entertain the idea of implementing a club. Administrators may pay lip service to be empathetic, yet are unwilling to take any action which actually supports and protects the LGBTQ community at YU. Individuals may claim to “listen” to LGBTQ students, yet are not willing to provide them with a platform from which to speak.

In the last few years, student leaders worked tirelessly to meet the administration’s conditions and desires for an LGBTQ club, only to have their requests denied and rejected. Gestures made by administrators to hold meetings appear empty when ultimately nothing results from them. President Berman even said in December of 2018 that the decision about such issues should be left up to the students, yet when a few weeks later student leaders were in the process of approving a Gay-Straight Alliance club the administration took the decision out of their hands and rejected it. This year, there was a student-led initiative to put up safe-space stickers in the counseling center, a necessary space for LGBTQ students to feel comfortable and safe while discussing issues relating to their mental health and identity, yet even that was denied. Meetings between YU Pride Alliance leaders and roshei yeshiva this year have been ineffective, and in one case, students were even presented offensive ideas about how conversion therapy can work for some individuals, rather than a genuine discussion as to in what form a club could exist. The trend and message are clear: Decision-makers at YU have demonstrated that they are either unwilling or unable to truly hear the pain of their LGBTQ students.

A significant portion of the student body on the Wilf Campus also seems to hold similar beliefs, given the messages that were spread in WhatsApp groups prior to the spring elections, in addition to the results of the Amendment Six vote itself. This was further demonstrated by a recent article in The Commentator by Yehuda Dov Reiss called “The Seventh Option: A Nuanced Approach to the LGBT Debate on Campus.” Despite it attempting to directly respond to ideas presented by Doniel Weinreich in his article, “The Sixth Option: A Response to Michael Broyde,” Reiss’ article still fails to actually address the issues at play and instead uses straw man arguments, in addition to false assertions and homophobic notions, to strongly oppose the institution of the YU Pride Alliance as currently called for. 

Reiss’ article falls into the same trap which Weinreich notes that Broyde and the YU administration fell into, where they assume that the YU Pride Alliance would be an inherent violation of halakha without legitimately explaining how that is the case. Reiss demonstrates this with two instances of straw man arguments, stating that “Weinreich argues that the Torah’s value of humanity would warrant complete acceptance of LGBT members of the Jewish community and that this does not necessitate a communal condonation of sin” and then later stating that Weinreich “fails to explicitly condemn forbidden relationships... and instead merely asserts that he doesn’t seek to reconcile same-sex relations with Jewish law.” What Weinreich actually said is that “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.” Likewise, in Weinreich’s article, there is no mention of “seek(ing) to reconcile same-sex relations with Jewish law,” because he instead asserts that an LGBTQ club is not a violation of Jewish law. Reiss misses this important shift from not reconciling the halakha, to the halakha not being relevant to an LGBTQ club. He mistakenly applies his own views about how to deal with LGBTQ individuals relative to halakha, rather than addressing how those ideas apply to the club specifically. As such, Reiss continues a trend of simply assuming that the existence of the YU Pride Alliance would constitute a violation of Jewish law without adequately explaining why that would be the case.

Reiss’ article further misinterprets the purpose and nature of the YU Pride Alliance with statements like, “given the social reality that LGBT activism and clubs generally imply such relationships” and “one gets at least the vague impression that the Pride Alliance demands complete acceptance even where people aren’t following Torah law, even if they believe in the theory of the law.” These claims about the club are simply not true. Does YU vet every student to make sure they are carefully following every halakha? It is true that the club is asking for total acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, but that has nothing to do with their choices. LGBTQ activism is about acceptance and equality of a persecuted individual so that they don’t have to live thinking that they are alone, secretly in suffering. But it seems to those critical of the YU Pride Alliance that LGBTQ identity is just about a single action. In reality, the club is about recognition of LGBTQ individuals as equal people, which is a Torah value, considering the extreme suicide risk LGBTQ individuals are subject to when they are not seen as equals, do not feel like they fit in or are actively discriminated against. There is significant research that outlines this suicide risk and its causes, as well as further data which actually establishes how such risks are significantly lower in schools that implemented a Gay-Straight Alliance club compared to those that did not. This further establishes the implementation of an LGBTQ club as an issue that has to do with saving lives, which the author is failing to recognize. 

Reiss then attempts to justify the conflation between the YU Pride Alliance and unrelated actions. He declares that “there is a strong societal context surrounding LGBT clubs in general that clearly puts it in a certain sexual light, unless otherwise clarified” to support his claim that an LGBTQ club would need to explicitly “condemn same-sex relations.” Having been involved in such activism during my time at YU, and after reading the YU Pride Alliance’s mission statement and Weinreich’s article, I can attest that the context around such clubs is a safe space where allies and LGBTQ individuals can get together for support in a space free of fear of homophobia and discrimination. There isn’t a “societal” stigma of LGBTQ clubs being rampant with or even connected to sexual behavior; this is just the stigma opponents of the YU Pride Alliance are inaccurately trying to apply to such clubs. This doesn’t amount to a reality, unless the author would go so far as to suggest that LGBTQ individuals shouldn’t be halakhically allowed to meet publicly in a group with individuals of the same sex. To treat LGBTQ individuals differently, because of a fallacious “strong societal context” the author associates with the club, would be a double standard and, frankly, homophobic. This seems to go against the author’s own point that “being homosexual or struggling with gender identity should not be a reason for stigmatization,” yet this is what he is doing with this double standard.

Reiss goes on to make a very problematic statement about love. He says “Love is different from acceptance in that we can show zero respect or tolerance for one’s behavior… while simultaneously caring for that person as a fellow Jew and wanting that they should be happy, successful and overcome their inclinations towards any inappropriate behaviors. We can... show our unconditional love for every member of the community and respect where they are coming from while remaining firm in our refusal to show respect for their sins.” There is a huge issue here, as Reiss nominally calls for unconditional love while describing conditional love. If one –– who cannot relate to the struggles of the LGBTQ community –– is showing zero respect or tolerance for an individual’s behavior, they are not unconditionally loving that individual. Reiss’ definition of unconditional love does not recognize the struggles of LGBTQ individuals, but actually minimizes and disregards their experiences in a way that does not engender feelings of love but rather of persecution. To apply this notion of “unconditional” love would in actuality be loving what the individual “should be” or who the person is, independent of those actions; in other words, it would be to only love the individual contingent upon certain realities being met, which is the epitome of conditional love.

In regards to his proposed “seventh option,” the author demonstrates a lack of understanding of what has been going on around campus. He posits that “With careful oversight, the administration could fashion a club where the goals and expectations are unambiguously understood … This can be accomplished by appointing a trusted committee of organizers, supervisors and moderators, perhaps consisting of faculty, and with oversight from RIETS roshei yeshiva.” It's incredibly ironic that the author mentioned a committee comprised of faculty members with oversight by roshei yeshiva, because such a committee was actually formed in September of this past year. However, the committee failed to meet in good faith with the LGBTQ community at YU all year and did not come up with any proposed solutions or actions for the community. Rather, all that they seem to have done was meet with student council presidents before their abstention regarding the vote for the LGBTQ club in the spring semester. It would be great if they were engaging in good faith discussions, but by meddling in student affairs without even having any members of the LGBTQ community present, the committee is clearly not familiar with the adage “nothing about us, without us.”

Furthermore, while Reiss neglects to specifically outline what “goals and expectations” would need to be understood for his version of an LGBTQ club, it would appear based on his article that the specific expectations he would necessitate would fail to accomplish the goals of LGBTQ students and club advocates. The YU Pride Alliance wants to create “a supportive space on campus for all students, of all sexual orientations and gender identities, to feel respected, visible, and represented.” If an LGBTQ club comes with a specific condemnation of behavior that is not attached to any other club, then it is no longer a supportive or safe space. Discriminating against such students and extending love absent of “respect or tolerance for one’s behavior” or with “respect where they are coming from while remaining firm in our refusal to show respect for their sins” will not serve to support LGBTQ students’ emotional wellbeing or help them to fit in within YU, but will likely only ostracize them further. Reiss’ solution does not address or solve the goals of the YU Pride Alliance in any meaningful way and is another example of a failure by opponents of the YU Pride Alliance to hear what LGBTQ students need and are asking for. 

In summation, there are a number of clear problems with the “Seventh Option,” despite it purporting to be a “nuanced approach.” This includes the author advocating for conditional love for LGBTQ individuals, promoting a fallacious homophobic “societal context” about LGBTQ clubs having anything to do with sexual relations and calling for a seemingly novel committee to address all these issues which, in reality, was already formed and miserably failed. However, the main issue with this article, and with the actions of the administration and roshei yeshiva, is a failure to hear the outcries of pain and suffering by our fellow students at YU. When the issues are honestly engaged in, and we pay attention to what the LGBTQ community at YU is advocating for, one can understand that the YU Pride Alliance is not antithetical to halakha, rather a necessary space and forum for students which does not currently exist. What they are asking for is not unreasonable and begins to address the deep suffering of LGBTQ students at YU and within the Jewish community. The YU Pride Alliance helps those basic human needs to be met and has the ability to save lives and help students feel safe on campus. Enough with any “option” that doesn’t begin and end with such a club being established. Enough with pointless meetings and broken promises. It's time for human decency, equality, compassion and for students' psychological well-being to be recognized.