By: Yehuda Dov Reiss  | 

The Seventh Option: A Nuanced Approach to the LGBT Debate on Campus

The Commentator recently published an article by Rabbi Michael Broyde, explaining five legal strategies Yeshiva University could employ to avoid allowing an undergraduate LGBT club. In response, Doniel Weinreich (YC ‘20) wrote about a “sixth option,” claiming that an LGBT club, and in particular, the Pride Alliance, would not undermine YU’s core values and in fact would further them, and urged YU to ratify the club. Rabbi Broyde clarified that for the sake of the article’s main purpose, he took for granted YU’s current stance — right or wrong — that an LGBT club would be inconsistent with its values and would not be allowed.

After reading both articles, one gets the impression that these are the only six options (or really two options: full acceptance of the club or full rejection); I think that a significant portion of the student body feels that is not the case. We acknowledge the needs of the LGBT community emphasized by Weinreich while also fearing that allowing the club as it is presently contemplated would not be the right approach for navigating the halakhic nuances involved (this will be elaborated on shortly). As such, we feel that YU must look to a seventh option: innovative solutions that will best navigate this tension (which will also be elaborated upon shortly).

In his article, 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. While it is true that the Torah mandates love and — to a certain extent — respect towards all, and it is also true that having such attitudes towards LGBT members of our community do not necessitate condonation of sin if executed properly, I found the phrasing and proposed execution of his thesis dangerously ambiguous. He fails to explicitly condemn forbidden relationships or acknowledge any practical limits of acceptance of these relationships, and instead merely asserts that he doesn’t seek to reconcile same-sex relations with Jewish law. Given the social reality that LGBT activism and clubs generally imply such relationships, he seems to imply that we can successfully embrace and respect all aspects of the lives of LGBT individuals, including any sinful activities, while somehow still condemning the sin. This becomes evident multiple times throughout the article, where Weinreich had the perfect opportunity to express something along the lines of “The Pride Alliance condemns same-sex relations and solely addresses the emotional and social issues facing Orthodox Jews struggling with sexual orientation or gender identity.” Instead he says:

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?

Weinreich’s only statements against same-sex relations are in the realm of theory: We acknowledge Jewish law forbids this, and we’re not advocating to change that. However, this being the sole defense against a societal reality where LGBT advocates demand total acceptance, 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. While some may argue that it is unfair to ask proponents of an LGBT club to explicitly disassociate the club from sinful activity since other co-ed clubs are not asked to explicitly disassociate themselves from the promotion of premarital relations, this is not a valid comparison; unlike other clubs, there is a strong societal context surrounding LGBT clubs in general that clearly puts it in a certain sexual light, unless otherwise clarified.

If this is indeed what Weinreich was proposing, then the thesis is simply contradictory. To show acceptance of sin while simultaneously condemning it is superficial and insincere. Halakha mandates complete condemnation of sin, not only on a theoretical level, but a practical one, as well. 

To properly understand this point, I would like to return once more to the broader issues at hand. It is true that mainstream Orthodox theology does not look down upon people with sinful desires, and being homosexual or struggling with gender identity should not be a reason for stigmatization. However, a community’s attitude towards homosexual or transgender people who act on their desires is not as straightforward. Weinreich cites Rabbi Broyde as pointing out that      

Even as Halakha clearly labels the act a sin, Judaism does not seek to label the actors as evildoers whom we must shun. The halakhic 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. 

This may be true, but it has always been up to the rabbinic leaders’ assessment of the individual situation to determine the correct approach. Even if the rabbinic leaders of our community ultimately decide that communal exclusion is not necessary or effective, to completely destigmatize active sinners may be seen as practically condoning them, a step which I doubt our leaders would deem appropriate. Furthermore, even to the extent that we might include them in our communities, it would seem to be clear that we cannot show acceptance of their sins in any form. Thus, while ambiguous in Weinreich’s article, we cannot as an Orthodox community attend the weddings of or wish Mazel Tov to a same-sex couple. The practical parameters of avoiding signs of acceptance are so extensive that, practically speaking, they must be stigmatized to an extent.

What we can do is accept their struggles and desires, and offer unconditional love. Love is different from acceptance in that we can show zero respect or tolerance for one’s behavior — it may at times even be painful — 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 — and very likely must — 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, analogous to a loving family with a member who has left the fold.

There are many great crises facing Modern Orthodoxy today, but one of the greatest is self-doubt. Some have been led to believe that living a fully committed Orthodox life just isn’t feasible anymore; we have to make a compromise here and there. This has happened many times before in our history, and each time it ultimately leads to a complete turn away from Orthodoxy. We believe the Torah is immutable and must be fully upheld in every generation. After reading Weinreich’s piece, one gets the vague impression that members of the Pride Alliance have given up. They want to be fully Orthodox Jews, but they believe that in the area of Torah-prohibited sexuality — while they acknowledge it’s wrong — it’s just too difficult for them. Whether or not this is ever made explicit in the activities of the Pride Alliance is not entirely relevant. The mere fact that they leave their conduct open to this interpretation is reason enough why the Pride Alliance is inconsistent with the core values of Yeshiva. We must unambiguously affirm our commitment to not only believing in, but practicing all of the mitzvos, and cannot be seen to condone anything less. 

Thus, something like the Pride Alliance, with the proper nuance, is indeed feasible; there is a Seventh Option. With careful oversight, the administration could fashion a club where the goals and expectations are unambiguously understood, where the struggles and well-being of each individual are clearly supported while sin is clearly condemned. 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. Additionally, we can do more to inform the whole student body about the difference between love and respect, and show every individual that they are members of our nation’s family, such as through the vehicles of sichos mussar, Yeshiva-wide events and other forms of clear and direct communication. We can, with a little effort, innovation and attention to nuance, resolve this crisis once and for all and satisfy every reasonable individual. We just have to choose the Seventh Option.

Photo Caption: Zysman Hall on the Wilf Campus
Photo Credit: The Commentator