We Say We Love LGBTQ Jews. Do We Really Mean It?
“You want to know what was hilarious?” the student seated behind me in shiur asked. “That someone threw out The Commentator issues.” Unsure if he was joking, I asked him what he meant. “Because of the gay article,” he mockingly replied. “That doesn’t belong in a yeshiva.”
That “gay article” referred to a profile I wrote for The Commentator on how LGBTQ students at YU navigate their religious identities, which made the front page of the fall semester’s last issue. Only one day after that issue was printed and distributed, hundreds of copies were thrown away by a YU student who was later caught. This, the student in my shiur believed, was hilarious; it was the poetic justice a “gay article” deserved.
It’s important to note that the profile did not concern halachic issues. The featured students were not threatening to uproot Torah. They were not calling to abandon Orthodoxy. They were not even engaging with the contentious discussions Orthodoxy is facing today. Instead, the students spoke about their connections to Judaism, the reasons they love learning Torah and the comfort they find in community. And they did speak about their experiences as LGBTQ Jews, and the discrimination and hardships they faced as a result. But, according to my classmate, none of that belongs in a yeshiva.
This interaction came on the heels of oral arguments in the ongoing LGBTQ discrimination suit against YU, which asks the court to decide if YU must allow students to form a university-sanctioned LGBTQ club. To be clear: This article is not addressing matters of the Pride Alliance, the law, halakha or the intricacies of that case. My concern rather lies with the message of that student’s comment.
“Our LGBTQ+ students are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, family and friends,” President Ari Berman told The Commentator in September 2020. “At the heart of our Jewish values is love — love for God and love for each of His children.” Our rebbeim echo that same sentiment when speaking about LGBTQ issues, urging us to “love every Jew.” We say the same things among ourselves. But if that’s the case, if we should be loving our fellow students as we are expected to love everyone else, why don’t we?
Rambam tells us in his Mishneh Torah that the mitzvah to love our fellow Jew is a mitzvah of action, and while we may vocalize messages of inclusion and acceptance, our actions sound the loudest message of all. In more ways than one, we position ourselves as the gatekeepers that refuse to welcome those who differ in ways that make us uncomfortable. At the same time, we watch in astonishment as those same people leave Orthodoxy; we push people so hard that they have no choice to stay, and we’re doing the same thing to LGBTQ Jews.
You need not take my word that this is the case — take it from LGBTQ students themselves. At a YU-sponsored panel of LGBTQ students and alumni held roughly one year ago, one of the students said as much: “After what I and many others felt was repeated discrimination by the administration at this school, I realized that I didn’t reject Judaism and I didn’t reject the Orthodox community. They rejected me.” In one article, six former and current YU students said homophobic comments were “common at YU.” If our goal is to love our fellow Jews, then we’re failing miserably.
Of course, we cannot blame every person in the community for LGBTQ discrimination; there are many who have taken tremendous and successful strides to create inclusive and welcoming spaces for LGBTQ Jews. At the same time, we would be foolish to misappropriate those cases and claim that no problems exist at all.
This year, things have been rather quiet regarding LGBTQ issues at YU, mainly because they are being handled in court. The presiding judge is expected to return a decision within the next few months, ruling on whether YU must allow the Pride Alliance to be an official campus club. The court is handling issues from a legal standpoint — and you can be sure that its ruling will have significant implications for the future of YU. But all of that is irrelevant to this point.
Right now, we are not making space for LGBTQ Jews, “our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, family and friends,” to feel and be loved. This is not about New York City law. This is about Jewish law. It’s about making a community open to diverse Jews, a community where everyone knows that they are welcome. If we are serious when we proclaim to love our fellow Jews, then our yeshiva should be a place for every single Jew. But unless we genuinely want that to be the case, it won’t be.