The Dangers of Liberalism and Why YU Should Change Its Charter
After years of unsuccessfully pleading with his people to repent, Jeremiah finally hears the people of Israel say to him, “Let the LORD your God tell us where we should go and what we should do” (Jeremiah 42:3). Though facing an existential threat, the ancient Israelites preferred reassuring messages of the fake prophets like Hananiah son of Azzur, who gave the people false hope by predicting Babel’s imminent defeat, to Jeremiah’s prophecies of destruction and exile. Only after Jeremiah’s predictions of destruction and demolition came true were the people ready to listen to his prophecy.
As the Yeshiva University v. YU Pride Alliance case winds its way through the American court system, it is worth remembering that in 1970, Rav Soloveitchik Z”l foresaw how YU’s newly adopted secular status would lead to it being compelled to support activities that went against the Torah — like supporting an LGBTQ club for example — but his warnings were ignored. YU’s initial change to secular status was motivated by grave financial troubles and enabled it to access government funds, but its leaders underestimated the risk with the new charter. This is because they misunderstood the true nature of liberalism. Even as YU’s graduate schools were forced by courts to support LGBTQ clubs and offer married housing to same-sex couples, YU’s leadership pretended its undergraduate programs, which primarily cater to religious Jews, would be safe. This continued false sense of security stems from the same mistake: the mistake of underestimating the religiosity of liberalism.
Even if the courts eventually allow YU to carry on its religious mission in the name of religious liberty, it is time for YU to heed the Rav’s advice and amend its charter once again to define itself as a religious institution, with RIETS playing an official role in directing university strategy and policy.
How will liberalism continue to cause problems for YU? Proponents of liberalism describe it as secular, neutral, universal and based on human reason. This is sleight of hand, since liberalism begins with certain assumptions and is therefore not based on pure reason, is not universal, and makes important moral claims about right and wrong.
On issues related to the definition of gender, the importance of marriage, the definition of marriage, the importance of raising children in the nuclear family and duties to parents, liberalism takes a side. In a strong Biblical society, liberalism can give the appearance of neutrality. However, with Christianity on the wane in America and without Biblical resources to strengthen healthy moral values, we now live in a society of unfiltered liberalism, and it functions like a religion. At their most basic level, religions orient the moral outlook of their adherents towards their axiomatic value system. Actions and rituals, holidays and symbols, and public statements by religious leaders apply and reinforce this understanding of right and wrong. Liberalism does the same thing.
And many aspects of liberal culture are reminiscent of religion. There are liberal holidays, like Gay Pride Month. Ryan Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally, which convincingly argued that transgenderism is gender dysphoria, was removed from Amazon, which is, in essence, a digital book burning. Being fired from one's job or “canceled” for having the wrong outlook is a form of excommunication, bordering on an inquisition. Its adherents even call it a religion.
The moral ideology of liberalism is best articulated by Justice Anthony Kennedy in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which he writes that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Liberalism is secular, but it is not the neutral space described by its followers. It is a value system and functions like a religion. It begins with certain axioms, especially the autonomous self, who gets to determine right and wrong for him or herself.
All individuals are continuously trying to figure out the proper balance of the self vs. community and how to navigate duties to the past, present, and future. Liberalism prioritizes the autonomous self in the present. On the other hand, the Torah directs proper human behavior within these inherent tensions. Judaism makes important moral claims about communal loyalty and the individual’s rootedness in the past and his obligation to perpetuate into the future. This is why the Torah prohibits homosexual behavior and requires heterosexual marriage.
The Rav understood the deep and unresolvable conflict between liberalism and Judaism. Liberalism is precisely the dangerous attitude the Bible describes as “doing what is right in their own eyes,” (Judges 21:25) which contrasts with “doing that which is right and good in God’s eyes” (Deuteronomy 6:18).
It is time for YU to recognize its mistake and revert back to its initial charter. Liberalism is secular, but not benignly neutral, and YU cannot maintain its religious standards and define itself as secular. Down the road, there will be further conflicts, like whether to accept transgender females into Stern College dormitories or transgender males into Yeshiva College. Practically, by re-adopting its initial charter, YU would protect itself from further legal action.
More importantly, YU would clearly articulate its mission and the dangers of the current brand of unfiltered liberalism. As the center of the American Modern Orthodox world, numerous communities look towards YU for guidance. YU leaders have thankfully spoken forcefully about the importance of inclusion and compassion for LGBTQ individuals, but have basically been silent when it comes to clarifying the principles of sexual morality, which are not weakened or nullified by the desire to be humanely sensitive to those struggling to adapt to Torah law. YU’s lack of communication about its core principles has caused confusion. If YU continues on its current path, it may or may not succeed in the courts, but it risks losing its constituency, since mere silence cannot defeat the moral claims of liberalism. Only a clear moral stand, such as changing the charter, will resist the current tide of rampant liberalism, and YU needs to take that stand firmly and courageously.
Of course, there will be pushback from the liberal world, some donors, and some students, but such dilemmas are not new. Just like our prophets, one cannot please the crowd and stand for something deep and enduring. History confirms that those “who cleave to Hashem, your God, are all alive today” (Deuteronomy 4:4).
Admitting a mistake and changing course is embarrassing and difficult. Ancient Israel ends up walking back their commitment to Jeremiah, and instead declares, “You are lying! The LORD our God did not send you” (Jeremiah 43:2). This led to additional exile.
It is time for YU’s leaders to clearly and courageously demonstrate our Torah values, to stand as a moral compass for our embattled community and our struggling nation.