By: Ariel Kahan  | 

We Need Achdus, Not Lawsuits

It’s complicated.   

Actually… It’s extremely complicated. This is the answer that I have found myself giving to the many people who have asked me about the legal battle between the Pride Alliance and YU. 

There are three different issues I find arising in conversations – the merits of the legal claims, whether YU was correct to deny club status to the Pride Alliance, and questions about the tactics employed by each side, which in both cases seem increasingly to include scorched-earth rhetoric (particularly the Pride Alliance’s comparisons between YU and the opponents of the Civil Rights movement) and actions (particularly YU’s recent decision to temporarily close all clubs). 

I do not have anything to add regarding the constitutional issues in addition to the many legal scholars who have provided analyses. However, as a YU student, and for the Commentator as an independent YU newspaper, the wisdom and message of YU and The Pride Alliance's underlying actions are of at least as much importance as the legal issues. And it is those messages that I would like to discuss here.

On the one hand, there needs to be total understanding, love and tolerance for those in the LGBTQ community. I, and I believe most YU students, feel that it is important that any LGBTQ student feel a full and respected member of the YU community, without a need to hide their identity. At the same time, I understand the halakhic qualms that the rabbinic leadership of the Yeshiva has about the club. In short, I think that in the context of the modern/centrist Orthodox community of which we are a part at YU, the question of whether YU should permit the club is one about which reasonable people can disagree. Additionally, there is a lot of sincere and intense struggle across our community with the challenge of how to include LGBTQ individuals as full members. 

The strongest reaction I have, and it has crystallized recently, is that the increase in temper and tactics is causing a great deal of damage, and for very questionable benefit. I think this is true on both sides of the debate.

The Pride Alliance of course had the right to go to court. However, their doing so forced the issue under circumstances where the record suggests that YU was earnestly trying to work with them. I acknowledge that I cannot personally relate to the challenge of trying to find a place within Orthodoxy as an LGBTQ individual; I know that it must be difficult, with frequent encountering of insensitivity and invalidation. But I also know that Orthodox schools and organizations are confronting these issues much more directly than ever before. The Pride Alliance’s recent statement comparing YU’s potential closure of all clubs to segregation in Mississippi is misguided. Simply put, these two things are not comparable. Racism and bigotry are rooted in evil and hatred. YU’s policy regarding the clubs, even if you think it is wrong, too right-wing or even insensitive, is conceived in a perceived value of Torah observance by the YU administration and rabbinic leadership. Those on campus who are trying to block the club are doing so because they think the Torah to which they dedicate their lives has clear guidance on these issues.  

Of course, sincere religious intent is not always a defense against allegations of discrimination (some terrorists are motivated by religious beliefs). But this is where a sense of proportion and history is important. Those in the Pride Alliance chose to go to a school that puts Torah above all else, in an Orthodox world that has not to date relaxed traditional Biblical proscriptions. The degree of openness to LBGTQ students at YU has increased dramatically over the past decade. Twenty years ago, a Pride Club would be the figment of someone's imagination. The Pride Alliance’s black-and-white framing of the issues has put YU against a figurative wall, under highly public scrutiny that is damaging to the institution. Of course, a group of students owes no loyalty to YU as an organization, but is it constructive to force this level of debate in service of a lawsuit that it may not even win?   

All that being said, I must add that I strongly commend the Pride Alliance on their recent offer of a “stay” to YU in order to allow the rest of the clubs to operate. This compromise and sense of proportion is a major step in the right direction that will help bring moderation to a situation that has gotten out of hand. 

By the same token, YU’s blocking of all clubs is not helpful. On a purely practical level, it comes at a considerable cost to the student experience. If clubs are suspended, students who pay tens of thousands of dollars for a private university will not be able to participate in clubs they cherish because of a legal fight. On some level, if it takes YU until the chagim to figure this out (which it seems like it will), that’s totally fine — everyone knows nothing really happens until after the chagim. 

On another level, however, YU is sending the wrong message on the LBGTQ issue — one in tension with the more moderate tone it is trying to project. While YU wants to frame the issue as about religious autonomy rather than LBGTQ rights, its defense of this principle has taken on such an extreme quality that it is feeding a frenzy. At the end of the day, if YU were to allow the club to exist in the short-term, with a message that it must abide by the decision of the courts, it is hard to see the harm. At this point, nobody could possibly misconstrue YU’s official position on the club. By instead seeking unusually expedited relief and shutting down all clubs, YU suggests a fear of the club that can be misconstrued (I believe incorrectly, but understandably) in anti-LGBTQ animus.

What is YU going to do? What should it do? I don’t know; it's way above my pay grade and perhaps anybody’s. But sinking students with the ship — and taking such an uncompromising position about the club — is not the right option. 

Perhaps a lesson we can learn from this whole saga is that Jews should try not to turn on Jews when issues get complicated. I would never suggest that there is no role for secular courts or authorities. But by not dealing with this issue internally, it seems that both the Pride Alliance and YU have become pawns of broader social movements, whether for LGBTQ inclusion or religious autonomy. Complicated hashkafic issues that will forever touch our community would be better handled slowly with a sense of evolution. I don’t know what the issue will be, but there will be one in the next few generations that will have opinions and emotions on both sides. Let’s hope that we learn from our mistakes and handle any future issues in a sensitive, internal manner. 

Thus, we should enter this High Holiday season by not just saying we treat and think of our fellow Jews as brethren, we should act like it. It involves treating every Jew with love, respect and tolerance. It requires patience and understanding of our great leaders who work hard to carry out Hashem’s will. Hopefully, the only lawsuits happening between our fellow Jews will be happening in Seder Nezikin, not in the eye of the world as a public spectacle. 

At the end of the day, we need Achdus, not lawsuits.

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