By: Nadav Heller  | 

Liberalism Reassessed: A Response

When I first read Rabbi Rafi Eis’s article on Yeshiva University’s battle with liberalism, I was left disappointed and dissatisfied. His unfairly acerbic rhetoric is unrepresentative of my and my peers’ feelings on the matter, and in many ways runs contrary to them. This article aims to provide an alternative, more welcoming perspective that is grounded in modern sensitivity and traditional meticulosity, without compromising on either. Below, I address some of my grievances with Rabbi Eis’s presentation and suggest a vision of my own.

To start, I am bothered by Rabbi Eis’s implication that progressive Jewry is driven by heinous and subversive motives, a sentiment as offensive as it is monumentally uncharitable. He cites the prophet Jeremiah, who courageously took a stand against the perpetrators of rampant immorality and non-discretionary infidelity. (I suppose that’s meant to refer to me.) With such framing, it’s hard to blame him for so harshly decrying his ideological adversaries. However, name-calling and grandstanding will not help Jewry achieve syncretic harmony. I might suggest that instead of negating liberalism as a “dangerous attitude” discouraged by God, liberally-minded and traditionally-minded Jews can work together to find common ground. Following in the footsteps of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, we must identify “components of a shared moral and spiritual vision, upon elements of both a common fate and common destiny,” and “strive for understanding and respect.” (Jewish Action 46:37-39, Fall 1986) Is there a way to carve room for progressivism into one of the seventy facets of our Torah? We, as a community and as individuals, must be open to answering “yes” if we are to have any hope of creating dialogue and change. 

In a similar vein, I feel that co-opting the Rav in a regressive crusade to alienate our Jewish brothers, sisters and others is shameful and defamatory. Rabbi Eis correctly points to the Rav’s fear of secularization in YU; I’ve heard legends about his ferocious exchanges with Dr. Revel about the creation of Belfer Hall. I believe, however, that this is a misunderstanding of what liberal values at Yeshiva University stand for. In my experience, liberalism at YU isn’t animated by a crusade for unfettered liberty, but by an overwhelming sensitivity to people and their needs. This is a human issue, not a political one. This theme overtly emerges when we discuss LGBTQ representation on campus. The name “Pride Alliance” seems to give many the misapprehension that meetings are festive mockeries of Chazal where they juggle rainbow cotton candy and flaunt halacha. To my understanding, this is not the case. The YU Pride Alliance is not interested in secularization or controverting Torah values. They are concerned for the happiness, health and acceptance of their constituents. To this end, the Rav and his students (my rabbis and mentors) went to great lengths to create a sanctuary for the many stripes of Jew found on our vibrant campus. The Rav recognizes the necessity of this kind of social support in Halakhic Morality (page 162): 

“Love emerges when the individual begins to notice a new truth — shocking but at the same time comforting and encouraging. I am not alone, I am not forlorn, I am not barren.” 

To my understanding, this is the ethos of the YU Pride Alliance. It aims to provide a place where fraternal “love bursts forth from within the recesses of a frightened and perplexed soul, a love draped in gratitude to the thou, to the fellow who has joined me on my torturous path.” It aims to provide an oasis of respite to those who are all too often confronted by negative and oppositional attitudes in our community. The Rav was a complex thinker and enigmatic figure, and many disagree about his true intentions and positions on a litany of issues — the topic at hand is no exception. But I shudder to imagine that he would approve of weaponizing his person to displace and delegitimize members of our community. Sensitivity to real, painful human experience is not a contrived liberal value. It is the application of ineffable divine imperatives to a contemporary context. The fact that our sensitivity may have been prodded along by the secular world need not trouble us. As modern Orthodox Jews, we recognize that the world can sensitize us to broader swathes of human experience. 

Thirdly, I am off-put by Rabbi Eis’s vague and pejorative use of the word “liberalism”, as if it encompasses the entirety of political opinions more prospective than his own in its derogatory ambit. Liberalism and its adherents are diverse in opinion and conviction. When one is crusading against a nameless, faceless group of anti-Torah marauders, it is easy to discount the validity of their perspective. I would again encourage us to embrace complexity and seek mutual understanding. In this regard, we once again ought to take our cues from Rav Soloveichik: 

“To love another, I must first evaluate him in virtuous light and see him as worthy of that love… therefore, the commandment to love incorporates, first of all, the duty to form a positive assessment of the thou and to value him… this honor, however, must flow from a profound recognition that in the innermost recesses of human existence, the I is not superior to the thou. Each and every person represents a small world whose value is expressed in his uniqueness and separateness, and it is impossible to prefer one individual's existence over another's.” (Halakhic Morality, page 166)

To both me and the Rav, this is a crucial prerequisite to productive discussion.

With this, we arrive at the broader, more pernicious insinuation evinced by Rabbi Eis’s article: that support for gay people is synonymous with support for unbridled sexual liberty. Rabbi Eis provides a borderline parodic and sensationally expansive interpretation of the Torah’s prohibition on gay sex to include injunctions regarding communal loyalty, Masoretic fealty and Jewish continuity. From his article, it seems as if it’s impossible to simultaneously validate LGBTQ experiences and maintain uncompromising allegiance to halacha. As if by virtue of one’s homosexuality, or (God forbid!) their acceptance of such, they immediately shapeshift into antinomian gremlins of prurient predisposition. As if there is no place in Avraham’s tent for weary travelers seeking hospitality. From what I understand the Torah’s directive prohibits gay intercourse, but in no way abrogates the all-too-real mandates of “ואהבת לרעך כמוך, לא תונו איש את עמיתו”, or “ואהבתם את הגר.”

I propose instead a flavor of Orthodox Judaism where our concern for another Jew’s private behavior does not outweigh our love for him, where our cognizance of the severity of our own words and actions is more visceral than our disgust at his imagined behavior. I propose an Orthodoxy where people of polychromatic orientations can feel comfortable knowing that they don’t have to choose between their communal and personal identities. Where LGBTQ individuals don’t have to leave Orthodoxy to find the acceptance that the broader halachic community falls short of providing. 

This Orthodoxy means giving voices to those with whom we disagree — whatever their predilections may be — and providing safe spaces for them to be heard. These conversations are uncomfortable, especially for the assiduously traditional among us, but the discomfort is yet another reminder of their salient necessity.

Vitriol is not a substitute for sensitivity and erudition. Exclusionary discrimination is not a valid theology. Only through open dialogue and mutual sensitivity can we come together to form a more cohesive Klal Yisrael. We deserve better, we can do better and we should demand better.


Photo Caption: Rubin Hall

Photo Credit: Yeshiva University