By: Manny Ehrlich  | 

YU Rebbeim Have Failed Me

As a senior in my last semester, I have been doing a lot of retrospection lately. As a religious person, this includes looking back at how I’ve grown religiously and spiritually in my time here at YU. Baruch Hashem, I have seen considerable growth these past three years, and the rebbeim here have played a major role in that. However, I had to figure out much of my religious growth on my own, without rabbinic guidance. When it came to the single biggest challenge to my connection to Judaism, I found that many of the rebbeim here were not only unhelpful, but they actually sometimes served as obstacles to my religious growth.

Before I go further, I have to make a few things clear. I have been in three different morning programs in three years. I have made connections with many incredible rebbeim here, and I have tremendous respect and hakarat hatov for them. Not all rabbis here are equally responsible for the things I discuss in this article. Some of them have been very helpful, and I believe all of them have the best intentions. Additionally, I obviously haven’t spoken to every rabbi at this school. In this article, I speak of the ones I have had access to and experience with. Even so, my experiences are not unique and are shared by many in YU and other Orthodox spaces.

Like many people at YU, I have had many ups and downs in my connection to Judaism. But the single biggest challenge that I have faced, and the thing that has often been at the center of my low points, is that I’m gay. The first time I fully accepted this reality was in the spring semester of my first year at YU. I was fresh out of shana bet. I felt I was at the height of my religiosity. It was only then that I accepted that being gay wasn’t something that would just go away, no matter how hard I davened. As you might imagine, I had a lot of halachic concerns. Typically, one would expect YU to be the best place for discussing personal halachic dilemmas with qualified mentors. In this instance, however, it seemed like one of the worst.

Although I had a particular rabbi at YU who I went to with halachic questions, I was hesitant to bring up this specific issue with him. I had personally witnessed this rabbi stand silently by as students made homophobic comments and jokes. I have subsequently seen many other rabbis ignore inappropriate comments or even make them. Closeted LGBTQ+ individuals often find it very difficult to speak up in defense of other LGBTQ+ people for fear they will be discovered. This is a feeling I believe many closeted people at YU know all too well. This is why it is so important for others to stand up to homophobia — to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.

This is the first way I feel that YU rebbeim have failed me and others like me. There is no reason for rebbeim to allow conversations like this to occur. As respected teachers and leaders, they have a special responsibility to end inappropriate conversations swiftly with a rebuke, a lesson about lashon hara, or even by simply changing the topic. All too often, these hateful conversations are simply allowed to happen. This forces closeted students to sit by silently while their existence is ridiculed, tells the other students that there is nothing wrong with such speech and makes it harder for gay students to trust that complicit rabbi. When I needed rabbinic guidance, I was hesitant to come out to my rav because I felt that if he was letting such slander happen, he may not be sympathetic. Nevertheless, I desperately needed halachic and hashkafic advice so I decided to take a risk and speak to the rabbi anyway.

I admit that I was a bit surprised by our conversation. Despite seeming not to care to stand up for LGBTQ+ individuals when they were being made fun of and ridiculed, the rav’s attitude was very different once an actual gay person sat across the table from him. This is something I’ve noticed a lot at YU, not just among the rebbeim. Often, people will discuss “the gays” as an abstract halachic or political topic, rarely remembering that “the gays” are actual thinking, feeling people that may even be the very person they are talking to. Almost (almost) every rabbi I have come out to has been nothing but sympathetic, regardless of the way they conduct themselves outside of our conversation. 

But being compassionate one-on-one is not enough. The rebbeim at YU heavily influence campus culture. Some of you may remember when YU had a mandatory mask policy. Once the rebbeim stopped wearing masks, so did the majority of the students (regardless of the stated policy at the time). This power puts the rebbeim in a position to change people’s attitudes about many topics, including, of course, gay people. On the most basic level, this means stopping homophobic conversations. But even this is not enough. People need to be corrected the way they would if they were speaking about any other Jew, as doing so is antithetical to Jewish beliefs. Many people who know this seem to forget it when it comes to gay people. It is the responsibility of the rebbeim to remind their talmidim that gay Jews are no less Jewish than anyone else at YU, and deserve the same respect as anyone else.

This next point should be obvious, but apparently it isn’t. Rebbeim should absolutely not say homophobic things to their students. Nothing sends a clearer message that saying such things is OK, and nothing sends a clearer message to the gay students who hear these comments that they cannot be comfortable in that rabbi’s class or shiur. Feeling a kesher, a connection, with one’s rabbi is an integral part of learning Torah from them. When rebbeim say homophobic things, they are inhibiting their own ability to effectively teach their own students.

The next way that YU rebbeim are failing LGBTQ+ students is in the kind of religious advice they provide to them. For the 20+ years I spent in the closet, I envisioned a future similar to that of most YU students. I dreamt of marrying a wonderful woman (despite the fact that the details of this always caused me considerable anxiety) and creating a beautiful Jewish family. When I eventually came to terms with the fact that my sexual orientation was never going to change, my lifelong dreams didn’t suddenly change. The only part of my plan that did change was the part about marrying a woman.

After 12 years of yeshiva education and two years in Israel, I am fully aware of the halachic issues this presents. However, I do think there is room for rebbeim to give constructive advice for how to move forward. Instead, most rabbis say the same line, one I think almost every person who was raised Modern Orthodox has heard before: “Being gay isn’t a sin. You just can’t act on it.” As commonplace as this advice is, it is completely unhelpful and a dead end.

When someone tells me that I “just can’t act on it,” they are essentially saying one of two things: a) “You must be celibate your entire life. You can never have a companion. You can never raise a family. You must remain alone.” or b) “Just marry a woman anyway.” Nowadays, most people recognize that the latter is not a good solution. For me to marry a woman would not only cause me significant emotional distress, but would be unfair to her as well. Although some rebbeim have given me this advice before, most don’t advocate for this course of action. Instead, the prevalent answer given to gay Jews is the first one: total celibacy and lifelong loneliness. As commonly proposed as this solution is, it is, at best, unrealistic. I challenge you to imagine that every rabbi you spoke to told you that you can never get married, or even date. You can never have children or build a family or a home. No matter how religiously motivated a person is, this is an extremely difficult future to accept for oneself.

Judaism does not believe in total sexual repression, as it acknowledges that this goes against human nature (Kiddushin 21b-22a). The Torah also acknowledges that it is not good for man to be alone (Bereishit 2:18). Of course, the practicing Jew is expected to control their urges. They are expected to be shomer habrit. They must refrain from physical contact with the opposite sex until they are married, and then they must remain loyal to their spouse and observe the laws of niddah. These are guidelines for how a Jew can channel his urges in the proper way. Crucially, though, it provides permissible outlets. Things are different for the gay practicing Jew. Halacha, at least as it is currently understood by mainstream Orthodox Judaism, does not provide any permissible sexual or emotional outlet for gay individuals. This poses extreme difficulty for someone who believes in the Torah and halacha and then comes out as gay. This is why constructive rabbinic advice is so desperately needed.

I know what you’re thinking: Well, what do you want the rebbeim to do about it? This is what the Torah says! When I was seeking rabbinic advice, I wasn’t looking for a rabbi to change the way that Jews have interpreted a verse from the Torah for thousands of years. What I was looking for was advice for how I could remain religious as a gay Jewish man. What I typically got instead was dead-end advice that essentially amounted to “Sorry, you’re outta luck.” 

I am not a rabbi and I am in no position to tell rebbeim what they should say. But I feel that I must humbly point out a few possible directions rebbeim could potentially go in, just to start the process. For one, “you just can’t act on it” is ambiguous. There is a distinction to be made between which acts are a Torah prohibition and which are rabbinic prohibitions. (And this is only for men. For women, all homosexual acts are only rabbinic prohibitions.) Of course, as Orthodox Jews, we believe that rabbinic prohibitions are forbidden just like Torah laws. However, for those individuals who struggle with the idea of a future of celibacy and loneliness, it could be beneficial for them to be aware of the relative severity of different acts so that they may make their own, informed decisions. 

Everybody tries their best in their avodat Hashem, but few can claim to keep everything perfectly. It is not uncommon to see people (even at YU) not observing the rules of shomer negiah. There are a handful of students who do not keep Shabbos, many of whom are not shy about it. Every practicing Jew has some halacha that they observe suboptimally. And yet, these people are rarely treated the same way as gay people are. When someone finds out that their friend doesn’t keep Shabbat, he typically does not tell his friend that they are wicked or evil, or cut off contact with them. To hold gay people to a different standard, especially when all you know about them is that they’re gay (which is not a sin), is nothing less than discrimination. There is no religious justification for discriminating against gay people when few other commandments elicit such responses. Each of us have commandments we struggle with, but at the end of the day, only Hashem can judge our actions. It is our job to work on improving ourselves and helping others when they need it. It is not our place to decide that another person’s sins are worse than our own.

The single best rabbinic advice I have received on this topic came from a rabbi outside of YU, and I cannot understate how much it has aided in my continued religiosity. He told me that if I observed 612 mitzvot perfectly, I would be a gadol hador. Jews would come from everywhere to seek my wisdom. That, the rabbi told me, is a good place to start. The beauty of this advice is that it provided me with a starting point on my path forward as an Orthodox Jew. At no point did the rabbi say anything directly about homosexuality. He didn’t condone or condemn any practices. He simply spoke to me as a person.

I understand that this is a difficult approach to take on a policy level, as it can be misused to pick and choose mitzvot. However, for me this is not about looking for a reason not to perform any mitzvot. Hashem made me gay. Being gay isn’t something I chose.

Halacha is complicated. It makes sense that so many rebbeim do not want to touch this issue. Some of them feel that they are not prominent or wise enough to speak on it. Others simply feel that the backlash they would receive makes it not worth it. Whatever the reason, many rebbeim choose to simply say “just don’t act on it” and then not discuss it any further. My question to these rebbeim is this: What about those of us who do not have the luxury of being able to leave this problem unanswered? When a rabbi is unable or unwilling to help me, my problem doesn’t just go away. Is it any wonder why so many previously frum Jews leave the community after they come out? Do you think they came out and suddenly decided that Judaism did not provide spiritual and intellectual value in their lives?

Ironically, despite the lack of guidance and leadership on this issue from YU rebbeim, YU as an institution has been incredibly valuable on my journey. As I’ve sought ways to reconcile my beliefs and sexuality, my biggest asset has been speaking to other people like me. Nowhere other than YU could I find a group of people who are working on ways to create Jewish lives for themselves as homosexuals. But even this has been in spite of the rebbeim.

YU is a unique place for me to work on reconciling these two parts of my identity alongside peers, but the Yeshiva has made it very clear from their actions and rhetoric that they do not want us to even exist here. They wrongly and grotesquely assume that any attempt to meet other people like us is for the sole purpose of committing sinful acts. No other student group that I know of is under such suspicions. If they were, there would be no coed clubs. The fact is, some of the most popular clubs at YU involve activities that are halachically questionable, to say the least. The Pride Alliance’s events, in contrast, have never been in conflict with halacha.

While I have found that guidance from rebbeim falls woefully short of what I need, I have found the Pride Alliance to be invaluable in connecting me with others going through the same thing as me. And yet, the rebbeim and roshei yeshiva continue to slander the group by suggesting — or outright stating — that the Pride Alliance’s goal is to destroy the Yeshiva. Does this even make sense? Do you think a gay person would opt to pay YU’s tuition and reside on a notoriously homophobic college campus if they didn’t care about Judaism or YU? The LGBTQ+ people I know at YU don’t want to destroy the school. They are active members of the student body. They are leaders of clubs and members of student councils. They want to contribute to the flagship Modern Orthodox university, not destroy it.

Some people have told me that while they are sympathetic to the cause, they feel that an LGBTQ+ group does not belong at YU. To this I respond: Where else would you like us to go? Is YU not a place for all Jews? Are there specific qualifications or qualities that a Jew needs to check in order to feel welcome here?

I often wonder about a theoretical case in which a high school senior comes to a YU rabbi and says, “Rav, I am thinking about going to YU, but I am gay. Do you think this is the place for me?” I wonder what that rabbi would say. Would he be OK telling that young Jew that YU isn’t the place for him because of the way Hashem made him? I have to think that most of the rebbeim wouldn’t feel comfortable telling any Orthodox Jew that YU isn’t for them. If I am correct in that assumption, then the rebbeim need to start doing things differently. 

I am now a senior, and I am a religious, observant Jew. I would not be where I am today if not for Yeshiva University and many of its incredible rebbeim. However, they have failed me when I needed their help the most. They failed to present to me a way I can remain religious without compromising my mental health. By finishing YU as a gay observant Jew, I feel I am an exception. This is truly a failure of the Yeshiva. Being religious at graduation should not be considered an accomplishment for YU — it should be the expectation, especially for someone who was already religious coming in. But if things continue the way they have, YU’s rebbeim will continue failing members of the Jewish community.

I know that many of the things I have said in this article are likely to upset some readers. This topic is always controversial. I welcome anyone who disagrees with any of the points I make here to approach me if they are interested in having a civil conversation.This coming May, I will, b’ezrat Hashem, be graduating from YU as an Orthodox Jew, not just thanks to the rebbeim here, but also despite them.


Photo Caption: Glueck Beit Midrash sign illuminated by a rainbow

Photo Credit: Fruma Landa