Monday, December 09, 2019


I've been watching the HBO rendition of "His Dark Materials," an adaptation of the series of books written by Phillip Pullman. I've just finished episode 1x05, titled 'The Lost Boy.'

One of the things this adaptation of the series brought to mind was that intercision (or cutting a child apart from their daemon, what we would call our soul) was akin to experiments performed on children during the Holocaust. In the book depiction (which I read when I was much younger) it seemed more similar to castration, or separating a child from their sexuality. In the same way the Church might do that to altar boys to keep them as sopranos (and so that they might remain pure/ untouched by original sin), so too the Magisterium is performing this separation upon children. (The castration comparison also fits the puberty imagery relating to the "change" when one's daemon retains one form forever.)

But the Holocaust imagery is an important and disturbing parallel, and I think the show is right to play up that connection. (Especially as we approach a time where so many do not remember or have forgotten the Holocaust and the scope of the tragedies that occurred during it).


One thing the show got wrong- the scene in the books when Tony is found holding the piece of dried fish instead of his soul is one of THE MOST DISTURBING scenes in ALL of children's literature (and I have read a lot of children's literature) and they cut it. This was a mistake. (Screenshot below- click to enlarge- of Lyra understanding the importance of the fish when the adults do not).

Monday, November 11, 2019

To Take, To Grasp, To Lose: David as a Player in a Tale out of Genesis

There once was a king. 

 This king took. 

 He took the woman who revived, aroused, inspired passion in him. 
 He grasped her, kissed her, caressed her. 
 He gave her a child. But then he lost. 
 He lost the child. 
 He lost his other children, too. 
 One to rape. One to fratricide. Two to rebellion. 
 Was it worth what he took? 

In II Samuel 11, we encounter a story:

ב  וַיְהִי לְעֵת הָעֶרֶב, וַיָּקָם דָּוִד מֵעַל מִשְׁכָּבוֹ וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ עַל-גַּג בֵּית-הַמֶּלֶךְ, וַיַּרְא אִשָּׁה רֹחֶצֶת, מֵעַל הַגָּג; וְהָאִשָּׁה, טוֹבַת מַרְאֶה מְאֹד.2 And it came to pass at eventide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king's house; and from the roof he saw a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.
ג  וַיִּשְׁלַח דָּוִד, וַיִּדְרֹשׁ לָאִשָּׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר, הֲלוֹא-זֹאת בַּת-שֶׁבַע בַּת-אֱלִיעָם--אֵשֶׁת, אוּרִיָּה הַחִתִּי.3 And David sent and inquired after the woman. And one said: 'Is not this Bath-sheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?'
ד  וַיִּשְׁלַח דָּוִד מַלְאָכִים וַיִּקָּחֶהָ, וַתָּבוֹא אֵלָיו וַיִּשְׁכַּב עִמָּהּ, וְהִיא מִתְקַדֶּשֶׁת, מִטֻּמְאָתָהּ; וַתָּשָׁב, אֶל-בֵּיתָהּ.4 And David sent messengers, and took her; and she came in unto him, and he lay with her; for she was purified from her uncleanness; and she returned unto her house.
There were consequences.

י  וְעַתָּה, לֹא-תָסוּר חֶרֶב מִבֵּיתְךָ--עַד-עוֹלָם:  עֵקֶב, כִּי בְזִתָנִי, וַתִּקַּח אֶת-אֵשֶׁת אוּרִיָּה הַחִתִּי, לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לְאִשָּׁה.  {ס}10 Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from thy house; because thou hast despised Me, and hast taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be thy wife. {S}
יא  כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, הִנְנִי מֵקִים עָלֶיךָ רָעָה מִבֵּיתֶךָ, וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶת-נָשֶׁיךָ לְעֵינֶיךָ, וְנָתַתִּי לְרֵעֶיךָ; וְשָׁכַב עִם-נָשֶׁיךָ, לְעֵינֵי הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ הַזֹּאת.11 Thus saith the LORD: Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun.
יב  כִּי אַתָּה, עָשִׂיתָ בַסָּתֶר; וַאֲנִי, אֶעֱשֶׂה אֶת-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה, נֶגֶד כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְנֶגֶד הַשָּׁמֶשׁ.  {ס}12 For thou didst it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.'

I realized that this story- and its consequences- echo those in the Book of Genesis. Now, Genesis is a book dedicated to exploring the need for a sexual ethic, and explaining what ensues when there is no sexual ethic. Without one, men attempt to sodomize other men. Jacob's daughter is raped. Lot and his daughters sleep together. And kings take women who are not theirs. 

It happens multiple times. Pharaoh takes Sarah. Abimelech takes Sarah. The reason the kings do this is because they are playing by the sexual ethics of the time- where to see a beautiful woman is to take her.

In Genesis 12:

יד  וַיְהִי, כְּבוֹא אַבְרָם מִצְרָיְמָה; וַיִּרְאוּ הַמִּצְרִים אֶת-הָאִשָּׁה, כִּי-יָפָה הִוא מְאֹד.14 And it came to pass, that, when Abram was come into Egypt, the Egyptians beheld the woman that she was very fair.
טו  וַיִּרְאוּ אֹתָהּ שָׂרֵי פַרְעֹה, וַיְהַלְלוּ אֹתָהּ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה; וַתֻּקַּח הָאִשָּׁה, בֵּית פַּרְעֹה.15 And the princes of Pharaoh saw her, and praised her to Pharaoh; and the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house.

Then Genesis 20:

ב  וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל-שָׂרָה אִשְׁתּוֹ, אֲחֹתִי הִוא; וַיִּשְׁלַח, אֲבִימֶלֶךְ מֶלֶךְ גְּרָר, וַיִּקַּח, אֶת-שָׂרָה.2 And Abraham said of Sarah his wife: 'She is my sister.' And Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah.
ג  וַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים אֶל-אֲבִימֶלֶךְ, בַּחֲלוֹם הַלָּיְלָה; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, הִנְּךָ מֵת עַל-הָאִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר-לָקַחְתָּ, וְהִוא, בְּעֻלַת בָּעַל.3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him: 'Behold, thou shalt die, because of the woman whom thou hast taken; for she is a man's wife.'

Each time a king takes a woman, he suffers the consequences.
Pharaoh and his household suffer great plagues.
Abimelech is threatened with death and the death of his entire household.

What is David's punishment?
There are many pieces to it.

It is as though God is saying, "You would like to play by the sexual ethic of the kings in Genesis? Fine. Let's play."

But be might not like what that means.

Many of the worst Genesis stories are echoed in the fallout from David's actions.

In Genesis, Dina is raped. In David's story, Tamar is raped.
In Genesis, Jacob's sons use trickery to avenge her rape. In David's story, Absalom uses trickery to avenge Tamar's rape.
In Genesis, incest is committed between father and daughter. In David's story, incest is committed between brother and sister.
In Genesis, Joseph's brothers hate him so much that they "cannot speak a kind word to him." In David's story, Absalom hates his brother so much that he cannot speak to him.
In Genesis, Joseph's brothers aim to kill him (although, at the last minute, they do not). In David's story, Absalom kills Amnon.
In Genesis, Jacob loses a beloved son and cannot get over his death. Then, he is threatened with the loss of another son, Benjamin. In David's story, David loses Amnon and eventually loses the beloved Absalom as well.

This is not a coincidence.

It is a direct result of David's choice. He chose to act like a Pharoah. An Abimelech. To live by the sexual ethic of that time.

So God gave him what he wished for. In its entirety.

And so David became a player in a tale out of Genesis.

Friday, September 13, 2019

We, Too, Are YU: How To Support LGBT Individuals in a Halakhic Way

As a proud Stern and Revel alumna, I have been thinking about the upcoming march entitled "We, Too Are YU: Students March for LGBTQ+ Representation." This is an issue I cared about back at YU (I wrote the transcript for the famous panel "Being Gay in the Orthodox World" and had an entire edition of The Observer devoted to Dr. Ladin coming out as trans). It remains an issue I care about because I have friends, former students and students who are members of the LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, I teach a unit on secular and traditional Jewish perspectives on the LGBTQ+ movement (which focuses on both traditional and contemporary sources and news articles). Due to all of this, I'd like to look at the causes this group is marching for and consider whether or not they can exist with the halakhic ethos that underpins Yeshiva University and makes it unique.

The following photo was posted in the Yeshiva University College Democrats Facebook group outlining the causes for which this march advocates.

CAUSE 1- "A statement from President Berman condemning homophobic rhetoric of students, rabbis, and faculty on campus. Any instance of homophobia will be investigated by the administration."

I am 100% behind this cause. Believing that halakha forbids a man to have intercourse with or marry another man (and that women are not permitted to perform sexual acts with or marry other women) does not give anyone license to demean, disparage, mock or be cruel to individuals who identify as gay. Similarly, believing that halakha forbids wearing clothing associated with the opposite sex and that GCS (gender confirmation surgery) comes with many halakhic problems, including deliberate sterilization, does not permit someone to demean, disparage, mock or be cruel to individuals who identify as trans.

That having been said, the yeshiva and the university must still be able to teach our traditional and beloved Jewish texts (including those texts that deal with the topic of homosexuality) when giving shiurim without this being termed homophobia. It must be clear that homophobia does not encompass an academic or halakhic discussion of the topic of homosexuality within Judaism.

CAUSE 2- "Events involving LGBTQ+ issues and speakers may not be denied by the Office of Student Life or anyone else on the basis of them being LGBTQ+."

This one is more complicated. I do not know what the current standard for other clubs is, and the protocols that are used when they invite speakers. For example, if a TAC/SOY representative were to invite someone who is known to be an atheist to speak about atheism while advertising that as a Torah event, my assumption is that they would be forbidden to proceed. In such a case, if a speaker is going to come to campus to advocate choices which directly contradict the Torah and rabbinic laws (for example, if Rabbi Steve Greenberg were going to come speak and state that his choices are supported by halakha), that would be equally problematic. If, on the other hand, clubs are permitted to bring in speakers even when they clash with the overall mission of Yeshiva University simply so that diverse viewpoints are presented, then the same permission should be given to individuals who would like to invite someone who identifies as LGBTQ+ to speak about those causes.

CAUSE 3- "An administrator whose job it is to promote diversity and inclusiveness on campus- just as YU's Cardozo School of Law has."

I found this statement about diversity and inclusion on the YU's Cardozo School of Law website. I think diversity is a value and support the desire to build a community that is comprised of "a broad range of perspectives, life experiences and cultural backgrounds." At the same time, Cardozo is different from Yeshiva University in fundamental ways. Cardozo students are law students, learning the same curriculum as those at any other law school. Non-Jewish students and students of all sexual orientations, genders and the like are obviously welcomed to attend. In contrast, Yeshiva University is a private university serving a religious community. Those individuals are mandated to take Judaic Studies in addition to their general studies commitments, and many of them are committed to leading observant lives as well. That is the reason many students choose to attend Yeshiva University as opposed to any other college. I'm all for increasing diversity and wanting to attract students who are Jewish to YU, regardless of sexual orientation. That said, deliberately recruiting trans students would lead to many halakhic challenges (with minyanim, with which school they would attend- Stern or Yeshiva College, with rooming) and I'm not sure they would be best served within the YU environment.

CAUSE 4- "YC and Stern orientations must have a session about tolerance and acceptance of LGBTQ+ students, including resources for students identifying with the LGBTQ+ community." 

I 100% agree that YC and Stern orientations must have a session about tolerance and acceptance of LGBTQ+ students. There is far too much ignorance in the Orthodox world about what sexual orientation means or what gender dysphoria is. Someone who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community deserves to be welcomed, loved and appreciated - even if I as a YU student believe that their choices clash with halakha. That said, I am unclear as to what it means to provide "resources" for students identifying with the LGBTQ+ community. For example, if the suggestion is that YU must refer an individual with gender dysphoria to individuals who will tell them to transition, that is in clear violation of halakha. If "resources" means that there is a support group, trained RAs or counselors available to talk to these students, then I am 100% on board.

CAUSE 5- "YU Students should be allowed to have a Gay-Straight Alliance club on campus. It must be clear that it is a GSA."

I absolutely support individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ having a safe space to meet on campus. That said, this space cannot be identified as a GSA club. It is at odds with halakha and the mission of Yeshiva University. GSA Network defines a GSA in the following way:

"GSA clubs, or GSAs for short, are student-run organizations that unite LGBTQ+ and allied youth to build community and organize around issues impacting them in their schools and communities. GSAs have evolved beyond their traditional role to serve as safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth in middle schools and high schools, and have emerged as vehicles for deep social change related to racial, gender, and educational justice [emph mine].

A growing body of research confirms that the presence of a GSA has a positive and lasting effect on student health, wellness, and academic performance. It can also protect students from harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and improve school climates for all students in the long-term."

The difficulty of having a GSA on a religious campus is that the club is no longer there merely to serve as a safe space and support group. The club comes with a focus on "social change related to racial, gender and educational justice." That social change declares that gender is a construct and therefore one can transition between genders, something which traditional Judaism and halakha does not support. It also advocates for acting upon one's sexuality (having a sexual or romantic relationship with a partner of the same gender), which once again, clashes with halakha.

Beyond the causes outlined here, the "We, Too, Are YU" march has been linked by Professor Aaron Koller to a worldview that is at odds with the halakhic perspective. He states, "In a clash between humanity and halakha, opt for humanity, and have enough faith in halakha that the problem will be solved. And if somehow the conflict remains intractable, I would rather suffer for being a good person than sacrifice someone else’s life on the altar of my religiosity."

This approach forgets about God. It places one's own perspective of what is right, true, moral or good above what God wishes from us. It assumes our ever-evolving view of what is humane trumps God's knowledge of what is good for us- beings that S/He created. If Professor Koller is a spokesperson for the "We, Too Are YU" movement - if he is its representative, and personifies the perspective behind it- then it is not a march I would be comfortable attending.

But here is what I absolutely DO support, and believe any person who loves God and halakha should support:

  • A statement from President Berman banning homophobic rhetoric on campus- no matter if it stems from rabbis, teachers or students 
  • Promoting an atmosphere of diversity and inclusiveness
  • YC and Stern orientation sessions teaching about tolerance and acceptance of LGBTQ+ identifying students
  • Trained RAs, counselors and others who can offer love and support to LGBTQ+ identifying students
  • A safe space/ club for individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ to gather and find support
There is no question that YU students who identify as LGBTQ+ should be welcomed, assured of their safety, and that fellow students and teachers must show that these members of our YU community, like all other members, are valued and loved. At the same time, it should be clear that loving someone does not mean agreeing with all their choices. 

I love God. I love His Torah. I also love my students who identify as LGBTQ+. For some people, this is a contradiction. It does not have to be.