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.