Debate rages over gay forum at Yeshiva University

A recent public forum at Yeshiva University that took on the question of homosexuality in the Orthodox Jewish world has prompted a backlash from students and teachers, who fired back with petitions and public lectures condemning the event.

Rabbi Yona Reiss

Critics of the event, held Dec. 22 on the school’s campus in Upper Man-hattan,  say it lent legitimacy to those who are trying to water down aspects of Jewish law, which explicitly bans homosexuality.

With some students and rabbis calling the event a desecration of God’s name, YU President Richard Joel and Rabbi Yona Reiss, dean of the rabbinical school, circulated a statement in the days after the forum reiterating the “absolute prohibition of homosexual relationships according to Jewish law.”

In a lecture at YU on Dec. 28, Rabbi Mayer Twersky acknowledged that the event’s organizers probably had good intentions, but criticized the forum nonetheless.

“If the Torah says something is a toevah [abomination], it is that,” he said. “And there’s no need and, more importantly, no justification for being politically correct in terms of what it is. The Torah says it, the Torah’s value judgments are eternally true.”

The controversial forum, which sought to address the painful conflict of being a gay Orthodox Jew, was prompted by two anonymous accounts that appeared in YU’s student newspapers. The event attracted around 700 people (with others turned away due to lack of space), who packed one of the university’s largest rooms to hear four gay students and graduates share their stories in a discussion that deliberately avoided the question of halachah.

Richard Joel

The event was sponsored by YU’s Tolerance Club and its school of social work, and sanctioned by the university because “the school recognized the need for such a conversation,” Tolerance Club president Avi Kopstick told the New York Jewish Week.

Although praised by many in the crowd, the forum set off new arguments on campus and effectively reopened a decades-long debate over homosexuality at YU, which has grappled with whether to allow gay clubs or housing for gay couples at some of its graduate schools. It also thrust YU itself into the center of an ongoing struggle over homosexuality in Orthodox Judaism.

In a statement, several leading rabbis at YU also reiterated Judaism’s prohibition on homosexual acts. And in the days after the event, students circulated a petition characterizing the forum as a “desecration of God’s name.”

Wrote Joel and Reiss, “We are deeply concerned with the message the recent public forum on homosexuality in Orthodoxy sends to the rest of the world.”

A public display of support for gay Orthodox Jews, they added, “indicates an implicit, if not explicit, acceptance and approval of a lifestyle that goes against the ideals of the Torah.”

Responding to the backlash, Mordechai Levovitz, a YU graduate who helped found gay support group JQ Youth and who spoke at the Dec. 22 forum, refuted Twersky’s lecture in a point-by-point response that he posted online. Careful to articulate his respect for Twersky, a “godol [giant] in learning and leadership,” Levovitz wrote that use of the term “desecration of God’s name” was “particularly disturbing.”

“No one talked about their sex life. No one demanded a changing or ignoring of halachah,” he continued. “The subjects were about the extra-halachic prejudices, silencing, pressures that the community may be responsible for.”

Several school officials contacted were not immediately available to respond.

In their statement circulated after the event, Joel and Reiss acknowledged that individuals struggling with homosexuality require “due sensitivity” but said such sympathy “cannot be allowed to erode the Torah’s unequivocal condemnation of such activity.”

Kopstick, who helped organize the event, expressed dismay but said he was prepared for such criticism. “Obviously, on a certain level I knew there was going to be this reaction,” he said.

But Kopstick said he disagreed with those who claimed organizers wanted to take a lax approach with Torah law. “Obviously we weren’t advocating to break halachah,” he said. “We said specifically, we are not going to talk about halachah because we all know it’s forbidden.”

In an e-mail to Joel and Reiss, Kopstick said he hoped their statement would not detract from the goal of the event, which was to raise awareness of the painful experiences of gay Orthodox Jews.

But he said he was still grateful that YU agreed to host the event. “There was convincing” that had to be done, he recalled. “But in the end of the day, they realized that an issue like this can’t be pushed under the rug.”