Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Yeshiva University and Professor Ladin

There has been a lot of ink spilled about a story first reported yesterday in the New York Post. It is a story that is very distasteful to me and I’m extremely uncomfortable talking about it.

It is about Jay Ladin, a tenured professor at Yeshiva University who is in the process of undergoing a sex change. He was given leave of absence when he first reported it while officials at the university underwent discussions about whether to retain him or not:

After months of heated debate among rabbis, administrators, Ladin and her lawyers, the university agreed to let her return.

The reaction by most people has been one of disgust. Here is Rabbi Moshe Tendler’s reaction which I believe is probably typical of the Roshei Yeshiva there – and perhaps most of the religious world:

"He's not a woman. He's a male with enlarged breasts," said Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a senior dean at Yeshiva's rabbinical school and a professor of biology and medical ethics. "He's a person who represents a kind of amorality which runs counter to everything Yeshiva University stands for. There is just no leeway in Jewish law for a transsexual.

"There is no niche where he can hide out as a female without being in massive violation of Torah law, Torah ethics and Torah morality."

This is quite understandable in our cultural climate - both religious and western. Altering one’s gender by surgical means is about as drastic a phyisical change as anyone could undergo. It seems to reflect a very perverse nature and it takes very strong determination to do something like this.

The desire to change one’s sex is extremely perplexing – even abhorrent - to the minds of most people. How perverted does one have to be to do something like this?! And this was a man who was married with children!

The procedure is completely forbidden by Halacha unless there is a danger to life. The primary Issur as I understand it is that of making oneself a Crus Shafcha or Saris. That is the biblical prohibition against castration or sterilization.

Leaving out all the emotional angst - how are we to view Yeshiva University’s responsibility in all this? Must they fire this person under all circumstances? If so, what about anti-discrimination lawsuits? What if the very existence of the Yeshiva is at stake? What about the livelihoods of thousands of professors, teachers and the Roshei Yeshiva? Is that not worthy of consideration? And what is the obligation of the religious faculty there? Should they all resign?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I don’t think it is so simple. There are several factors to consider.

First there is the mental state of a trans-gendered personality. These people are extremely emotionally distressed. Those who have these feelings are a very high risk for suicide. Should that be factored into a decision to perhaps even allow it – as it is to allow an abortion according to some Poskim? I don’t know.

What if the person is not religious and does it on his own, are we required to reject him because he did not observe that Mitzvah? What about Shabbos? Are we allowed to hire a non Shomer Shabbos Jew to teach science or history in a Yeshiva? Why is that Mitzvah less important than the prohibition against castration or sterilization? Let us leave our instincts out of this. Is there a Halachic difference between getting a vasectomy and undergoing a sex change? I am asking on a completely Halachic basis and I do not know the answer.

In an interesting side note, the Tzitz Eliezer - Rav Eliezer Waldenberg - actually discusses the status of such people. Obviously he does not permit it. But once it is done - he views them as gender changed. A man who becomes a woman - is Halachicly a woman. She is responsible only for those Halachos that apply to women. Genetic makeup is not a factor.

Bottom line for me is that I am unclear as to what Yeshiva University is supposed to do here. It is almost a fait accompli and YU has no control over Jay Ladin’s choices here.

I’m am convinced that if Yeshiva University could replace him with another professor they would. They do not need this controversy. But they probably have no choice.

To put it the way Dr. Lamm did when he was challenged on his decisions related to homosexual issues in YU a while back: Yes, Judaism is opposed to homosexual behavior. But his hands were tied by federal law and if the Yeshiva did not tolerate it, it would lose federal funding and need to close down.

One can agree or disagree with him. One can easily answer, Yes – let it close down!! …from the comfort of one’s living room - not being in any way associated with the school.

But I’m not so sure that was the answer then - and I’m not so sure what the answer is now. In fact I can hear a stronger argument against allowing homosexual activity at the school than I can against retaining a person who has changed their sex while a faculty member. The deed was done. The issue is gone. So as long as she is not an advocate or doesn’t flaunt what she did, I see no reason Halachicly to fire her any more than I do any other non observant Jew.