Thursday, December 24, 2009

Gay Students in the Yeshiva

An overflow crowd. ‘Packed’ is the word used by reporter Michael Cinnamon. His article appears in The Commentator, Yeshiva University's student newspaper. Over 100 people were turned away for lack of space.

A panel discussion on Homosexuality and tolerance took place on the YU campus. The panel was comprised of 4 Orthodox homosexual students - 3 former and one current.

The YU Tolerance Club was a sponsor of the event along with YU’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work. What makes this even more noteworthy is the fact that the Mashgiach Ruchani of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Yosef Blau was the moderator of the panel discussion.

I have long been an advocate of tolerance for individuals whose sexual orientation is towards members of their own sex. My views can be summarized as follows:

As long as they don’t act on their desires, they do nothing wrong. Any more than a married heterosexual man might think about cheating on his wife with an attractive female colleague but would not act on it. Although one should certainly try and remove themselves from temptation if possible - thoughts are not actions and not punishable in Jewish law. For those who succumb to temptation and sin, they should be treated like any other sinner. And certainly greater compassion should be shown for a sinner whose temptations do not allow for any permissible outlet.

I believe this to be the Torah view. To that end I see nothing wrong and everything right with such an event in a Yeshiva setting. I was not there, but I suspect very strongly that that the participation of Rabbi Blau assured that this was the message of the evening.

A few hours prior to the event a letter was posted with signatures of several Roshei Yeshiva including Rav Hershel Schachter that said the following:

The Torah requires that we relate with sensitivity to a discreet individual who feels that he/she has a homosexual orientation, but abstains from any and all homosexual activity. Such sensitivity, however, cannot be allowed to erode the Torah’s unequivocal condemnation of homosexual activity. The Torah’s mitzvos and judgments are eternally true and binding. Homosexual activity constitutes an abomination. As such, publicizing or seeking legitimization even for the homosexual orientation one feels runs contrary to Torah. In any forum or on any occasion when appropriate sympathy for such discreet individuals is being discussed, these basic truths regarding homosexual feelings and activity must be emphatically re-affirmed.

I think that this is right. And I don’t think Rabbi Blau would disagree with it. But I do question one sentence - and by his attendance I think Rabbi Blau may question it as well:

Publicizing or seeking legitimization even for the homosexual orientation one feels runs contrary to Torah.

Why is ‘seeking legitimization even for the homosexual orientation one feels’ forbidden?

What do they mean by that? Orientations are what they are. One cannot help feeling what they feel. As Woody Allen once famously said after being asked why he divorced his wife and married their adopted daughter Soon-Yi, ‘The heart wants what it wants’. Wanting something sinful is not a sin. Doing something sinful is. Feelings aren’t sinful.

I applaud Yeshiva University for having the courage to have this discussion and making it open to the public. It can only result in good. Homosexual Jews must be assured that it is not forbidden to have feelings. They need to be assured that the Torah does not hate them. And neither should they be hated by their fellow Jews. They should be treated like everyone else, judged by their deeds and not their thoughts or desires.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once famously indicated, it is the content of their character by which people should be judged - not the color of their skin. The same thing is true about sexual orientation. To that end such panel discussions should be encouraged in every Yeshiva - including the right wing ones.

And as soon as Yeshivos like Lakewood’s Beis Medrash Govoha (BMG) has its gay students run a panel discussion with their Mashgiach, Rav Matisyahu Salomon, as the moderator – I’ll know that great progress has been made.