The following is a transcript of Episode 109 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, we’re recording on Friday, September 9th, 2022.
You know, I work hard on the framing for each show to find a pithy or a personal way to enter into a good conversation about something pressing.
But sometimes the framing just seems to jump out at me. You know, there’s a giant billboard on the Henry Hudson Parkway, which is between my office and Manhattan and my home in the Bronx, so I’ve passed it quite a bit in the last few days. By the way, this is prime billboard real estate on a major thoroughfare.
This is not your usual Wally’s tire and hubcaps call and ask for Wally kind of stuff. There’s a, there’s like a big billboard for CNBC involving some show with Jay Leno and cars. There’s an electronic billboard down the street, advertising TV shows and Ford F150s. There’s the witty jokes from the folks at Manhattan Mini Storage.
But this particular billboard made me do a double take. And then I had to actually stop and snap a picture of it on my phone, uh, while, by the way, I was stopped in traffic. So, so don’t worry about that. The billboard had a photo of a basketball player. On the left in big white letters in all caps was printed the phrase, YU on the move. On the right, it said the slogan, rise up. I figured it couldn’t have been quite right when I saw it. Yeshiva University has a billboard on the highway? Like why?
It would seem like a really strange recruitment strategy for Orthodox students to choose, uh, an undergraduate college. It certainly couldn’t have been just an ad for their nationally ranked basketball team. Although there’s a lot of pride in the basketball team right now. When I got back, I Googled the phrase Yeshiva University Rise Up and I realized it was for what may have been obvious in retrospect, a fundraising campaign. The University was trying to raise the very cute sum of 613 million. And so far of that, they’ve raised 256.
Now, I suppose we could debate the merits of a billboard as a fundraising tool. That’s not for our show. I’m more interested as I always am in the ways that American Jews show up seek to show up, want to show up in the American public square, what it means for an Orthodox Jewish university to depict itself this way, not only as a cause deserving of widespread support, but also with a basketball player as its iconic image of itself, what it means for Yeshiva university, an institution with a major rabbinical school, one that shapes the agenda of modern and centrist Orthodox Judaism in America to position itself as essentially a civic institution and how the iconography of secularism seems to serve that goal.
But the news story that really prompts today’s episode is about a very different way that YU is choosing to show up in the American public conversation, a decision by its administration to go to the US Supreme Court, to appeal a ruling that the university has to recognize and grant student group privileges to a student led pride Alliance.
This fight between students trying to get official university recognition for this LGBT group has been going on for some years now. And it looked like it was over when Justice Kotler of the New York State Supreme Court ruled that the university as an educational institution has to abide by New York anti-discrimination law and grant status, uh, to this particular student group.
But the university, I think kind of surprisingly decided to appeal to the Supreme Court in a case with very significant ramifications for religious liberty more broadly, a case that may ultimately be nicknamed, and I find this quite ominous quote, Yeshiva versus pride.
There’s a lot of subtleties in this story, including the opportunism of taking this to the Supreme Court now, when the tables have turned so significantly on the court towards a conservative attitude about religion, about what it means for an Orthodox institution to jump so squarely into the culture wars in this way about the fact that YU’s lawyers are Becket law, a nonprofit that advocates for religious liberty, about the ways that this fits into a bigger messier story about the university in general, forget about a Jewish university, but the university in general, as a site for growing war on social and sexual norms, in which students and administrators are increasingly antagonists.
And of course about the unfolding process through which conservative religious communities, such as Orthodox Judaism, confront the realities that are the lives and lived experiences of the LGBT members in their midst. There’s so much richness and sadness in this story. And I’m talking today to two national leaders who work on the project of inclusion of LGBTQ plus individuals in the Orthodox world.
Miriam Kabakov is the executive director and co-founder of Eshel, a national organization that supports LGBTQ plus Orthodox individuals and their families, as well as an award-winning writer and Rabbi Steve Greenberg, also an award-winning writer, a colleague of mine who has been on faculty here at the Shalom Hartman Institute and was the founding director and serves as the founding director of Eshel.
I’ve known both Miriam and Steve for a long time and admire them both as activists and religious leaders, as though those two things are ever separate identities. And I’m grateful that they’re here with me to work some of this out. So, um, thanks for being here and let’s, let’s start foundationally.
Um, maybe I’ll start with you, Miriam, about the state of affairs, before we even get to YU, the state of affairs of inclusion and recognition of LGBTQ plus individuals and lifestyles in orthodoxy. It seems like a lot of progress has been made in spite of this last salvo over the past decade two decades. So maybe bring us up to speed on kind of the, the state of play of the question of inclusion in Orthodox communities.
Miriam: Sure. Yehuda, thank you so much for having both of us here today. We’re really excited to be talking with you about this. So I’m really glad that you started with that billboard ad because if Eshel had one iota in our marketing budget, as YU does, our billboard would be we’re here, we’re queer, we’re machmir, and we’re not going to disappear.
And by that, I mean to say that, that is one of our cute slogans, but the truth is, is that that is what Eshel is all about, to create spaces within orthodoxy, where LGBTQ people can actually live fully realized Orthodox lives. And for some that sounds like a contradiction. You know, Steve and I are both products of YU education.
I went to Stern college. Steve went to YU and we are both very well versed in the other slogan of YU, which is Torah U’madda, you know, Torah and science. These two things have to actually live together in one space and make sense of each other. And it is my YU education that is actually landed me here today in a certain sense, in that I am not gonna give up on one piece of that. And I want both of those things together.
What we know about the nature of the human condition is that LGBTQ people, it’s just an innate factor in people’s identities or makeup. And you can’t really have it both ways. You can’t say, we understand this, this is the nature of the human condition. We love and accept our LGBTQ students. And yet they can’t have a space where they can fully be themselves. So the YU pride Alliance is not another way of saying the averah club. It’s a club that gives people a place to just, you know, have safer space and to be fully who they are in an environment that is not so friendly.
So going to your question about the nature of what’s going on today and the evolution. So in the very, very beginning of Eshel, first of all, Eshel was just sort of like, um, a little bit more of a concretization of work that we had all been doing for decades before this. And we had been starting conversations with the Conservative movement and the Orthodox movement on accepting their LGBTQ members and, you know, over time, we have seen an incredible evolution in things that seem very minute, but are actually so very significant.
Like in the use of language, for example, the word homosexual. You know, that’s the word that Orthodox rabbis used to describe LGBTQ people. And now they’re saying LGBT or LGBTQ and that’s, this is pretty big. You know, we can go into language later, but, um, the other thing is just like acknowledging that there are LGBTQ people everywhere in Orthodoxy.
And, uh, we have this wonderful project called the Welcoming Shuls Project where we’ve interviewed over 240 Orthodox rabbis across America, uh, North America. And many of them YU rabbis. And they are struggling deeply with their faith and with their understanding of, you know, the modern world. And it’s, it’s starting a dialogue with them, letting them know you have LGBTQ people in your midst or, you know, children of your congregants or grandchildren.
And you have to actually think about how you’re going to not just welcome every Jew, which is a tagline we often get, oh, we welcome every Jew, but actually really think about the ways that LGBTQ people need something a little bit different than what orthodoxy is delivering in order to stay put.
Now, some rabbis actually don’t want them to stay put, which is a sad thing. Nobody can take my orthodoxy away from me. This is mine. This is how I learned it to be. And this is the way I practice. So for us to be able to help them do that. We engage with them in dialogue and we engage with them in their struggle.
We don’t push them, but we really wanna talk to them. And we, we have this wonderful program that we piloted called DuSiah, a dialogue, you know, between Orthodox LGBTQ people and rabbis of Orthodox shuls and communities. And we put a human face on what it means to be an LGBTQ person in Orthodox community.
So I wanna say that through this work, I think we’ve come a tremendously long way. There is still so much work to be done. And the main challenge I think for the rabbis that we talk to is that someone is always looking over their shoulder, whether it is the RCA or, um, their colleagues or their board members, they are often very afraid to just fully be able to act the way that a shul rabbi would act in including and considering their membership.
Yehuda: Thanks for that Miriam. Steve, in, in asking a similar question, you know, and especially cause Miriam, you alluded to the ways that both of you are products of YU institutions. So the personal is the political is the professional. All, all of those things are, are together. But, um, I’d love to get also your kind of perspective of a few decades of seeing, um, what’s changed and what stays the same.
You, you famously wrote what was then an anonymous and later a no longer anonymous essay describing your experience on the inside of Orthodox institutions as a, as a then closeted gay man. And surely the world has changed for Orthodoxy and for Orthodox institutions, even as this legal fight seems to indicate that much has stayed the same. So maybe you could give us a little bit of that kind of perspective, of again, of what’s changed and what’s stayed the same.
Steve: Um. I think the move, though, you know, kind of dividing it into neat categories, probably it’s a little bit rougher than that, but I, I think that in the seventies, and, late sixties, uh, Rav Moshe Feinstein came out with a couple of responsa that were really sharp, and in fact, probably sharper than anything before written, considering gay expression as a kind of a gay person was a “mumar l’haches,” a kind of demonic, homosexuality was a demonic posession. It wasn’t human, really.
And that, that position while extreme, you know, kind of began the discourse of a certain modern Orthodox frame for struggling with how to address the nascent movement of gay liberation, which was happening in the late sixties.
And what’s interesting is, is that while it began with this kind of firewall of demonic possession, as you know, homosexuality as, as deep destructive sin, that was not what the Orthodox community actually lighted upon. They began to address homosexuality as a serious character flaw.
And the first wave of responsa was dealing with it as a moral scourge, but no different than any other moral trouble. And then it moved from there about a decade later where once gay and lesbian people were coming out of the closet and not appearing as moral threats, it began to become a, um, an ordinary sin and even later a sickness.
And finally where we are after the two decades of forcing people into change therapy, the movement is now to address homosexuality as a human difference, but they are stuck in this moment. Meaning if it’s ordinary difference, then how is it that the Halakha cannot address the question? So from mumar l’haches to mumar l’teavon, demonic possession to an ordinary, passion-filled violation, a character flaw, then to a sickness, now just human differences on the table.
And in that space, they are stuck. And I think what I’d like to kind of highlight is this self-contradictory nature of the YU, you know, YU, put out a FAQ and it’s clear to me that they are trying to claim on one hand that they cherish their gay and lesbian students. And yet what, that they cannot provide, a club for their mutual support, given some kind of commitment to overarching religious values. So within that frame is a kind of an articulation of what the modern Orthodox trouble from the beginning, you know, Torah and Madda, if you think of madda as pure science, it might be easy to imagine it being, you know, negotiated with Torah.
But if you think of madda as sociology and history, if you think of Torah as the deeper social sciences and psychology, that would pressure the institutions, Halakhic and structural and organizational, to really face the fact that at least for the past, I don’t know now, um, 30 or 40 years, homosexuality is no longer seen either as a sin or as a sickness by any standard that is, you know, credible in the sciences.
If that’s the case, then the structure of the problem is in a way YU’s original conflict. So if you would take a look at the statement of principles that Rabbi Nati Helfgot organized in 2010 it’s, every other line is contradicted by the line before it, because they are struggling to manage compassion for human beings, alongside a resistance to actually paying attention to what they just said about compassion.
Yehuda: So that, I mean, that, I guess is why I think why, I have theories as to why they went ahead with the appeal and, and it does pertain to what we can get to later, which is the desire to participate in a particular way in the culture wars in America, to position the Institute in particular ways has to do with some of the leadership of the institution.
But it has felt, the narrative you told is very compelling, that there has been a really powerful journey towards some basic compassion, a language of inclusion. When a person says, I want to be in relationship with my child, my, my sibling, whatever it is, but I am constrained by Halakha, well, personally, I don’t buy it but at least there’s a kind of deference to some larger structure that can’t be, it’s like an appeal to commandedness in some way, which is an old religious idea. Um, but to then turn it into, I then am gonna kind of advocate politically to prevent that identity from living out in the world. It just doesn’t sit well with the notion of inclusion.
Like what do you want YU students ultimately to do? To just not, either not be there to remain closeted or to no, or to no longer be able to seek out, you know, horizontal identities with other students. That’s just feels like where the, the stuckness is.
I, I wanna talk about myself as on a journey towards inclusion, but I’m actually not capable of finding any structural ways of acknowledging what inclusion actually demands of us and our institutions.
Miriam: Right. So I think that this is actually a problem of rabbinic authority. And if somebody says to me that Halakha actually requires me to be fully inclusive and to really understand my child, and to help them and nurture them in the way that they need to grow in Torah and Mitzvot and fully who they are. If a rabbi put those words in the mouth of a parent, I would be like, okay, we’ve arrived, we’ve done it, let’s close down Eshel, you know?
But the problem of rabbinic authority is that very few, I mean, with respect, rabbis are willing to take that leap, and to, you know, say that this is really the direction we need to go in. You know, our Welcoming Shuls Project is a little bit of an underground and we started it that way, actually, we said to the rabbis, you know, talking to us, you don’t actually have to be public about the fact that you’re talking to us and that you’re really thinking and, and wondering about this stuff because we really just wanted it to be a place where they could come to and just, you know, share their concerns and have their questions answered, but they’re all struggling.
And so the Halakhic questions to me are like, you know, it’s just the way that a, your rabbi is going to frame, what is your most urgent mitzvah or Halakhic matter that you have to deal with, you know, and I think that that’s, um, problematic because there’s a lot of looking over your shoulder, being worried about your reputation, and being worried that you’re gonna lose your job.
And if we take away how to deal with LGBTQ people within a Halakhic framework from the rabbis, but we give it over to the people and to the parents and to the mothers and to the, you know, female leaders in orthodoxy who are not worrying about being the member of a club, then I think that the dialogue would really change and people’s, you know, religious obligations to their family would look different.
Steve: Let me just add something Yehuda is that there’s also a question of, of, of group definition and boundary, you know, I’m dealing, uh, without mentioning names, uh, in, uh, a circumstance of a synagogue where the rabbi is perfectly willing to have, um, public violators of the Sabbath have an Aliyah, you know, and get the honor of an Aliyah, but, um, but a gay person in a committed relationship cannot.
So the question at hand really is why is it that on the issue of homosexuality and probably more broadly LGBTQ identity, why is that the do or die it’s become for, um, at least some Orthodox groups, a kind of frame for self definition. And sadly throwing the students at YU and even more broadly LGBTQ, uh, young people and their families under the bus, what YU is not paying attention to in this, which is really actually, I think, of, of just a, uh, a failure of leadership and including the RCA is that YU’s stance on this will turn back efforts that have already moved forward in schools all across the US that are attempting to find ways to deal with the kids coming out in high school, or attempting to find ways to include LGBTQ kids and actually teachers in their schools.
This will, this will chill that, that movement, and it will make it much more difficult for the administrators of those schools to press for inclusion and understanding.
Yehuda: Uh, I think you, you, you suggested that there’s something about this particular issue that constitutes the threshold issue, the thing against which Orthodox rabbis may say, we want to be inclusive to the human being, but not the sin, blah, blah, blah. I think your example of we’ll give an Aliyah, uh, call somebody up in, in synagogue, who’s a Sabbath violator, or has cheated on their taxes or whatever, um, but not this.
Uh, I think we have to name, I, I wrote a piece on this a few years ago, the core foot fault of modern orthodoxies around gender and sexuality, you can do a whole bunch of other things, this is the thing you can’t cross. I, I send my boys to an Orthodox high school. We all know basically that at this point, half of modern Orthodox day school kids are using phones, devices on Shabbat. And there’s a really hard navigation around like the choice of, well, that’s something that we kind of know and tolerate, and this we can’t.
The thing that would make you not Orthodox, it’s like weird for our family, my kids go to a Conservative synagogue and thankfully in their Orthodox school, they’re welcomed and embraced, but they’re not Orthodox um, but they don’t use phones on Shabbat. So the thing that makes you Orthodox is the adherence to mechitza rules, and I think, um, sexuality and sexual identity are, are corollary to that. So if that’s true though, and here’s a really hard question. If it’s possible that what makes something definitionally Orthodox is adherence to a particular set of gender and sexual norms, is it gonna be possible to break through on this issue even further?
Like, have we reached basically, like you’ve reached the inside of the anti chamber and this is the thing that will just not compromise. And those of us who want this to change are gonna have to essentially declare ourselves nonorthodox?
Miriam: I, I wouldn’t agree with that. Because I think that it’s, it’s happening anyway. YU is ordaining gay, Orthodox men to be rabbis. They’re going into, they will be going into synagogues. They are already in synagogues, leading congregations, Orthodox congregations. You know, I don’t think that they get to define orthodoxy that way.
Like I think that, uh, we have to acknowledge that there’s a new understanding as Steve had stated before, you know, sociologically of, of what it means to be gender nonconforming or not have, you know, sexuality fit into a box. And if we don’t move with that, it’s already, you know, if you don’t jump on that train, the train is gonna leave without you. And it already kind of has.
So, there’s a lot of, um, rabbis in our network out there who are really struggling, but on the ground with the people in their shul and trying to figure out how to make it so that they can embrace and celebrate in an Orthodox way, the lives of their LGBTQ members.
And so like it’s already happening. And, and, and I don’t know that, who gets to define what, uh, you know, what the norms are when the people on the ground are saying, this is my life, this is my child. You know, my son had a Bris here in the shul. He had a bar mitzvah in the shul, and now he won’t walk back into your shul. So what are you gonna do about it?
Steve: You know, let me add one thing is that you, I think your points will taken, Yehuda. Um, you know, could this be the, um, the, uh, the one thing that so defines orthodoxy, that it really can’t, um, give on this, but I’m not sure that’s true. 10 years ago already, it’s 10 years, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, who’s a Musmach of Yeshiva University noted that when the RCA finally decided that reparative therapy was not obligatory because it didn’t work, which was their, you know, that was their, their salvation was, this is something that can change.
Well, if it can’t, then he writes, if that’s the case and our community is acknowledging, by definition that homosexuality is simply a part of the human condition and accordingly homosexuals should not have to pay the psychological, emotional, and physical price for our theological comfort. We have effectively designated our theological question as teku, meaning unanswerable for the moment whose answer still needs to be determined, but meanwhile, that will not prevent us from seeing the human truths in front of our eyes.
One of the solutions to this is to simply encourage Orthodox rabbis, which is what we do to put the Halakhic question aside and deal with the human question. And over time, that will shift, the centrality of this, um, marker as the defining marker of orthodoxy, which is exactly what happened by the way, with Shabbat observance.
Yehuda: Right. Well, so, you know, what, what makes the crux of this issue is something that you alluded to before Miriam in your comments, which is, uh, the desire to stay. It would be very easy for orthodoxy if LGBT individuals, you know, just left. Uh, in fact, actually like that’s basically how traditional Judaism solved the heresy problem for thousands of years, as long as the heretics leave, right, the community remains basically intact.
And you alluded to this, that what actually makes this so vexing or so powerful or so important is the desire to stay. I, I read something, um, recently that, uh, Gedalia Robinson who’s a cantorial student at the seminary whose father is Rabbi Menachem Penner of RIETs, of the rabbinical school of Yeshiva University was on David Bashevkin’s 1840 podcast.
And they talked together. It’s a beautiful conversation. Um, it’s not about the politics of this. It’s actually about family relationships. And, and one of the things that Gedalia says is LGBT folks who come out to religious leaders are likely doing so because they wanna stay. Not because they’re trying to leave. They wanna talk about how do I stay?
So I think one of the things that’s going to, that’s gonna be confusing and hard for a lot of our listeners who are not in or of the Orthodox community is they’re gonna be listening to this as they’re jogging or doing whatever and being like, why don’t people just leave?
So can you share more on like what that what’s that’s about? Like, what’s the desire? And I, I don’t wanna make something more complicated than it is. Uh, these are people’s lives and choices, but maybe you could just tell that story a little bit more so that we can understand the stakes of the issue?
Miriam: Absolutely. I think it’s really an individual’s experience. So I can only really speak from my own experience, but also, I guess I can maybe talk a little bit about what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard, um, from like the thousands of Orthodox LGBTQ people that I’ve spoken to through the years. And I think that what it is, is like when you’re apart of the Orthodox community and you grew up in it, you are held in a beautiful way, you’re taken care of, not just by your parents, but by all the people around you.
And, um, you know, the rituals and the cadence and the rhythm of your life is infused with Torah and Jewish ritual. And you also like have a place and you have a really important place growing up as an important member of your community.
And as you grow up and as you start doing the adult things in life, you become even more important. If you get married, if you have children, you become like one of the pillars. And people describe to me the experience of being a pillar in their community, you know, especially like the Hasidic people that I speak with. Like, I, you know, I got married, I had, you know, six children, whatever, I was like an important person in my community. And then I came out and then I lost everything.
And, but just to go back to the experience of being a pillar, like you really really matter and if you love it, then you really love it. And nothing feels the same. You know, when I was coming out, people were like, okay, so go to a Conservative shul, do this, do that, you know, go become a Reform Jew. Like you’ll be fully accepted there. You cannot tell that to an Orthodox person. I mean, yes, they might try it and they might like it, but it’s not the same.
And it’s just unfair to expect for people to feel comfortable in other environments if that’s what they’re used to. It’s like an aesthetic thing. It’s a religious thing. You know, it’s a fundamental religious set of beliefs that are, you know, very hard to shake if it, if you have that faith. And so why should anyone have to give that up?
And I think that when parents tell us about their children, they go through a trajectory of shock and disbelief, their kid came out to them and then, you know, we work with them for a few years and they meet all the other parents at the retreats and they have a whole new Orthodox community and they’re like, they come back the next year and they’re like, but wait, worse than the kid being gay, he no longer wants to be Orthodox.
So when a kid leaves it’s kind of devastating for the whole family. I think it’s just a very compelling place to be. There’s a lot of looking in by popular culture, we’re mystified by it, and there’s an allure to it, but there’s an allure to it because when you’re in it, it can be deeply beautiful.
Having said that, there’s a lot of suffering that goes on, you know, when people use that community to do damage and oppress people, and that’s when people leave
Steve: Can, I’m gonna jump in Yehuda, real quickly and just say that, um, I deal with, um, because of our Warm Line, we get calls literally from all over the world of queer Jews who want to convert to Orthodox Judaism.
And, and I, like, I, like, I always take a breath and go really. And they say, yeah, I like, I like I’m. So I’m so in love, I wanna convert to it. And they, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of Karlsruhe, Germany in the middle of like, you know, in, in, in, I mean all places all over the world. So here’s the thing, is that what I guess I just wanna claim it’s not fair to, to ask every queer kid who grows up Orthodox to stay.
But what we are claiming is is that it’s simply not possible to remain a world class religion, and reject every LGBTQ kid that grows up in your community. So yes, I can tell you, I spoke to a Orthodox rabbi who is a Halakhist, who said, Steve, I really think the work you’re doing is holy, important work. I just think you’re wrong.
And I said, why? He said, you should tell them to leave. It’s better for them and better for us. So do you understand that you’re actually correct, you know, that’s what some of them want. And I said to him, if you do that, you will be transforming a world-class faith into a club for straight people.
And no one really will be interested in the moral vision that you claim to have. Cause you will have none, unless you can claim that you are a moral vision for humanity and you are able to put your arms around the human condition fully, you’re not a religion anymore. You’re a club.
Yehuda: It gets at something about denominational choices and communal choices that’s so often lost when we talk about just quote unquote doctrine or just belief, like what is intimacy within a particular Jewish idiom feel like and look like, and I I’ll say, listen, I didn’t leave orthodoxy because of LGBT issues, I left because of mechitza issues. I left because of egalitarianism.
And I feel that acutely all the time. I never felt really at home in a different denomination. I just, you know, my brain couldn’t handle the choices that I had to make in the other set of places. And I think that what I hear you saying is basically it kind of doesn’t matter whether people quote unquote should leave to make it work halakhically, this is part of the human condition of religious people. The sense of home, familiarity, comfort, and sometimes, maybe something that seems counter to their own rational needs.
I guess this is a silly question, but like one way, this changes, as we talked about earlier is through law. Will Halakha ultimately evolve, or will it simply be, okay, we know that Halakha doesn’t really change on the books, but in practice, once you reach a point where virtually everybody in an Orthodox synagogue has a gay child, a gay nephew, a gay relative, a gay parent. Once that reaches that point, the Halakha doesn’t have to change anymore. Do you have a sense of what?
Miriam: Right. Yeah. I mean, I, I I’m hesitant to make comparisons you know, different abilities or disabilities, but, you know, deafness is a good example, I think, in that the Halakhot that were pertaining to deaf people, um, has have evolved because of the understanding of what it means to be deaf. And, you know, similarly, like you have to develop a different understanding of, of, um, who the person is and you know, where they fit.
Steve: You know, there’s a conversation I’ve had with rabbis, when I ask them how many genders are in the Hebrew Bible? They look strange, they say two. How many genders do the rabbis theorize? 3, 4, 5. I said, what would give the rabbis the right to theorize a gender that isn’t in the Torah? They say, well, well, they saw it. So I said, oh, so reality is also a form of obligation.
And all of a sudden that clicks because. What it will take is a generation where the reality that there are queer people in the synagogue and they’re not leaving will have to settle in. And it will become real that the Halakha needs to respond, not to bad behavior, but to the multiplicity of the, of the, of the creation.
Yehuda: All of this suggests, and I’m not putting this on you, but it kind of almost sounds like there’s a slow arc toward change, which is bending in a particular direction. However, the decision by YU to take this to the court, to me is a, represents the first major attempt not to stem the tide of this culture of inclusion, but to actually fight back and to try to redefine effectively orthodoxy as predicated on the lack of inclusion.
Right. Cause when you’re basically looking, the legal protections that they’re seeking, require them to put in their lawsuit, that to be an Orthodox Jew is to be offended by the presence of a pride Alliance. It is to, to require or to demand that LGBT identities remain, um, suppressed and closeted. This feels to me like a much bigger threat than just slow resistance.
So how does the movement engage with, with that? Because by the way, what it brings with it is identification with a growing worldview, Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, and others who are insisting that to represent this kind of conservative religious viewpoint is to patrol the boundaries around gender and sexuality much more because of a sense that, that those boundaries have been breached.
How do you go back on the offensive against that, when, until now it has been rounding people out to the presence of human beings in their midst.
Steve: Well you’d have to first determine whether this is a flailing backlash against the inevitable that will ultimately fail because inside of every congregation and every school, there are realities that have to be addressed. Um, there are board members of schools and of shuls that have gay kids and gay nephews and nieces and, and they will not be able to, this is a nice thing to do publicly because YU and other Orthodox institutions are trying to gain the momentum that this kind of, you know, conservative court and the forces of Becket law, and, you know, uh, and others are trying to kind of include, so they’re identifying with this move, but I don’t think it’s gonna succeed in America either.
I actually think that this is a, uh, an attempt that will fail. I’m hoping that’s the case, even in regard to the coming, you know, challenges to, uh, um, uh, that you know, are articulate around abortion and the Orthodox Jewish community’s very strange affiliation with the conservative right, which does not reflect Halakha.
I don’t think this is an expression as you suggest of a, a real, effective line drawing. I think it’s, it’s a flailing hope that you know, that we can stem the tide of something that will be coming anyway.
Miriam: And if they win, what are they gonna do? Stop accepting LGBTQ students or stop ordaining them? How, how do they hold both things? You know, on their, on the website of the FAQs, it says, we embrace, we love, we take care of our LGBTQ students. And so, you know, if they win this case and they then make it impossible for the club to exist or to make a place for them, and they’re projecting that it’s wrong to be that way, how do they manage both things?
Steve: It, I mean, ostensibly, you could claim that this will be worse for them because they will be responsible as an institution to take care of LGBTQ folks, which they claim to embrace, but they will not let the students take care of each other. So who will take care of them? The school. So all of a sudden the school then is in the position of redoing what, the gay panel that happened, you know, a decade ago that, that blew up in its face?
So it’s unclear what winning looks like for YU here.
Yehuda: Hmm, I suppose one guess is that winning looks like what winning has looked like for conservative religious communities for a long time, which is, uh, invisibility right? So I can say on, in the FAQ on a website we love and we care for our LGBT students. We just want them to remain quiet, unseen, not particularly visible.
And if you really wanna win by that strategy, what you want is your students to opt out. Um, you want them to go elsewhere and
Miriam: Right, or just to become extremely unhealthy, you know, mentally, emotionally, physically. That’s truly not caring about their wellbeing.
Steve: Well, look, look, this is what this rabbi said to me, and I think I’ve heard it less clearly from others, which is, we think it’s better for you to leave.
So it’s an interesting question in general, whether modern orthodoxy or at least among the institutions of modern orthodoxy, they are pulling to the right so far as to essentially alienate, the hundreds of thousands of people who identify as modern Orthodox. And it basically explains the emergence of YCT and Hadar and other very traditionalist, Halakhically responsible frames that are not Orthodox.
And so, yes, here’s the other outcome, is that YU does move right, it becomes more indistinguishable from Ner Yisrael and other right wing Yeshivish enterprises and loses its hold on the community that wants to be both modern and religious and that they cede to the, you know, non-Orthodox, Halakhic committed, uh, communities that are emerging in the US and elsewhere.
Yehuda: So there’s one other piece of this, which is also about the story of American orthodoxy, because by the way, there’s another way YU could kind of evade the legal decision that was drawn, which is to, to move out of frameworks of public funding, for instance, right. Retreat to being a rabbinical school and an Orthodox rabbinical, undergraduate college where you still would probably encounter resistance among your undergrads about pride, but it is exacerbated by the fact that it is an institution to take public funds, that if you watch the videos on their website of what constitutes YU’s message about itself, number one is the basketball team, number two is the Innocence Project, uh, that came out of Cardozo law school. Um, and only when you get to like visual number three or number four, is that a person studying Torah, usually a man.
So the strange thing is YU is trying to paint itself as a type of orthodoxy that is deeply engaged with the world around it, that attracts that kind of funding, it’s, it’s almost funny that you would use the images of the Innocence Project, but that students wrapped in a pride flag would be countercultural to the values of the institution. So it’s an attempt also, like that’s its own kind of interesting move of the desire to paint a different type of orthodoxy, but to exclude this piece of kind of social or moral advancement as part of that story.
Steve: You know, uh, three years ago today there was a march of allies and LGBTQ students, that was the precursor to the pride Alliance and, uh, attempting to encourage the school, to put together some GSA, some gay-straight Alliance in the school. And I was asked to speak and exactly what you said is what I did, which is I turned to Yeshiva University’s stated values, which were truth, life, humanity, compassion, and redemption.
And if you looked in the details, every one of them encouraged them to make sure that this pride, uh, Alliance would exist. We believe in truth, in humanity’s ability to discover, in the act of discovery, in physics, in, in economics and the study of the human mind, is all sacred. So your point is well taken that, that indeed, YU is it’s exactly what I said at the beginning, Yehuda.
They want it both ways and they cannot be a Yeshiva and a university without facing the challenge of allowing there to be this gray area in the middle that does not fit well in one or the other categories.
Miriam: I think another question is, we have to ask ourselves is the bigger question, what’s at stake if we eradicated or blurred the lines of gender in orthodoxy, you know, and sexuality. And I think, you know, one of the, the places that I go to in my head is that there’s a loss of power of male authority. And there’s also, you know, I think there might be some, you know, fear of, just yeah, losing the power that, um, the rabbis hold because they have that authority.
Steve: Well, it’s, I, I, but Miriam, it’s fair to say. And here’s where I identify a little bit with, like I understand is that the structure of the nuclear family has been a kind of grounding space for contemporary orthodoxy. And honestly, gender and sexuality, the challenges that LGBTQ people push forward, destabilizes those norms and they need to be renegotiated. And I think that it’s that renegotiation that feels very uncomfortable for Orthodox leaders.
Yehuda: And again, I think there’s one other subtext, which is orthodoxy for the last 30 years has been basically watching what it considers to be the free fall of Conservative and Reform Judaism, attaches that free fall to the embrace of rightly or wrongly to the embrace of the larger American trends, fewer children, the demise of the nuclear family, et cetera, the wrong kind of politics, and therefore wants to argue for its own type of continuity by rejecting that whole infrastructure and framework.
So it may be very learned in the sense of a real theory about the, the nuclear family. It may also be like, well, those guys are going outta business. We’re gonna get the mantle of what serious Judaism looks like. And in order to make that claim, we have to not make the mistakes that everybody else seemed to make.
You know, uh, one of the things you both have alluded to, when we talk about this story of orthodoxy, this Yeshiva slash university is part of the reason that it’s such an appealing identity for those of us who grew up in it and who embrace that complexity, the gray area is wonderful.
I think the frustration is I want the gray area to not live at the site of my own identity and choices. I want it to, I want it to accommodate that. Like what, I like slippery slopes, slippery slopes are great.
Miriam: Right, I’ll just, meanwhile, I’ll share an experience that I had at the first Jofa conference. I, um, I approached them and I, you know, I said, can I, can I talk about lesbians and orthodoxy? Cause that was my thing then as it is now plus. And um, they said, okay. And 50 women and men in the room were people who were divorced, single, childless, you know, I don’t know how many LGBTQ people were actually in the room, but, um, I think that orthodoxy has been opening and widening its tents to the great diversity within it.
And this is just like, I wanna say maybe like the final frontier and what would happen if we had a blur of the lines of gender and sexuality within orthodoxy, you know, and I’m not sure anything bad would happen. You know, it’s like recognizing the, you know, the multiplicity of creation and Hashem’s very mysterious world. Like that’s how I, you know, understand it.
Steve: I, I wonder Yehuda, whether not knowing is a possibility for Orthodox leadership. I, I find that pulpit rabbis have trouble saying, I don’t know. It’s interesting that people who are in education live off of I don’t know, but it’s really challenging for an Orthodox rabbi to say, these are questions that will take a generation to answer the Halakhic machine is moving slowly. We’re gonna put the question in, and it’s gonna take 50 years for the answer to come out.
In the meantime, let’s do our best to not answer any broad pictures, but to take care of people. That I think is where we are, is, can contemporary orthodoxy be willing to not know? Can it live with indecision or uncertainty? And that is really the question of modernity that you raised. In other words, the gray is exciting because it affirms that we can live with uncertainty and we can, we can manage it.
Yehuda: Listen. I mean, that move, we don’t know, and in the meantime, stay in shul and we’ll give you an Aliyah. But that’s the whole thing, right? There’s a lot of there’s a lot of, I don’t know, but in the meantime don’t be here because your presence actually agitates me is a, is an easier strategy of avoidance.
Last thing I’ll, I’ll ask you just cause I want it on the record. And because in case there are young people who listen to the show. One of the things that I know you both do and which makes both of you extraordinary heroes, especially cause you don’t talk about this very publicly, but I know that you do, is that you save the lives of young people, who find themselves caught between overwhelming pressures of identity and who are sometimes looking to exit from that. I know that you save people’s lives.
How do people reach you? What’s one thing you might say to the somebody who’s really struggling right now? Especially when this is now a news story. Some kid who is gunning to go to the YU Honors program and sees this on the front page of the New York Times, and just doesn’t know whether they’re gonna be able to live. What do you wanna say to that kid? And how do they reach you to talk about this more?
Miriam: Right, thank you for asking. So the first thing they can do is go to our website and find our warm line number and give us a call. The number is 7 2 4 3 7 4 3 5 0 1. And email us [email protected]. And we will connect you to a network of people who are just like you. And people who love their orthodoxy and are holding it close in their hearts in whatever way they can and are being completely true to themselves.
I also wanna mention that God willing, we will come back in person to our flagship event, which started Eshel, which was a retreat for LGBTQ Orthodox people, maybe 11 or 12 years ago. It’s a little fuzzy in my brain because of hello, thank you, COVID.
We didn’t know who would show up. We rented out the entire campus of Isabella Friedman retreat center in Connecticut, and we were sold out and every single year, since then the retreat center fills up. Um, we were, of course on pause and God willingly will come back in the wintertime.
And the reason why I’m talking about this is because we created this environment at the retreat, because we wanted to create a sense of what your life could look like if the world were a better place. It’s a little bit of a utopian vision right now, but slowly but surely it’s happening.
There are people who have said, one particular person in particular, you know, that I’m thinking about from the Hasidic community. He said, this is the one Shabbos of the year that I can live completely in my truth. People walk in, they see the setup is exactly like it was when they grew up, you know, with traditional davening, Orthodox davening, Kashrut, everything, and the whole cadence and rhythm of Shabbos, the way they knew it.
But the main difference is that they can just be completely open about who they are and it’s that moment that allows people to continue on in their lives with a sense of hope for the future. And that’s what we’re trying to provide because, you know, I thought 10 or 12 years ago when we began that in, in a decade, we’d be done.
You know, every single day we still get calls on our Warm Line. We get emails. And it’s kind of growing because of the awareness of the multiplicity of identities and the world out there. And, you know, like I said, God’s wonderful creations. Like, people are becoming more in tune and aware of the nuances of who they truly are and they wanna keep what they love and they hold in their hearts, which is their faith, and they don’t wanna give it up.
So I would say to the young people that there is hope there is a future. Join us for Shabbos sometime in the winter, check out our website. You’ll, you’ll get an email about it. Contact us, we’ll connect you with your community and we’ll hold you.
And the other thing I wanna say is that very few, um, organizations that work with youth, work with parents as well. So I just wanna say that the way that we work is that we have a very robust parent program for Orthodox parents because parents discover when their child comes out to them, that they themselves have to then come out, well, they have to come to terms with this new configuration in their family, and they need to come out to their community. And often that has led to losing friends, losing shuls, losing their place.
And so we actually give a place for parents and we help them become better parents. They need to understand how to parent their LGBTQ child. It is very complicated. It’s thorny, in Orthodox spaces, in camps, in yeshivas. And you know, the parents are kind of at their wits end. Yeah. The easy answer is let your child leave. Put them in some other school, a public school, somewhere else where they can just be fully who they are, but then they lose a whole other piece of their important identity and their faith.
So I wanna invite parents to get in touch with us as well, because if you can parent your child in the right way, your child will be healthier. We also, um, the very first parent retreat, we brought in a woman from the West Coast who talked about, um, family acceptance. There’s a project at San Francisco State University called the family acceptance project.
And she delivered this, you know, the research that she had been working on for many years, that when parental and family acceptance go up, all the negative behaviors of LGBTQ people coming out, goes down.
Whether it’s, you know, alcoholism, drugs, depression, suicide, they all go down when a child has a family that holds them and helps them be healthy.
Yehuda: Well, thank you both for your incredible work and thanks for, for being on our show today, Miriam Kabakov and Steve Greenberg. And thanks to all of you for listening.
Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by Gareth Hobbs and Corey Cho at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M Louis Gordon, and the show is produced with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz with music provided by so-called.
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