Gay debate rocks Orthodox university

By Paul Berger, January 7, 2010
Jewish gay groups in San Francisco this summer demonstrate against legislation that made gay marriage illegal in California in 2008

Jewish gay groups in San Francisco this summer demonstrate against legislation that made gay marriage illegal in California in 2008

A debate at a leading Jewish university about the status of gay people in the Orthodox community has unleashed a fierce backlash.

The panel discussion at New York’s Yeshiva University, titled “Being Gay in the Modern Orthodox World”, attracted about 800 people. Dozens were turned away because the hall was at capacity.

In response to the crowd and subsequent attention in Jewish newspapers and blogs, YU president Richard Joel and Rabbi Yona Reiss, dean of the university’s theological seminary, released a statement last week stressing “the absolute prohibition of homosexual relationships according to Jewish law”.

“Those struggling with this issue require due sensitivity,” the statement said, “although such sensitivity cannot be allowed to erode the Torah’s unequivocal condemnation of such activity.

“Sadly, as we have discovered, public gatherings addressing these issues, even when well intentioned, could... obscure the Torah’s requirements of halachic behaviour and due modesty.”

Rabbi Mayer Twersky, a head of the theological seminary, was more blunt. In a lecture delivered last week, he said that homosexuality was a to’evah — an abomination — and that the panel had brought shame on the university.

“Do you have to come out of the closet about every issue and struggle that a person has?” Rabbi Twersky asked.

“It’s not done in any other context and the only reason it’s done in this context is because the way it goes by the non-Jews is the way it goes by the Jews. There the agenda is alternate lifestyle. There the agenda is gay pride. There the agenda is gay marriage. And that’s what’s influencing us.”

Yeshiva University, considered the flagship modern Orthodox institution, was forced in 2002 to allow same-sex couples to share living quarters in its medical school to avoid a lawsuit by a lesbian couple.

The panel discussion, held at the end of last month, was organised by Yeshiva University’s Tolerance Club.

It was inspired by an anonymous piece in the university newspaper, claiming that gay Orthodox people are being “either forced into hidden lives of suffering or are driven from the derech [path] of Orthodox life altogether”.

The discussion was opposed publicly by six university heads, including Rabbi Twersky, who released a statement shortly before the event stating that “publicising or seeking legitimisation even for the homosexual orientation one feels runs contrary to Torah.”

Homophobic posters were reported around campus by YU’s newspaper.

However, the discussion audience was largely supportive.

Three former YU students told of their struggle to come to terms with their homosexuality and of their difficulty in admitting their sexual orientation to rabbis, friends and family. The fourth speaker, Avi Kopstick, a current student and founder of the university’s Tolerance Club, told how he fought for six years to deny his homosexuality.

He said that he prayed during the High Holy-Days for God to take the test away, until he realised that “Hashem made me gay. My test is to live with it.”

Mr Kopstick, a 22-year-old from Canada, said that he hoped the discussion showed gay people it is safe to reveal their homosexuality and not feel ashamed of who they are.

“I think that the rosh yeshivahs and Rabbi Twersky think our goal is to legitimise homosexuality, so gay people can go and have relations with other gay people,” he said.

“But our aim is damage control because depression and suicide rates are very high for gay people. Many find themselves in heterosexual marriages that lead to horrible consequences.”

Asked whether he intended to organise further panel discussions on a similar theme, Mr Kopstick said that he was about to graduate from YU.

“I’m going back to Toronto,” he said. “One of the rabbis told me I set fire to the field and now I am just walking away.”

Last updated: 5:16pm, January 7 2010