Originally published September 19, 2019
This week, a group of Yeshiva University students and alumni marched against the YU administration. They are demanding that YU’s policies towards LGBT issues must change with the times, rather than maintaining a traditional halachic approach. This issue begs the question: Should religious institutions maintain an adherence to religious authority, or should they take an approach of moral relativism, which deems morality based on society rather than halachah.
Modern Orthodox Jews must acknowledge that our collective violation of halachah is not Leviticus 18:22; rather it is Maseches Sh’vuos 39a: “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba’zeh,” meaning “All of Israel are responsible for each other.” We did this in the name of tolerance and modernity. Yet the only applications of that are those that we see. If a Jew drives to shul on Shabbos, wears immodest clothing, or is seen in McDonalds, everyone cares. But when that same Jew does the same thing, or many other sins, in the privacy of his or her own home, it’s swept under the rug. Same is true for this issue. Many in the Jewish community care much less what people do in their homes but are willing to fight to maintain religious institutions.
Fighting, on both sides of this issue, is who we are at our core. The term “Jew” (Yehudi) comes from “Judah” (Yehudah), whose symbol was a lion. The term “B’nei Yisrael” literally translates to “the descendants of struggling with G-d.” We have no issue struggling with G-d with the ferocity of lions, so there should be no surprise when those who want to uphold the traditional halachah fight to do so, and those who want to change policies of religious institutions fight to do that, as well. As everyone knows, there are at least seven different opinions for when Shabbos ends after sundown, and at least five different opinions on how long you have to wait between eating meat and milk. Between those two halachos alone, you have 35 different Jews who all think they are right and everyone else is wrong. We love to fight, so the argument itself isn’t “homophobic.”
There is a difference, though, between this movement and nearly every other issue that Modern Orthodoxy faces. This movement is trying to say that halachah is no longer important for the masses, as opposed to the individual. The debate began anew with a YU Observer article written by Aaron J. Koller, YU Professor of Near Eastern Studies, entitled “On Halakha and LGBT.” “In a clash between humanity and halakha,” Koller concludes in his article, “opt for humanity, and have enough faith in halakha that the problem will be solved. And if somehow the conflict remains intractable, I would rather suffer for being a good person than sacrifice someone else’s life on the altar of my religiosity.” Without breaking down the argument what “humanity” or being a “good person” means, this is a direct call for violating halachah, and for it to be sanctioned.
Imagine, for a moment, that this article was written about non-kosher foods. Let’s say a math professor at YU thought that it was perfectly acceptable to not keep kosher when traveling on vacation, as the kosher food options are limited. Let’s say that this professor demanded that anyone who judged that person’s violation of halachah was inhuman, and that a “good person” would condone that action. After all, this halachic restrictiveness is conflicting with the chosen lifestyle of the traveler.
Let’s go even further, and say that a group of 200 students and alumni, along with other groups that defend and promote eating non-kosher, marched on YU and demanded that the cafeteria in YU provides a non-kosher option. Restricting diets to kosher food only on YU campuses would be a violation of those students’ human rights and freedoms to eat what they want. Substitute kosher food for Shabbos, or a myriad of other halachos that define the very essence of religious existence.
“Those are all choices,” the detractors will say. “Anyone can choose to keep kosher or Shabbos, whereas who you love isn’t a choice!” A genetic study of nearly half a million people, the largest of its kind, published in August, says that behavior “appeared influenced by a complex mix of genetic and environmental influences.” Environmental influences have clashed with halachah many times over Jewish history, and those clashes have not changed the halachah itself.
As Rabbi Gil Student wrote this past week, “The rabbis don’t create shortcuts to make Judaism easier, because it isn’t an easy religion. They never permitted work on Shabbos, even during the Depression, nor did they permit apostasy to avoid the Inquisition. Examples abound of the sacrifices the Torah demands and the rabbinic inability to ease them. The reason is fundamental: The rabbis do not control the Torah; the Torah controls them.”
The march, hosted by the YU College Democrats, is called “We, Too, Are YU.” Much like the Democratic Party views the United States Constitution, the YU College Democrats view the Torah as “a living document,” one that is subject to societal influences. Their list of demands includes administrative condemnation of homophobic rhetoric, LGBT events, an administrator whose job it is to “promote diversity and inclusiveness on campus,” LGBT sessions during student orientation, and the creation of a Gay-Straight Alliance club. They see this as the bare minimum, which insinuates that they will want more if these demands are met.
On its face, this does seem like reasonable demands. The devil, as they say, is in the details. While it is perfectly reasonable to ensure that students are not bullied, the first demand – “A statement is issued by President Berman condemning any homophobic rhetoric from students, rabbis, and faculty on campus. Any instance of homophobia will be investigated by the administration” – contains no details. Is a class teaching the weekly parshah considered “homophobic rhetoric”? Is the lack of attendance to or participation in a gay wedding considered an “instance of homophobia”? If no, why not?
What does “an event involving LGBTQ+ issues and speakers” mean? What will this “administrator” who “is designated to promote diversity and inclusiveness” do? Is it acceptable to ask students and parents to pay even higher tuitions for this? Will the orientation about “tolerance and acceptance of LGBTQ+ students” be subject to rabbinical approval to ensure that it does not promote halachic violations while at the same time ensuring that students don’t bully others? Same can be asked of the “Gay-Straight Alliance.”
These are legitimate questions to a complicated issue. Nobody wants to tell people who are gay to completely abandon Judaism, same as nobody would tell people who turn on the lights on Shabbos that they should abandon Judaism. But there is a clear difference between acceptance of the individual and a broad change in how an institution approaches halachah and religion. If the Reform movement of the 19th century taught us anything, it’s that disregarding halachah to conform to the subjective morality of the day yields irreligious and unaffiliated descendents. Maintaining those institutions isn’t homophobic; it is a necessary aspect to maintaining Jewish identity, and maintaining identity is something that everyone agrees is vital.
By Moshe Hill
Moshe Hill is a political analyst who has written for The Daily Wire, The Queens Jewish Link, The Jewish Link of New Jersey and JNS.org. He is regularly featured on “The Josh M Show” podcast. Subscribe to aHillwithaview.com for more content from Moshe Hill. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/ahillwithaview and follow on Twitter @TheMoHill.