Do Black Hats Come in Pink?
Orthodox Judaism finally begins to face gay rights.
Y.U. first made headlines on gay issues with its graduate schools, which, owing to government funding, were subject to nondiscrimination laws. Forced to allow gay student clubs at the graduate schools in the mid-1990s, then-Y.U. President Norman Lamm was ridiculed by right-wing rabbis across the country. A tape-recording of a Cleveland rabbi's hourlong speech lambasting Lamm became particularly popular among right-wing Yeshiva students, many of whom would revel in declaring, "Lamm is a fag." A few years later, a court order forced the school to allow gay couples the same housing provided to married couples; Y.U.'s response set a precedent for socially conservative organizations looking to comply with nondiscrimination laws: Instead of explicitly allowing gay couples, it opened housing to all pairs of co-dependent individuals.
In both of these instances, Y.U. set a standard for how Orthodox groups would respond when the non-Jewish and non-Orthodox at its nonsectarian graduate schools brought homosexuality to its doorstep. But before long, the issue would come to the surface within the university's Orthodox rabbinical and undergraduate schools.
In 1999, Y.U. rabbinical school graduate Rabbi Steven Greenberg became the first Orthodox-certified rabbi to announce he was gay—a coming-out that made the front page of the Jerusalem Post. When Greenberg came to speak to Y.U. students a few months later, it wasn't at the invitation of any official university group. The event was held in an off-campus apartment, where I joined perhaps 20 young men in attendance. About half were closeted gay men, only three of whom ever came out—long after they'd left the school and, for the most part, after they'd left Orthodoxy as well. A year later, one student rumored to be gay, who had been present at Greenberg's event, ran for student council president as a long-shot candidate. Despite his slim chances, the two mainstream candidates were asked to meet with Y.U. spiritual adviser Rabbi Yosef Blau in his office the night before the election, where they drew lots from his black fedora to see who would remain a presidential candidate and who would drop down to vice president, in order to ensure they didn't split the vote and allow the allegedly-gay student to squeak by to a victory.
Around the same time, Trembling Before G-d, a groundbreaking documentary about gays and lesbians in the Orthodox community, hit theaters and was shown at synagogues. I interviewed the director, Sandi Dubowski, for Y.U.'s school paper, but there was nary a peep in response. A rabbi coming out of the closet, a perhaps-gay student running for student council president, and a widely screened documentary all failed to generate meaningful debate.
Ten years later, attitudes definitely have changed. Yes, response to the panel suggests there are plenty—and probably a very strong majority—in the Orthodox world who think even acknowledging publicly the suffering of gay Orthodox Jews is out-of-bounds. But the massive turnout at the panel and at least some positive statements from those not present—to say nothing of Y.U.'s official acknowledgement and hosting of the event—suggests a critical mass of Orthodox aren't going to ignore the problem completely. In an interesting example of how things have come full-circle, the student who hosted the Greenberg event in his own apartment in 1999 was on the recent panel, and Rabbi Blau, who helped engineer the electoral quashing of the possibly-gay student's candidacy in 2000, was the emcee.
But the change of the past 10 years isn't enough to solve the problem of gay exclusion in Orthodoxy. The whole premise of Orthodoxy's mandated approach to homosexuality is not to relieve the suffering of gays in the Orthodox world by finding ways for them to partner. Instead, it's to keep the law unswerving while its more liberal members simply ask that others learn to acknowledge that gay Orthodox Jews are in pain. And so young Orthodox Jews face a question challenging adherence in a way that no other modern issue presented: Do you believe enough in the necessity for compliance with Leviticus 18:22 that you're willing to see your gay friend or relative suffer?
For those who answer "no," the road ahead is sure to be bumpy: Rabbi Gil Student, one of the most prominent Orthodox bloggers, suggests they'll bring a schism. He's probably right. Simply ignoring gays' activities, while a temporary improvement to their standing in the Orthodox community, isn't a long-term solution. It's telling that many of the gay Orthodox Jews willing to speak publicly of their trials are still young enough to have plenty of unmarried friends. In another 10 years, some of them may simply leave struggling with Orthodoxy behind.
And for those gay Jews and their allies who do leave Orthodoxy, they may have a denomination ready-in-waiting: Conservative Judaism, which split the baby on gays in 2006—could offer an embrace that would seem like a world of endless opportunity to those coming from the relatively confining attitudes of Orthodoxy.