Thursday, January 17, 2008

Putting the Orthodox back into Modern Orthodox

The Modern Orthodox controversy du jour, is in this issue of The Jewish Week.

The upshot is that Yeshivah of Flatbush, a Modern Orthodox day school, won't let an alumnus bring his gay partner as his date to a reunion. And Y. of F. is getting flack about this.

Wah. Oh, how cruel of Yeshivah of Flatbush.

I know you're going to disagree with me, but this is just Noah Feldman all over again.

Look, this has nothing to do with whether or not gayness is okay. Who cares? It's just not part of the argument.

The crux of the matter is that Yeshivah of Flatbush is a private, Modern Orthodox institution, and they are under the auspices of normative halacha. You can agree or disagree with this particular halacha (that's your prerogative), but Yeshivah of Flatbush cannot say that it is okay for a man to bring his homosexual partner to one of their social functions. And you cannot expect Y. of F. to do so. It is absurd and unfair to expect a halachic institution to publicly accept a gay couple. To do so would be clearly condoning a controversial practice that is in violation of halacha.

The gay alumnus argued that many other couples attending the reunion might be potentially violating halacha and are not discriminated against in the same way:

The doctor at the heart of this issue said, in an exclusive interview with The Jewish Week, "They don’t know which relationships are halachic relationships. A gay relationship is different because it’s more obvious. But what about a husband and wife who aren’t shomer niddah, or not shomer Shabbos [observing the laws relating to marital sex or Shabbat]? But they’re invited anyway."
He's wrecking his own argument. Sure, some other couples might not observe the laws of Niddah, but, as he says himself, the violation is not as obvious. The women in these couples don't wear signs around their necks saying "I don't go to the mikvah and I don't care." Some couples might violate Shabbos as well, but again, the halachic violation is not as blatant and in-your-face as that of a man bringing his gay lover as his date.

Really, it's just not any different from the Noah Feldman issue. It's a free country. Marry non-Jews, sleep with people of the same gender, have a good old time. As a fellow human being, it is not my place to judge you. But as a fellow Orthodox Jew, don't expect me to embrace you either. And certainly don't expect Orthodox institutions to embrace you. Show a little intellectual honesty might disagree with the halacha, you might dislike the halacha, and you might dislike those who agree with the halacha. But if you are violating the halacha, I respect your right to do so, but please acknowledge the consequences.

I bristled when I read this part of the article:

Yeshivah of Flatbush, which includes elementary and high schools, has long been known as a bastion of Modern Orthodoxy but many say it has moved more to the right in recent years.

"I was there a few weeks ago, and I have the feeling that the place has become a little more rigid than it was before," said Dr. Eric Kandel, a 1944 graduate of the school who is a neuroscience professor at Columbia University and in 2000 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

"The Yeshivah of Flatbush, which has been providing leadership in Jewish education, should lead," he said. "Am I surprised at the school’s position? No. Disappointed? Yes. It would have been nice for them to take a different position. This is not nice, not productive and not good for the Jewish community."

Why? Why would he expect Yeshivah of Flatbush to act differently? Because they are Modern Orthodox? Does "Modern" cancel "Orthodox?" Does "Modern" mean "less halachic?" Does "Modern" mean that regardless of whether or not the institution is Orthodox, it needs to adjust its moral and sexual standards to those of, say, "Will and Grace" or "Friends?" Would that make it more Modern? Would that make it more courageous? Would that show communal leadership?

Please, a little intellectual honesty here.


frum single female said...

noah feldman and this alumnus of yeshivah of flatbush must in some way have some insecurity about their life-partner decisions. both are men who grew up in the frum "system" and know full well what kind of relationships they are having are not accepted by frum society and yet they fein "disbelief" when their unions are rejected by modern orthodox institutions. oh please!!

Jessica said...

When I heard about Yeshiva of Flatbush's policy I had the exact same reaction as you. The only difference was I was too afraid to say it (its kind of hard to defend yourself when people automatically assume everything you say is either because you were brainwashed into thinking it or because your close-minded). Thank you for having the guts to say it.

WebGirl said...

I can certainly see how someone might twist my posting around as anti-gay or Limbaughstic. But that's confounding what the true argument is here, because honestly, I'm not anti-gay. (Parenthetically, I don't think that being gay is necessarily a choice. I have a close friend who is frum and gay and believe me, he would rather not be. But that is all COMPLETELY besides the point.)

You can fold, spindle and mutilate halacha any way you want; the bottom line is that any way you slice it, intermarriage and gay relationships are not halachically acceptable in Orthodox Judaism. And that is really what all the whining is about. People want to have their cake and eat it too. Go ahead and do your thing, but then be prepared to live with the consequences.

Ben said...

I think it's also important to note that Yeshiva of Flatbush didn't exclude him because he was gay. In fact, they went out of their way to make him understand that he was welcome. They weren't passing judgement on him for being gay, they were saying we can't pretend to treat your boyfriend as a spouse.

Great post Webgirl.

abandoning eden said...

i gotta say I completely disagree with you. They were saying they can't treat his boyfriend as a spouse, and yet other people were able to bring non-spouse friends and they were fine with that. That is my problem with this policy.

In a weird coincidence, one of my best and oldest friends went to yeshiva of flatbush, graduated in '99 and years later (after he graduated college actually) he came out to as gay. He is still modern orthodox, is involved with all sorts of jewish outreach programs, actually turned his house into a moishe house so he could do more outreach ( ) and just finished saying kaddish for 11 months after his father just died. He keeps trying to talk me into going to a big seder he is running at his house this year, and i'm seriously considering going to it- which would be my first orthodox seder in almost 6 years.

In all ways other then having a boyfriend (who is also modern orthodox, and who he met at a jewish gay young adult retreat- becuase he refuses to date non jewish men) he is one of the most religious modern orthodox people I know and one of the few modern orthodox friends I actually keep in touch with still.

Anyways, he wrote a guest blog post here with his thoughts on this issue:

I particularly like the part about embaressing someone being worse than murder.

WebGirl said...

AE, I had a feeling you would disagree. :)

Look, again, we need to keep the issues very, very straight (pardon the pun).

1. YOF didn't ban the gay alumnus. They banned the homosexual partner of the gay alumnus. They went out of their way to let the alumnus know that he was welcome.

2. YOF didn't embarrass the alumnus. The issue didn't become known until the alumnus publicized it. Actually, I think YOF was extraordinarily discrete.

3. YOF didn't try to mask or be sneaky about the fact that they were objecting to the boyfriend because they cannot recognize gay relationship as spousal. They came right out and said it. If they are inconsistent in that they allow other alumni to bring non-spouses such as fiances, I think (here comes the intellectual honesty issue again) we can all recognize that fiances are soon-to-be spouses and allowing them to come is not making any sort of halachic or sociological statement.

I actually feel very, very strongly about this. Like I said, it's a free world. Everyone should be able to date and sleep with whomever they want to. Tra la la. BUT, if you are attending an event given by a private institution, respect that institution and respect their rules. If the institution is Orthodox, ladies, cover your cleavage, gentlemen, put on a yarmulke, and gay and intermarried couples, leave your partners at home. You can disagree with the rules but you need to respect them.

As far as YOF allowing, say, non-Shomer Shabbat attendees and other halachic violators, I addressed this in my post. It's the same principle as an Orthodox shul which has members that drive on Saturday. You want to drive to shul, fine; you are still welcome, but the parking lot is closed. Do what you want but don't expect us to condone it; respect our rules and park around the corner.

Makes sense?

abandoning eden said...

what bothered me most is that he didn't specify the gender or his relatoinship to his guest...he just RSVP'd as him + guest. So someone went out of their way to check up on this guest, or they knew he was gay already, and told him he couldn't bring a guest.

And as I understand it, lots of people brought guests who weren't fiance's or whatever. Theoretically, I would bring a friend of mine to my HS reunion, just so I wouldn't have to go alone and I'd have someone to talk to. So does this mean if I went to YOF I wouldn't be able to bring a female friend? No. They would be fine with that. If he was not gay and brought a male friend I'm betting they would be fine with it as well. What they aren't fine with is him being gay, and there's no way to make that sound better or "halachic" or something.

And another thing- the only thing specifically prohibited by the torah is gay anal sex. It's not prohibited to love another man, just to have anal sex with them. Many gay men don't even have anal sex - and there's no way of verifying if they do or do not, just like there's no way of verifying if the straight couples follow the laws of nidah. At best they are banning someone on the assumption that they are violating a halacha- that they have no way of verifying. At worst they are homophobic douchebags.

abandoning eden said...

Also, I'm betting there are at least a few people from YOF who have ended up marrying someone not jewish, and brought their non-jewish spouse to the HS reunion. How is that different?

WebGirl said...

I re-read the article in the JW, and it seemed to me that YOF was only allowing spouses and fiances, not casual friends. My understanding is that if I wanted to bring my bf, it would not be allowed.

As far as the other details you mentioned (the anal sex stuff), aren't you splitting hairs here? Look, YOF doesn't have a hidden agenda and they are not trying to cover up what they have done...they very clearly stated that this alumnus could not bring his homosexual partner as his guest because he was his homosexual partner. Period. What I am arguing is that it is perfectly within their right, as a private Modern Orthodox institution, to do so. Does this make them "homophobic douchebags?" I don't think so. "Homophobic douchebags" would have not allowed the alumnus himself to attend.

YOF was honest and forthright, and I will even call them courageous. They stood by their halachic guns and still managed to give this alumnus the respect he deserved as a human being. Maybe this alumnus should learn to accord this institution the same level of respect. If he didn't like their decision, no one was forcing him to attend. He too could have stood by his guns.

All choices in life come with consequences, good and bad. It is narcissistic to expect other people to accommodate you, when you know going in that they don't agree. Every human being deserves respect; but acceptance and love must be earned. This alumnus was trying to make a statement: he wanted this Modern Orthodox institution to embrace his choices and say that what he was doing was okay with them, when he knew from the start that it wasn't.

YM said...

My guess is that Dr. Eric Kandel is also not frum. AE, how do you know that this person only RSVP'd 1 plus guest? Also, to say that only a certain type of sex is against halacha is not correct. Both male and female homosexual conduct are banned by halacha. You should ask a Rabbi.

YM said...

I was thinking, if anyone who is familiar with the Yeshiva world could even have a thought that YOF or any Orthodox Yeshiva would allow an openly gay partner to accompany a alum as a date to a reunion, it must mean that some Yeshivot have allowed this. Is this true?

abandoning eden said...

ym- i don't know, I read that somewhere (i read a whole bunch of articles/facebook posts/ talked to my friends about this, so i'm not sure exactly where that came from).

I meant in terms of men, I know lesbian sex is banned because it's "immodest" or whatever reason they've come up with :)