Recently, a panel discussion was held at Wurzweiler called “Being Gay in the Orthodox World”, in which several students discussed their experiences as growing up and coming out as gay in the Orthodox Jewish community. It generated much discussion, including a response from R Mayer Twersky. One of the panelists posted a response to R Twersky’s response, which I thought was extraodinarily well constructed and well worth a read for anyone on any side of the issue.
First some background links:
Videos of original event: http://www.vimeo.com/videos/search:yu%20gay%20panel
Unofficial transcript of original event: http://curiousjew.blogspot.com/2009/12/being-gay-in-orthodox-world.html
Audio of R Twersky’s response: http://www.torahweb.org/audioFrameset.html#audio=rtwe_122809
Unofficial transcript of R Twersky: http://dovbear.blogspot.com/2009/12/rav-mayer-twerskys-response-to-yus-gay.html
And now, Mordechai Levovitz’ response to R Twersky:
n my presentation at YU, I talked about how the silence and silencing on the issues of gays in the Orthodox world contributes to the suffering, shame, and isolation of gay youth, teens, and adults. For me, the goal of the panel at YU was to ignite a community-wide dialogue, where points, feelings, and arguments could be exchanged both publicly and privately. To that end, the event at YU was an unadulterated success. In the days following the event, conversations are taking place in schools, communities, synagogues, Shabbos tables, and countless websites. It turns out that people have a lot to say about this subject and our event created a space in which to finally bring it up. Every dialogue has more than one side, and while we must insist that our voices continue being heard, it is also important to allow those who disagree their space and time to respond. No one’s point of view should be censored or disrespected. This is why I applaud Rabbi Twersky and Rabbi Reiss for continuing the conversation by publicly speaking about the panel, and raising issues that must be addressed.
In this vein of dialogue and conversation, the following is a point-by-point critique and response to Rabbi Twersky’s speech (delivered to the YU Beis Medrash Dec 28th 2009). Before I continue, I want to point out that Rav Twersky is a Godol in learning and leadership. My response does not imply that I am on a comparable level. Clear and logical minds allow every rational exchange valid regardless of the vast inequalities of the persons involved. This democracy of thought is a hallmark of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s zt’l philosophy, and one that I know Rabbi Twersky respects. Consequently, I respond only to his points, and do not criticize his character or his greatness.
1. Rav Twersky mentions that the Posuk calls the Issur a Toevah, and we should not shy away from the “shock effect” of the word, and its social implications.
The Torah also calls eating shellfish a Toevah, and yet no one justifies prejudice or silencing to those who claim to want to eat shellfish. Certainly, if there were a class of many people born with a desire for no other food but shellfish, it would be discussed openly, with sensitivity and empathy. This is not to say that eating shellfish would ever be permitted in that case. This example forfeits the simple “two wrongs don’t make a right” response. If the classification of “Toevah” is Biblically used for things like eating shrimp, it is not clear that Toevah implies a justified social and ethical “shock.” Nor is it clear that talking about issues related to Toevah justifies feeling embarrassed or shamed. There are many things in the Torah that we do not understand the reasons for, yet we follow them anyway. It would be presumptuous, needless, and inconsistent to demand that Toevah demand anyone responding to gay people with disgust, prejudice, or silencing. We don’t expect this response in other Toevahs, why demand it here? This was not explained.
2. Rav Twersky compares the panelists to people openly talking about their lust for neighbors’ wives. He concludes that YU would never allow a panel of “want-to-be adulterers,” even if they focused on how hard it is to be in that situation, and the taboos that they face, growing up wanting other people’s wives.
The analogy does not work because adultery, like stealing, is a social injustice where one person threatens the property or body of another person. In marriage, two people enter a contract assuring that the wife will not sleep with any other men. Adultery implies a break of this agreement, an affront to the husband, and a “Bein Adam Lechaveyro” ethic that is being transgressed. In cases like this, sympathy and compassion for one is cruelty to the other. In Yeshiva, this is how “Achzarius” was explained in Shiur: when compassion for someone results in cruelty to someone else. This is the reason why social laws and taboos are sometimes useful. When there is a victim involved, it is appropriate for social norms to protect the weak, to enforce that no one is hurt. Similarly, this is why pedophelia, rape, and bestiality are all faulty analogies. In all those cases, one partner is unconsenting, and thus is a victim. Homosexuality is a sin between consenting adults with no victim, no safety compromised, and no one being hurt. It does not follow that the taboos and social disgust that are justifiably applied to these other cases should be applied to the Homosexual issur, and “Kal ve-Chomer,” to Gay people who despite being out, do not publicize their actions in bed.
Finally, coming out as gay is not practically like publicly admitting an attraction to a married woman. Coming out for me meant not denying it when people asked me. Coming out means not lying to your unsuspecting dates, or worse, your unsuspecting fiancee or wife. Coming out means telling your parents what you are going through. Coming out means telling your friends how hurt you are when they use offensive words like “faggot.” Coming out means talking openly and truthfully with your rabbis. Coming out means not living a secret “double life,” where you must daily deceive your friends, family, and loved ones. None of this is comparable to publicizing your lust for a married woman.
3. Rav Twersky asserts that there is no such thing as a Jew “having an orientation.”
Whether anyone has “an orientation” is debatable and ultimately more of a semantic argument, which was not raised at the panel. I am a Jew, and I feel that I have an orientation, because I have no romantic interest whatsoever in women, and I have this potential interest for men, and many people feel similar to me. Now, I may be delusional about this, who knows? Maybe other people know better about what my orientation is or isn’t. What is undeniable is that we suffer because many in our Orthodox community assume that we do indeed have an “orientation” and that this orientation is enough to kick us out of camp/Yeshiva. This “orientation” is enough to cause parents to force their children into questionable and dangerous “therapy,” or worse, to kick us out of their homes. This “orientation” is enough to ruin my sister’s shidduchim. It’s very easy to say that there’s no such thing as a Jew “having an orientation” when you refuse to hear the stories of those who suffer because they are thought to be gay, or confess it to someone.
So let’s not call it “an orientation”; why then was I kicked out of camp? Why was I kicked out of Yeshiva, why did my sister lose countless Shiduchim due to me? I certainly was not sexually active as a child? And I certainly am not the only one. This experience is common to a whole group of people. A category of people, if you may. These stories happened to many kids who are similar to me (orientation or not). This puts us in a category of people with a shared experience. Halacha does deal with categories of people based on their similarities. People with certain mental illnesses are treated as a category. People with certain physical differences are treated as Halachic categories. People who go through certain experiences are treated as in Halachic categories. So what do we call all these kids who were the victims of this type of cruelty, prejudice, and embarrassment? I call them gay, but you can call them whatever you like; the fact is that we exist, and that this ignorance goes on. Questioning whether we should categorize people by orientation is avoiding the issue, doesn’t help anyone, and is frankly not something that a rabbi can answer. The question is how, as a community, we can take ownership of some of the prejudice and cruelty, and help minimize the suffering of this real subset of people.
4. Rav Twersky asserts that everyone has issues, the only people who “need to know” about these issues are the people closest to us, but no one should look to publicize these issues.
For the panel’s purposes, the issue is not the orientation, or desire for homosexual romance. The issue was the negative responses, cruelty, isolation, social stigmas, silencing, family abuse, and punishment that the Frum world actively bestows upon us. The reason why we to appeal to the community is because it is the community that is allowing this extra suffering to take place by ignoring, denying, and silencing what actually happens. Would Rav Twersky admit that people with issues should tell the people who it affects? Well, this affects every single Stern girl. We are being told to date them. We are being told not to be fully honest with them about our sexuality. Does Rabbi Twersky think that when we hear our friends or Rabbis use hurtful words against us, that we should still keep quiet because people do not need to know our problems?
Publicizing suffering when the community can make a difference has many precedents in Orthodox Judaism. We used to be silent about the suffering of the mentally ill. We used to be silent about abuse and molestation in our community. We used to be silent about drug use and kids at risk. We used to be silent about the suffering of Agunot. All of this silencing is something that Rabbi Twersky’s arguments seems to applaud. He is almost nostalgic about a time when people did not talk about these things openly. I don’t think most Orthodox Jews believe that our community has been harmed by publicly talking about our mentally ill, abused, at risk, or Agunot. In fact, I think most Jews agree that this openness has helped to make our community stronger and more holy. The argument against publicizing suffering lest we embarrass ourselves didn’t hold up against these other issues, and doesn’t hold up against the prejudice against and silencing of gays in our community. If our community can make a difference in people’s lives by being more sensitive, without compromising Halacha, then it is our duty to do what we can as a community to minimize the suffering within. This is why it is appropriate to make a public appeal for sensitivity.
5. Rabbi Twersky says that we don’t create categories of Jews who suffer.
We create categories of Jews who suffer all the time. We have the category of the Agunah, who by no fault of her own is bound by Halacha that she may never be romantic again. Her suffering is heard. Her suffering is publicized. Her suffering is responded to. Besides Agunot, the orthodox community should be praised for its work to respond to other categories of Jews who suffer, whether they be “kids at risk,” the physically and sexually abused, or the mentally or physically challenged. Even though we may not be able to heal or solve the actual condition, we have created great organizations specifically dedicated to lessening the suffering of these people and their families. It is poignant to remember that at one point in time publicizing these “problems” seemed embarrassing to families and the Jewish community. Now, Jewish organizations that help these people are lauded as the highest form of Chesed.
6. Rav Twersky accuses sympathy of being manipulated here to create legitimization.
Sympathy or discussion alone is not the same as legitimization. This distinction is key and is apparent. In addition, while actions can be legitimized or illegitimized, people and their stories exist as true, just by nature of them having taken place and existing. I don’t need anyone to legitimize who I am, or how I feel. This is merely the truth. While it is true that some mistakenly use sympathy to legitimize actions, at the YU event, it was explicitly stated by the panelists they they don’t seek their actions legitimized. In fact, our homosexual actions (or lack thereof) were never discussed. The issue of legitimacy is a red herring. It is not what is being asked for, nor is it the impression that people who were at the event were left with. The issue is what our community can do to minimize their part in contributing to the suffering of their people.
7. Rav Twersky says that sympathy can be overdone in cases where Rachmanus is exaggerated.
The “appropriate” level of compassion, without exaggeration, can only be measured if one opens his ears and eyes to the reality of the suffering. If one refuses to hear the stories, the suffering, the cruelty and the isolation that we experience, how can one claim to know when Rachmanus is exaggerated? One cannot claim to know the appropriate levels of empathy without opening his mind up to the Metzius of the suffering.
8. Rav Twersky claims that the following Proposition 2 is currently under great debate from mental health professionals: Prop. 2 is that this (being a gay person) represents a unique heroic struggle to conform to the Issur in the Torah.
I don’t know anyone, even reparative therapists, who denies that for people who suffer from unwanted Same Sex Attractions, conforming to Halacha is a heroic struggle. Who is anyone to say that it is not a struggle for the gay person to conform to Halacha? It is a monumental struggle. It is unique only in the way that conforming to Halacha may require one to forfeit all romantic and sexual pleasure, for he has no other outlet. Certainly, this struggle does not justify the breaking of Halacha, but the struggle does justify the personal heroism of the Jew who, despite his inclinations, conforms. I think most Jews would agree that the gay person who chooses to stay abstinent and conforms to Halacha IS A HERO. This hero has nothing to be ashamed of. This struggle and heroism is not disputed by mental health professionals, nor is it really disputed by almost anyone. I am not sure what Rav Twersky is referring to when he says that this Prop is subject to great debate.
It could be that Rav Twersky made a careless error and was referring to his Prop. 1, when stating that it is still under great debate in the mental health world. Prop. 1 is that some gay people are hopelessly irreversible and wired that way. In this case, he is half right about the latter part. Concerning the reversibility of homosexuality or the “curing” of a homosexual into a heterosexual, the APA stance is clear that it does not work and can be damaging. More importantly, even the leaders among reparative therapists admit that for a significant percentage of homosexuals, therapy can not yield reparative results. So there is no debate among mental health professionals to the fact that for many homosexuals, homosexuality is irreversible.
As to the second point, that they are “wired that way,” this is debated and still unknown. Studies show that genetics, hormone balance, womb environment, and early childhood development all play a correlative role in the development of the homosexual. The important point is that regardless of whether one is born gay, turns gay in the womb, or develops to be gay because of early childhood experience, none of this says anything to whether it can be changed. There are many environmental conditions that are irreversible. I’m not sure how the “wiring” comes into play in the ethical arguments. Certainly, while the “nature, nurture, or both” question is still up for debate, there isn’t a debate among mental health professionals about whether gays “choose” to be gay. There is unanimous agreement that there are many gays who do not choose to be gay, and are gay despite any conscious choice. So the existence of homosexuals whose sexuality is “irreversible,” and who did not choose to be homosexual in any way, is not a matter of debate. Their existence is medically, socially, and scientifically accepted as fact. Consequently, both Prop. 1 (with respect to it not being a choice and the exception of the “wired” wording) and Prop. 2 are not debated, and are both reasonable and scientifically justifiable assumptions. Even in his own speech, Rav Twersky does not attempt to argue against the validity of these propositions.
9. Rav Twersky assumes that if one asserts the validity of both Prop. 1 and Prop. 2, then the message being sent inevitably is that gay people do not have to comply with Halacha? Thus, the message of the panel at YU, despite any proclamations to the contrary, implied that gay people are not bound to Halacha.
Logic does NOT tell us that if we accept Prop. 1 and 2 as valid, then we are forced to accept the conclusion that gays are exempt from Halachic compliance. Just because a Halacha requires a heroic effort to comply with, and one may not be able to change themselves to make this effort easier, it does not follow that one is exempt from having to deal with the said Halacha. There are many hard and uneasy Halachot that we are bound by. Agunah is the best example of a Halacha that, to our notions of ethics, seems unfair. Why should this innocent woman be condemned to a single life of isolation for the rest of her days? Why can’t the Rabbis do anything to change this? Even though we all ask these questions, we still ask the Agunah to heroically comply to a Halacha that seems cruel and outdated. The Orthodox world understands that just because a prohibition is hard does not mean that a Posuk can be uprooted or ignored. Rav Twersky’s assumption, that accepting Prop. 1 and 2 inevitably leads to promoting a message of Halachic violation, is unfounded in reason or logic.
In addition, it assumes that the students of YU and the greater Orthodox community do not understand that there is no logical argument that compels one to think that Halacha must be changed if Prop. 1 and 2 are accepted. Not only does the Orthodox community understand this (albeit, they struggle with it, as they do concerning Agunah), this message was also repeated by Rabbi Blau at the outset of the panel discussion, as to not confuse anyone into making this irrational assumption. While it is true that great Orthodox rabbis like Rabbi Norman Lamm and Rabbi Chaim Rappaport have used Halachic formulations like “Ones” or “Tinok She-nishba” respectively in dealing with the Halachic response to some homosexuals, that Halachic discourse was beyond the scope of the panel’s purpose, and was explicitly proclaimed as such.
12. Rav Twersky asserts once again that the message of proclaiming Prop. 1 and 2 is that I no longer have to comply with what the Torah calls “Yehareg Ve’al Ya’avor”?
This still does not follow and is still without basis, no matter how many times it is repeated by Rabbi Twersky. This message was not implied, not delivered, not intentioned, and not said. This message is instead a straw man that Rav Twersky has created so that he can tear down and then criticize this panel as a Chillul HaShem.
It should be noted that mentioning that this issur is one of “Yehareg Ve’al Ya’avor” does not prevent the community from a Halachic outpouring of sympathy and need for public discourse. The brain death/organ donation debate is also one that deals with a “Yehareg Ve’al Ya’avor” sin of murder. However, in that case, it is discussed and debated, and both sides are publicly empathized with in the Frum community. We understand that even though the Issur is grave, the practical manifestation of the Issur in brain death requires sympathy, rabbinical debate, and community support either way. So the graveness of an Issur does not preclude a public discourse, rabbinical analysis, or a community’s sympathy.
13. Rav Twersky points out that the Rav used to speak about the concept of defeat and surrender, and that the fact that “I want it” does not mean that it has to be doable or Halachically feasible, and that this mindset is operative on the panel.
The panel and the panelists never once mentioned, intended, or implied anything about how much they want to do something, or how because of this desire they expect that it must be doable. This is once again a manufactured message, based on creating a straw man which is easier to knock down, this time using Rav Soloveitchik zt’l in the process. Invoking the Rav to argue against a point that no one is making does not make sense and is arguably misleading. The content, purpose, and message of the panel were about things like how we as children are subject to prejudice, how we are pressured to lie during dating, and how coming out to parents and family is made unnecessarily hard by the prejudices, taboos, and repercussions reinforced by the Frum community. The focus was on what the community could do to alleviate their part in contributing to the suffering of already vulnerable people. The Rav’s words or arguments were never disagreed with.
14. Rav Twersky asserts that the vast majority of people who supported and attended the event meant well, but didn’t realize what the event was going to be and what actually would take place in the event. Had they known, they would have not been supportive.
What is it that Rav Twersky thinks that people assumed the event would be, and then were proven wrong by what actually took place? What happened at the event that we didn’t think would happen? All the panelists just talked about their stories of growing up in the Frum world. What it was like to date women, deal with parents and friends, get kicked out of camp or yeshiva, and go to reparative therapy. The event confirmed compliance with Halacha, and the veracity of the Torah. No one talked about sexual activity, nor changing Halacha. What is it that Rav Twersky is referring to that happened at this event, that people didn’t realize would happen? This is unclear and unexplained. It is a tactic to rewrite what actually happened so that his critique of the event can sound plausible. The event is on video and can easily be viewed on the Internet. The facts speak for themselves.
15. Rav Twersky affirms that there is a line for appropriate sympathy for discreet individuals dealing with this issue, but not when the issue is dealt with in a non-discreet manner.
Discretion is warranted and appropriately demanded when speaking about private matters like sexual activity, or personal actions that explicitly violate Halacha. Certainly, a public forum is not appropriate for people to discuss what they do or want to do in the bedroom. But I cannot state it more boldly: that is not what happened at this event. One would be hard-pressed to argue that one requires discretion when discussing communal prejudice against them. Do I need to be secretive about the fact that 10-year-old kids are being kicked out of camp merely for admitting that they are attracted to guys? Do I need to be secretive about the fact that reparative therapy did not work for me, nor did it work for any of my friends who struggle with being gay? Do I need to be secretive about how hard it is to maintain a relationship with my family because I know that the community ostracizes them because I won’t deny that I am a homosexual? These issues are communal issues that don’t involve inappropriate or offensive details.
To say that these issues require discretion in order to earn compassion is a paradoxical argument. Compassion is exemplified by the ability of a person to speak about who he is, and not be socially punished for it. The problem is the taboo and the silencing, and his solution is more silencing. The problem is isolation, and his solution is being more alone. Rav Twersky uses a moderate word like “discretion” to imply that someone who does not lie about his life, or someone that tells over the evils done to him by prominent members of schools and camps, not only does not deserve sympathy, but should be punished with ill repute. Misplaced discretion is another term for silencing and isolating. Discretion about private acts and Biblical proscriptions is certainly warranted; no one is arguing against that. However, discretion about the role that the community plays in exacerbating the suffering of the most vulnerable is an affront to communal introspection and Tikun Olam.
16. Rav Twersky asserts that the way this “Chillul HaShem” unfolded was that the event was billed and carried out as “Being Gay at YU.”
First of all, the event was billed and carried out as “Being Gay in the Orthodox World.” Being that Rav Twersky is specifically referring to the wording as the source of a reflection, it would behoove him to get the wording right. There are gay people in every yeshiva, from the far right to the far left. JQY has gay members from Lakewood, Monsey, Square Town, and just about every black-hat yeshiva in Israel. It is a reflection on YU only with respect to the fact that there are also gay people at YU. This may embarrass Rav Twersky, but that doesn’t take away the facts. Each community is responsible for addressing the suffering within. The fact that YU was willing to look inward and listen to its community members suffering only reflects that YU’s ears and eyes are open. I’m still not sure why constitutes any “Chillul HaShem.”
The use of the phrase “Chillul HaShem” is particularly disturbing. Being that Rav Twersky never rigorously argued why this event would constitute such a grave Halachic category, I can only assume that he is basing it on the earlier part of his speech. If the comparison to adultery fails, the idea that the message was to deny or violate Halacha is baseless, and the need for discretion actually only applies to the act or the violation, then what is the reason this event was a Chillul HaShem? No one talked about any forbidden act on the panel. No one talked about their sex life. No one demanded a changing or ignoring of Halacha. The subjects were the extra-Halachic prejudices, silencing, and pressures that the community may be responsible for. This was a community examining what they may be responsible for, and how to ensure that no one again suffers needlessly. Why would Rav Twersky not explain and argue in detail why he describes this event as a Chillul HaShem?
Instead, it seems he uses the title “Chillul HaShem” in the spirit of name-calling. It adds nothing to the argument, is never rigorously defended, and just serves to assert that something bad happened, when nothing bad was ever described. It is this type of name-calling that actually exemplifies the need for events like the panel. A sense of personal embarrassment or uncomfortableness is not the same thing as “Chillul HaShem.” Just because the truth that we exist in YU, or in your shul, or in your family, causes you personal shame, does not make it a “Chillul HaShem.” This is an example of rationalizing personal insecurities into Halachic concepts.
Rav Twersky may be uncomfortable with gay people, and he has every right to be. However, masking this discomfort and embarrassment with strong rhetoric like “Chillul HaShem” is uncalled for. If the title of “autism” embarrasses a parent, it is not the autistic child’s fault. If people persecute you because they know that your child is different, the fault lies in the people who are cruel, not the child who never chose to be this way. What is worse is that Rav Twersky asks students to also feel this shame, embarrassment, and anger. Is he thinking about the gay people who are sitting there scared and alone in the Beis Medrash listening to his speech? Is he sensitive to how those most vulnerable may be hurt by his language and tone? This insensitivity is part of what makes being gay at YU so hard. In our next panel, we could literally use Rav Twersky’s comments as one of our stories about ways in which some rabbis needlessly add salt to our wounds by lacking sensitivity about this issue. His word usage implies that he of all people could have benefited from attending the YU event. One cannot be sensitive if one refuses to hear, see, and get to know the person suffering. I know that I plan to sit and discuss these issues with Rav Twersky in person, in order to begin work in this endeavor. I hope other Frum gays will too.
17. Rav Twersky asserted that two of the four presenters actually spoke about actual Mishcav Zachar.
This is either an absurd fabrication, a gross misreading of the text, an unfortunate delusion, or an outright lie. Mishcav Zachar, as interpreted by the Talmud and Rishonim, is clearly the act of anal intercourse. No one on the panel spoke about, referred to, or even brought up this act. The transcripts and videos are transparent and speak for themselves. Please look up the videos on vimeo.com under the words “YU gaypanel.” The assumption of the panel was that this act is explicitly forbidden and must be refrained from. There is no place in any of our words that would lead one to assume that any panelist took part in such an activity. I assume that Rav Twersky made a terribly careless error here, because the alternative is blatant Motzi Shem Ra about fellow Jews, which would actually be a gross Chillul HaShem!
18. Rav Twersky criticized the event for generating applause and not having any “ma’cha” (vocal opposition).
However, he told his followers not to come to the event, not to ask questions, not to hear things for themselves and then make decisions later. Rav Twersky, and all the other rabbeim, were invited to speak and be heard and responded to at this event. Yet, all refused. It is ironic and rationally confusing to advocate ignoring/boycotting an event and then to criticize the event for not having any voices of opposition heard.