The two hottest issues being discussed and at times dividing the Jewish communities committed to Halacha, are homosexuality and egalitarianism. With the recent public position the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America, the largest and most dominant union of Orthodox Rabbis in the United States) has taken opposing women in the clergy and the Orthodox institutions that support them, the issue of equality for women within Halacha has been raised to the fore.
In June when the Supreme Court of the United States legalized gay marriage, the Jewish community committed to Halacha was placed under the spotlight; what is the appropriate response to this new law of the land? From the leading rabbinical councils, to individual rabbis and lay leaders, to your average Goldbergs and Greenbergs, opinions varied and each was greeted with some measure of criticism.
Around that time I participated in the annual conference of Chabad Houses on College Campuses. One of the guest lecturers was Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, a distinguished and leading Rabbinic figure from London. In 2004 Rabbi Rapoport authored a groundbreaking book titled, “Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View” that was well received by both leading rabbis and halachically committed homosexuals and their supporters.
At the conference, he gave a lecture to the shluchot (the Chabad alternative to maharat or rabba) on the topic of women in Judaism. Chanie, my wife and co-founder of the Chabad House, attended his presentation and was impressed by how knowledgeable, articulate and sensitive he was on the issue.
Later, I invited him to visit Brandeis to discuss these issues of homosexuality and egalitarianism. Brandeis has a deep tradition of social justice, which in one of its many forms takes on the support of the under-served and marginalized. The Brandeis community is very supportive of the LGBT community and has a vibrant community of students committed to Halacha who also cherish equal participation for women in Jewish ritual.
To some degree both of these communities share a common sentiment of dismissal towards Orthodoxy and Orthodox Rabbis, considering them to be narrow and perhaps hostile. Even the general perception amongst the average students, halachically committed or not, is that Orthodoxy is opposed to homosexuals and unsupportive of women.
That is why we arranged for Rabbi Rapoport to visit Brandeis next weekend. With his in-depth knowledge and deep sensitivity, he will introduce students to a broader and a more nuanced perspective on homosexuality and egalitarianism. After all isn’t college, and Brandeis in particular, a space to learn new ideas and engage in a variety of viewpoints, including those you are skeptical of?
The response from the general student community has been fabulous, with many expressing interest in attending his talks. Chanie and I noticed however that the students with the strongest opinions on these issue were not amongst those expressing enthusiasm for these conversations, both occurring over Shabbat dinner and lunch.
In a way, we invited Rabbi Rapoport particularly for these students, because we strongly believe in the importance of learning and open dialogue, particularly with views that differ from your own.
So after personally reaching out to some students we were struck by the polite disinterest in engaging with the guest lecturer or even simply joining the audience. The pursuit of knowledge requires learning from many individuals who care about the same subject you are passionate about. If you isolate yourself only to people who you assume will make you feel comfortable and good, and avoid those you fear will challenge your thinking then you are being intellectually dishonest and stifling yourself. That is quite unfortunate.
The four years in college are perhaps the only window of time in your life to pursue such opportunities. Sadly we are finding that some are not utilizing the passing opportunity they’ve been endowed with, the freedom to welcome diverse opinions.