Orthodoxy and modernity: Sociological implications of the YU case

Yeshiva University’s opposition to a pride club is out of touch with the times. So what?

Are Orthodoxy and modernity incompatible in the 21st century? There are many aspects of Judaism and Orthodoxy that would offend the sensibilities of the vast majority of Western society. Even if we attempt to portray our rituals and beliefs as in line with contemporary norms, we all know that, in numerous situations, that is hardly the case. Consider, for example, intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles. All religious Jews, and a large portion of secular Jews, are vehemently opposed to intermarriage. Community leaders refer to it as a “second Holocaust,” arguing, correctly, that the demographic future of American Jewry in particular is at risk. It is hard to counter claims of racism with the shield of religion when secular Jewish leaders and institutions, who ignore the vast majority of halakha, continue to sound the alarm against intermarriage.

Intermarriage is just one of many examples of Jewish laws and values that conflict with accepted norms in the 21st century. Modern Orthodoxy in America has long said traditional, Orthodox Judaism does not need to be countercultural. Rather, we can fit within the norms and values of contemporary society. Issues of Jewish particularism, such as intermarriage, aside, Modern Orthodoxy has made great strides in adapting to progressive values. For example, leaders in the community have worked towards promoting women’s equality, although there is much more work to be done. As we have seen from the recent and ongoing legal dispute at Yeshiva University, however, LGBTQ issues confront Orthodoxy with a unique dilemma. 

I will try to refrain from addressing the merits of an LGBTQ club, and the issue in general, for I have already made my views on these topics quite clear (here and here). It is obvious, however, that the halakhot on homosexuality directly oppose modern attitudes towards sexual expression. According to the Torah, love is not love. All relationships and marriages are not equal in the eyes of halakha — one only need to look at intermarriage to see this — and, while Orthodoxy needs to progress on this issue, a line must be drawn somewhere.      

The debate over the YU Pride Alliance is not only a debate on Orthodoxy’s outlook on LGBTQ issues, per se. It also forces us to reckon with the broader question of Orthodoxy’s response to modernity. I do not know nearly enough about the initial case, about YU’s recent complaint to the Supreme Court, or about the legal implications to comment on YU’s appeal on the grounds of religious liberty. There are numerous hashkafic considerations in this case, however, and we must consider two, somewhat contradictory, points. Firstly, the norms of Western society should not, ab initio, carry equal weight to halakha and Jewish tradition. Although it is meritorious to try to reconcile certain Western values with halakha, it is not inherently meritorious to do so in regards to every contemporary norm. Throughout our history, we have been forced to uphold the truth of Torah against various social, political, and religious movements. Western society’s full-embrace of homosexuality does not inherently obligate Judaism to evolve, and our institutions are obliged to respond only insofar as they are obliged to serve the Orthodox community whose views are, in fact, affected by contemporary norms.  

From this perspective, I can understand, even if I do not agree with, the Yeshiva’s reluctance to sanction an LGBTQ club on campus, thus becoming like secular universities in this regard. Although the claim by many opponents that the YU Pride Alliance “promotes and celebrates an issur d’oraisa” is nonsensical, I can understand the administration’s concerns that aspects of the club could negatively impact campus culture. Most distressing, however, is the use of secular law to influence internal communal debates, and I fear that this sets a precedent for future legal action against Orthodox Jewish institutions. In any event, it is a great shame, and, truly, a Chillul Hashem, that any of this had to rise to the level of legal action.     

Concurrently, as a result of the conflict between Torah and certain Western dogmas, we should consider the consequences of a potential case before bringing the particularities and peculiarities of Jewish law to the forefront of America’s public discourse. Even if one were to argue that this was the Western value that Orthodoxy must stand against and not bend towards, do we want Judaism to be on trial? I posit that this is a dangerous gamble on the part of the YU administration, and I am not looking forward to a potential Supreme Court case on Modern Orthodoxy. Judaism’s attitude towards homosexuality is hardly the only issue on which we are out of step with the times, and the Supreme Court should not be deciding on internal halakhic debates.   

As a people fervently dedicated to the truth of Torah and validity of halakha, secular influence, while often beneficial, should concern us. It is imperative that we neither automatically accept, nor reject, the dogma of modern secular society, while also acknowledging the need for progress. Popular opinion on this issue and many others does not inherently obligate us to reform our position. Turning this into an American political debate robs this issue, and frum queer Jews, of the nuance and intellectual honesty that this topic desperately deserves. Rather than demonizing the “other side,” we deserve a compassionate and honest dialogue on this issue and its broader implications for the future of Modern Orthodoxy. Above all, we deserve leadership dedicated to engaging with queer frum Jews, while remaining committed to Torah values.   

When YU legally secularized in 1970, the Rav warned that he “saw ghosts.” The Rav was warning us, I believe, that there are indeed redlines in our approach to modernity. We are living in the 21st century, but we also zealously hold fast to a way of life that is millennia old. Perhaps by recognizing this inherent contradiction we can preserve and strengthen Orthodoxy for the benefit of all of Klal Yisrael and for the entire world.

About the Author
Jake Fradkin is a student at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He previously learned at both Yeshivat Orayta and Yeshivat Torah V'Avodah in Yerushalayim. Having grown up in a secular Jewish home in New Jersey, Jake developed a passion for Judaism, Torah, and Zionism.
Related Topics
Related Posts