The Crime of Denial

Boston’s renowned Maimonides School was established by Rav Soloveitchik in 1937, and it maintains a reputation for providing some of the most advanced learning Jewish day schools can offer. This past fall, it offered a variety of history courses to the senior class, including AP Government, Art History, and, amongst others, a Minorities in America course. The course material covered a wide range of issues and addressed the minority experience of African Americans, Asian Americans, and others. The gay community was addressed as a sample unit on sexual minorities, and parents began to complain. Snide jokes were made, parentally-authored emailed were sent, and enough complaints were made that the teacher brought the unit to a shuddering halt and discontinued the homosexuality unit entirely. When a teaching moment was at the fingertips of this institution, it chose passivity and ignorance.

At Yeshiva University, there is limited discussion of this topic. While other institutions have GSAs (Gay-Straight Alliances), and the nation as a whole engages in a forward-marching process to address the existence of a long-ignored yet prominent population of its citizens, the religious community has remained tragically silent by comparison. While there are internet forums and small-scale organizations like Orthodykes in New York and בית הפתוחה in Jerusalem, the gay Orthodox experience is a conundrum from which the religious community has largely disengaged.

While non-Orthodox Jewish groups might compromise halakha – Jewish law – in the name of progress, they have nevertheless done the powerful job of choosing to acknowledge the existence of sexual minorities and grappling with a strong and antiquated heterosexist culture of the West whose impositions on the lives of all have been greatly troubling. One organization, Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh, located in Newton, Massachusetts, has chosen to grapple with the seeming contradiction of Leviticus 18:22’s prohibition of male homosexual activity (rabbinically expanded to include that of female homosexual activity) by sanctifying sexual identity. In addition to the more traditional occasions of menstrual purity and conversion, they have expanded their use of the mikveh, Jewish ritual bath. Accounts have been given of people thus employing the use of this Jewish practice to commemorate sexual transitions, including sexual reassignment surgeries, coming out ceremonies, and other related occasions.

The United States is also currently engaged in a nationwide debate over the legalization of gay marriage and the acceptability of transgender culture in school settings. The Mathis family is currently one such example of society’s grappling to make space for transgender children in a school setting, spurring debates on the gender binary’s place, or lack thereof, in the bathroom setting. Certain universities, in a similar direction, have chosen to provide “male-identified” and “female-identified” as well as “neutral” assignations to their restrooms, something I believe should be nationally adopted as mandated policy. The heterosexual fallacy, so often and so fortunately broken down in college environments, still holds strong in many religious frameworks, including the staple Modern Orthodox institution of higher education, Yeshiva University. There is no LGBTQA society on campus, nor is homosexuality a topic often discussed in the classroom setting. Additionally, the separate sex education has contributed to an increase of women-specific classes such as “Women in Jewish Law” and “Women in the Bible,” which is a wonderful stride toward liberalism by a 1950’s standard, but a retrograde move in light of contemporary civilization. Most universities include a Gender and Sexuality department, and yet this university offers only a Women’s Studies department. The omission of entire fields of intellectualism and of sexuality is a blatant refusal to acknowledge reality. It is juvenile to deny Kinsey experiments, sexual variety, and gender ambiguity. I would hope the Jewish people would champion the concept of nuance and struggle in order to do the grandest kavod habriyot, respect for one’s fellow creatures, and acknowledge their existence.

The current age is a distinctly exciting time of progression and national debate. Globalization and technological advancements have contributed to an ongoing discussion which engages in discovering more about sexuality and which facilitates the maximum standards of inclusivity for minorities. As Jews, we must know better than perhaps any other collectively-identified group in world history that silence is denial. May we be, in the words of King Lear, only “more sinned against than sinning,” and never, God forbid, the reverse.