Apr 8, 2009

YU Commentator: "Kol Hamevaser" Pulls Issue On Relationships & Sexuality

YU Commentator: "Kol Hamevaser" Pulls Issue On Relationships & Sexuality

Highlights Sensitivity Of Topic At Orthodox Yeshiva

By: Ezra Alter & Noach Lerman -- Posted: 4/2/09


Kol HaMevaser, the YU student magazine on Jewish thought, pulled its fourth issue of the year, "Kedoshim Tehiyu," from Wilf Campus.  The issue, which focused on relationships and sexuality, included several articles that drew controversy.  The episode underscored the difficult balancing act at Yeshiva for those that raise issues that stretch the boundaries of what normative halakha, particularly as it relates to homosexuality, as well as the particular controversy they raise at Wilf Campus.

The two articles most responsible for the decision to pull the issue, according to several Kol HaMevaser editors, was an article on homosexuality by Rabbi Steven Greenberg, an openly gay graduate of RIETS, and a piece by recent Yeshiva graduate Shira Schwartz entitled "The Word of Your Body," questioning the applicability of shemirat negiah today.  The latter article generated criticism around YU, with several Rashei Yeshivah expressing concerns privately and many students disputing her approach to Jewish law.

While the controversy over Shira Schwartz's piece was a surprise, Rabbi Blau had advised the editors to refrain from publishing Rabbi Greenberg's article.  Rabbi Blau, who had not expected to see the article printed in Kol HaMevaser, said he strongly advised the editors to pull the newspapers still on the shelves on the uptown Campus, which several editors did.
The Wilf Campus editors of Kol HaMevaser gave an official statement explaining their actions.  "As a result of a confrontation with Rabbi Blau…some of the editors decided to remove the 60 copies remaining on the shelves," they wrote.  "The confrontation itself, they explained, resulted from "unfortunate miscommunications and personal issues."

Kol HaMevaser editors and staff writers describe an intense yet collaborative discussion for how to move forward, with editors and staff writers debating whether to distribute the remaining copies at Wilf.  In a compromise that caused Gilah Kletenik, Beren editor, to return after she had resigned, Kol HaMevaser placed the issue online. 

Editors gave different reasons as to why they supported removing the papers.  The Wilf editors said that they "felt it would be best to simply move on, avoiding a public battle with the faculty and maintaining fully our institution's integrity."  One explained more particularly that with 400 of the issues already distributed, there were only 300 issues remaining, and the decision would be "symbolic."  The editor explained that according to his calculations, he would appear to either insult YU administrators or display fear of them.  "I'd rather look like a wimp than a jerk," he said.

One Kol HaMevaser editor, along with Rabbi Blau, indicated that Kol HaMevaser hoped to preserve their relationship with what Rabbi Blau termed the "righter wing" and a Kol HaMevaser staffer more directly located within "the beit medrash."  The Kol HaMevaser issues on Beren Campus were left untouched, without any similar upheaval.  At the end of the Fall 2008 semester, Dr. James Kugel was invited to speak on the Beren campus, ostensibly to avoid the controversy that would emerge had he spoken uptown.  Judging from internet blogs and comments on this newspaper's website, as well as anecdotal reports, the vast majority of the disgruntled responses came from students on Wilf.  Dr. Moshe Bernstein, a Professor of Bible for the uptown campus, criticized students for inviting Kugel (see page for Kugel's response).  The Kugel event and the more recent Kol Hamevaser episode reflect a noteworthy disparity in how the two campuses respond to religiously thorny events.

Gilah Kletenik, the Beren campus editor, said that she found no need to pull the copies downtown.  Although "some of the articles in the recent edition posed difficult questions," she argued that this it is precisely that result that should be the objective of honest intellectual discourse.

The recent embroilment concerning Kol HaMevaser also highlights the delicate nature of addressing the issue of homosexuality at Yeshiva.  Orthodox communities all around the country are confronting the inherent tension posed by openly homosexual Orthodox Jews, and YU is no exception.  Rabbi Greenberg's piece and a heart-wrenching article published anonymously by a YU student who regularly attends "Shaharit, morning seder, shiur, night seder and Ma'ariv" but suffers from feelings of homosexuality point to the emerging issue of homosexuality at YU and in the Orthodox community more generally.  Yeshiva University does not have an official policy regarding homosexuals, and no senior administrative officials or Roshei Yeshiva contacted commented on that article.  Rabbi Blau supported their position.  "Public statements only serve to create internal conflict with some who have taken a hard line on the issue," he explained.  "It is just not helpful to students [to make such official comments]."
Recently, the YU Tolerance Club and Active Minds organized a panel of openly gay Orthodox Jews to address a room of many YU students on the Wurzweiler Campus in Belfer Hall.  Three individuals who all described themselves as observant Orthodox Jews all spoke of the intolerance that they encountered within the Orthodox community.  Mordechai Levovitz described the anguish he felt after the Rosh Yeshiva of his high school told him he was "evil" for having homosexual thoughts.

Organizers of the event alleged that administrators ordered that the event not directly addressed homosexuality on the YC Campus.  Levovitz regretted the fact that the event had to be held on the Wurzweiler Campus.  Greenberg, Levovitz, and at least some members of the YU Tolerance Club would like to see the university adopt a more homosexual-friendly policy. 

Rabbi Blau felt it would be na├»ve to think that there no homosexuals were on campus.  Though he estimated that the number in YU was probably less than average, he acknowledged that such a minority existed.  Unlike Greenberg and Levovitz, who both believed that awareness and tolerance should be actively preached by students and encouraged by the administration, Rabbi Blau emphasized that this type of issue should be dealt with in private.

Although Greenberg and Levovitz criticized the university's reluctance to accept homosexuals publicly, they praised Rabbi Blau, calling him an "inspiring man" and a "terrific friend" respectively