Friday, February 01, 2008

In Support of the Yeshivah of Flatbush

It’s a wonderment that Orthodox Jews who are modern in their orientation remain Orthodox. They live in a deeply compartmentalized world that offers abundant and attractive intellectual and social stimuli that pull them powerfully in the direction away from religiosity. There is, additionally, a drumbeat of media messages – Jewish and general – telling of Orthodox abuse and other wrongdoing. We are fundamentalists and intolerant, untrustworthy in financial matters, hypocritical about religion and steeped in all manners of abuse. It is nothing short of remarkable that we have survived on these shores and astonishing that there are persons who were not born observant who have embraced a religious life.

There are, of course, those who jump ship, an inevitability in an open society. Many more remain true to their heritage, often strengthening their commitment to our community. We read little about these Jews or about the quiet glory of ordinary Orthodox life. Nor do we know much about the help provided to persons in need or the blessing called Shabbos or the exhilaration in Torah study or the beauty of religious family life or the dignity that is inherent in a modest lifestyle.

We rarely read of the Yeshivah of Flatbush, of its 2,000 or more students and tradition of academic excellence. We know next to nothing about its tens of thousands of alumni and their contributions to America, to Judaism, to Israel. The school has been in the news, frontpage in both this newspaper and the Forward, because an alumnus who is a medical doctor and also gay was told that he cannot bring his partner to a class reunion. One more Orthodox sin.

May I offer a modest suggestion: In view of the proliferation of Orthodox wrongdoing and widespread reader interest in the subject, it is time for this newspaper to give the bad news the prominence it deserves via a weekly feature detailing how the Orthodox are harming Judaism. It could be called, “Tales from the Orthodox Darkside.” There clearly is enough material for a weekly story and on those more than occasional weeks when the Orthodox outdo themselves and sin in multiple ways, it should be possible for editors to find the space for additional stories.

The Yeshivah of Flatbush articles were overblown. Gayness is a reality in Orthodox life, as it is elsewhere. There are observant gay Jews in synagogues and in all other expressions of our communal life. This is not a surprising phenomenon, nor is it a development that merits special attention. Those who are gay and those who are not have an easy relationship in which sexual orientation is not a topic.

When schools like the Yeshivah of Flatbush sponsor reunions, gay alumni show up, at times bringing not their spouses but friends of the same sex. They are there to see classmates and old friends, to listen and to tell familiar stories and to have a good time. Gayness does not figure in the equation. The point is well made in a letter to the Forward, following its article, by a gay man who signed his name:

“I had the pleasure of bringing my partner, a nice Jewish doctor, to my 25-year reunion at the Yeshivah of Flatbush in 1999. Out of respect to the institution and to the religious sensibilities of some of my classmates, I introduced him as my friend and didn’t make a fuss over it. I allowed for plausible deniability. I spoke of us naturally as ‘we’ but we didn’t dwell on it. Those who wanted to ‘get it’ did so and those who chose to ignore it did. We had a wonderful time, and it was great seeing my old friends and teachers and sharing fond memories.”

This letter and collateral evidence casts strong doubt on the veracity of a point made in this newspaper’s Yeshivah of Flatbush article that a decade ago another gay alumnus had gone to the school reunion with his partner “and was forcibly escorted out by a security guard.” I am told that this did not happen and I do not think that it happened.

What distinguishes the recent episode is that the gay alumnus was determined to transform his personal preference into school policy, to force on the institution an acceptance of his life choice. Yeshivah of Flatbush has the responsibility to maintain its institutional halachic standards and it did so after the alumnus informed the school that he was planning to bring his gay partner. In a way, the situation is parallel to the “don’t ask, don’t tell “credo that for years has guided Pentagon policy toward gays in the military.

It is noteworthy that while the Yeshivah of Flatbush is on the spot, serving as a target for a Facebook horde, the doctor apparently remains anonymous. He is entitled to keep his name out of the newspapers. He is not entitled on halachic or moral grounds to coerce the school he once attended to affirmatively accept his life choices.

Though less celebrated than the Noah Feldman affair of last year, there is much common ground between the two episodes, as each involves a respected Modern Orthodox institution that is being castigated for adhering to a religious standard. In each situation, critics insist that a religious Jewish school should substitute societal standards for its own. As always, their arsenal of arguments includes the claim of tolerance. Curiously, however, there is no recognition that true tolerance consists of accepting the religious choices of institutions and persons that are guided by their and not society’s religious teachings.

Inadvertent or not, the message conveyed by the newspaper articles is that intolerance toward the Orthodox is not only justified, it is the only appropriate response.