A Response to the Recent "Orthodox" Gay Forum
by Rabbi Mayer Twersky

Notes on this transcription:

This is an unofficial transcript by Shmuel Ross. I started with the first unofficial transcript, which did a very good job for one recorded on the fly, but which did have some inaccuracies. I've revised it based on the recording of the shiur.

Listening to the recording is, of course, better than any unapproved transcript. I had to decide how to punctuate it, where to put paragraph breaks, when and how to transliterate, and when to go with Hebrew characters. I also made a few judgement calls in retaining rhetorical repetitions while deleting stuttering. (I tried to err on the side of leaving things in, being faithful to what was actually said.) I believe this to be an accurate representation of what Rabbi Twersky said, but any errors herein are my own.

Finally, this speech is in Yeshivish. I also have a version in which most of the Yeshivish terms have been translated into English.

Birshuso al pi horaso, moreinu Rav Shechter shlita, v'rabosai.

תשת חשך ויהי לילה זה העולם הזה שדומה ללילה

Chazal said that Olam Hazeh resembles night. Mesilas Yesharim explains that the darkness of night engenders two types of mistakes. Some things a person simply can't see at night; it's so dark, a person can't see what's in front of him, a person can stumble. But there's a more insidious type of error which darkness engenders, says Ramchal, and that is that the person sees, but he doesn't see what he's seeing. Darkness of night can engender distortions, delusions, illusions, confusions. And if Olam Hazeh is compared to lailah, and the geulah yemos hamachiach, and the geulah is compared to yom, it's darkest we know, before dawn. And in the darkest hours of night, the delusion, the illusion, the confusion is greatest.

Not only in my lifetime, but I think in your lifetimes, there was a point at which such a schmooze would have been unimaginable, inconceivable. Not only unnecessary, but inappropriate, wrong. What's there to talk about? And if there is what's to talk about, it's a matter of public discourse? One of the gimmel simanim b'uma zo: bayshanim. But olam hazeh domeh l'lailah; we do need, with the ohr of Torah, to try to dispel some of that darkness.

ואת זכר לא תשכב משכבי אשה תועבה הוא

Sometimes we quote the posuk, but sometimes in a more sanitized version. To'evah's a very strong, jarring word — abomination. We know we're supposed to speak b'loshon nekiah, we know we're supposed to speak moderately, so we're not so comfortable... To'evah. Very strong word.

We're no more refined than the Torah, no more moderate than the Torah. And if we adulterate, if we water down the l'shonos of the Torah, we desensitize ourselves to what the Torah is saying. If the Torah says something is a To'evah, it is that, and there's no need, and more importantly, no justification to be politically correct in terms of what it is. The Torah says it, the Torah's value judgments are eternally true.

In general, it's something that we need to make a communal cheshbon hanefesh on, how — in other contexts as well, not only in this context — how apologetics can dull our awareness of what the Torah says. Most issurim in the Torah don't come with such descriptions. And apparently the Torah says it for its shock effect. It is a jarring word, and intentionally so.

Ok, but the Posuk is describing behavior — homosexual behavior. What about if we're talking about people, not behavior? How does the Torah speak to them? Is there anything wrong with saying that homosexual individuals should be able to come out of the closet and be treated sympathetically, empathetically?

Any time we, Jews, bnei Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, hear the word "sympathy," so we respond. And it should be that way. The other two simanim b'uma zo: rachmanim, gomlei chasadim. You wanna tug at the heartstrings of a Jew, talk to him about compassion. Talk to him about sympathy, talk to him about empathy, because a Jew responds. And that's the way it should be. The Rambam says if we see someone who doesn't have these simanim, bodkim acharav, we have to question his lineage, and roi l'hisrachek mimenav, stay away when it comes to making a shidduch if you don't see a Jew who exhibits these traits of rachmanim, bayshanim, and gomlei chasadim. So when we hear a plea for sympathy, we respond.

So, is there anything wrong, maybe it's right?

So, mashel l'mah hadavar domeh, and please forgive the crudeness of what I'm about to say: it's crass and it's crude. What if someone will come and ask us for a forum for people such as himself, and he'll tell us that he has a tremendous lust for his neighbor's wife. Not, chas v'shalom, that he's acted on it, and he hopes that he never will act on it, but he has a tremendous, tremendous lust for his neighbor's wife, and he would like that we should have a forum, he wants to come out of the closet. People should know, to relate to him sympathetically, emphatically, and he'll stand in front of a forum of hundreds of people, well-meaning, well-intentioned, sincere people — people who were drawn in by and large because we were tugging at the heartstrings of rachmanim and gomlei chasadim — and he'll tell us about how his orientation, how his inclination is to "lo sachmod eishes rayecha." And he shouldn't be isolated from other people. There should be a club. We'll find a euphemistic description for the club: for "chomdim nishei reyehu."

So what would our reaction be? One of revulsion! Hayetochen? One of revulsion! And if he'll tell us that "it's natural, I'm wired that way," is that going to diminish the revulsion an iota?

There's sympathy, which is correct, which is a core, core Jewish character trait, at the heart of who and what a Jew is. And there's legitimization of To'evah. There's no such thing as a Jew who should be publicly identified as being chomed eishes reyehu — there's no such thing as a Jew who should be identified as having what he professes to be an inclination or an orientation to mishkav zachor.

The person needs, and deserves, help in struggling? I suspect ayn hachi nami, that's absolutely true, and that help and appropriate sympathy should be forthcoming. I suspect that rov, if not everyone in this room, everyone has different issues that we grapple with. Some of us have personal issues, bein adam l'atzmo; some of us have familial issues, some may have financial struggles, some may have professional issues. Most, if not everyone, has issues. Who needs to know about those issues? The people closest to us, maybe our rabbonim. Our most intimate friends and family members. No one looks to publicize to the world, no one looks to create a class of people, no one looks to create a new category of Jew. You wanna educate the public? There are other ways of educating the public without creating a category, rachmana l'tzlan, of a "gay Jew" — even if it's with all the insistence, but not practicing, it's only a question of inclination, or what one professes to be orientation.

Where does it come from? So we shouldn't be naïve about that. We know where it comes from. There's a saying in Yiddish that the way it goes with the gentiles, that's the way it goes with the Jews. That's a descriptive statement, not a prescriptive statement. That the way it goes with the gentiles, the way it goes out on the street, the way it goes out in the street in Albany, where they look to pass same-sex marriage, that the legislature should recognize gay marriage, the way it goes in New Jersey where they're wrestling over such a bill — so that infiltrates, rachmana l'tzlan, but that infiltrates our communities.

Sympathy — appropriate sympathy — is correct and warranted, but it's a travesty when that sympathy is cynically manipulated and exploited to create a legitimization, to create a new category of a Jew, who should be able to come out of the closet and identify himself as oriented towards To'evah.

Sympathy can also be overdone. The Rambam has a line in a different context: he writes that at times, rachmanus, misdirected, can really be achzoriyus. What is intended, albeit sincerely, as rachmanus, at times, can turn out to be achzoriyus. And that's true, not only if that rachmanus, not only if that compassion is misdirected, but even if it's exaggerated. Rachmanus is also one of the middos of HaKodosh Baruch Hu where one has to follow the middah habeinonis. Exaggerated rachmanus can translate into achzoriyus.

Case in point — if one allows for the following combination of propositions:

Proposition number one: homosexuals are wired that way. It's something which is hopelessly irreversible, they're wired that way. That's proposition number one.

Proposition number two, about which of course there is a big debate in the mental health community, although on the street one only hears one side of that debate.

Proposition number two: in addition to the fact that they're hopelessly, irreversibly wired that way, proposition number two is that this represents a unique, sui generis, heroic, herculean struggle to conform to what to the Torah says, v'es zachar lo sishkav mishkevei ishah.

What's wrong with that combination of propositions? What's wrong with that combination of propositions is that no matter how many times one gets up and repeats the mantra "halacha's not negotiable; we operate within halachic guidelines, halacha's not relativistic," no matter how many times, and in whatever form or format, one repeats that mantra, that halacha's not negotiable, but the real message that's broadcast — if one is hopelessly, irreversibly wired this way, and this represents a heroic, herculean struggle, my admiration knows no bounds for someone who's able to withstand this nisayon. So the message being sent is, we don't think of ourselves as heroes. We don't hold ourself to heroic standards. The message being sent is — despite my mantra of "halacha is absolute, halacha's not negotiable" — the real message, under the guise of sympathy, the message that's being sent is, you know what? Rachmana l'tzlan, you know what? The Torah's halacha isn't really real for you. I don't really expect you to be able to comply with it because you're hopelessly, irreversibly oriented this way, and it's such a heroic struggle of titanic proportions and dimensions that you engage in. So what's the message? The message is "I don't really expect you to be able to comply with what the Torah says." What's the message? I don't how this sin, how this is compatible with הצור תמים פעלו כי כל דרכיו משפט. That, rabbosai, may be well intentioned, it may be a sincere expression and attempt to extend sympathy, but that is achzoriyus, nothing less. Because the message that it broadcasts is "I don't expect you to be able to comply with what the Torah says is yehareg v'al ya'avor."

Point number one: sympathy, there's a difference between sympathy and legitimization. The fact that on the street, sympathy is co-opted, exploited, cynically manipulated to create legitimization — one doesn't need gay marriage for appropriate sympathy for a person who's discreetly struggling with something, the way people discreetly struggle with every other issue.

And point number two: sympathy can be overdone. Sympathy can be exaggerated. And when sympathy is exaggerated, it's no longer sympathy, but it's achzorius.

Point number three, very briefly: in many contexts, the Rav zechrono lebracha used to speak about, wrote about, how at the very core of halacha lies the concept of defeat, of surrender. Halacha means — the discipline of halacha, the absolute lines, parameters, and contours of halacha mean — that I can't have everything I want. The fact that I want it, doesn't mean that is has to be doable. The fact that I want it, no matter how much I want it, doesn't mean that it has to be feasible al pi halacha. The essence of halacha: defeat, surrender, to know I can't have it just because I want it. The mindset we too often operate in is "if I want it, so then the onus is on the contemporary baalei halacha to figure out how I can have it," and that mindset is also operative here.

So that there's no misunderstanding in applying what we've been talking about to last week's event, I'd like to explicitly address it.

The condemnation, the mecha'ah, which we all feel and which we should all be making, again unequivocal, is about the event. I don't think that any of us should, or can, stand in judgment of what people who attended the event, or even some of the participants and organizers had in mind. Aderaba, I personally am convinced that the overwhelming majority of those constituencies meant well, and meant very well, and were sincerely motivated and well-intentioned. They either didn't realize what the event was gonna be, or their sympathy was co-opted and manipulated — that line which should be so clear and sharp, which delineates the difference between appropriate sympathy for discreet individuals struggling with an issue, and legitimization, which should be so sharp, but society has totally obliterated, was a source of confusion.

The argument that people have to be able to tell the whole world in order to overcome depression is not true in any other context, and it's not true in this context any more than it is any other context. Yes, you have to be able to talk to the people closest to you to get hadracha, to get help, absolutely. Do you have to come out of the closet about every issue and struggle that a person has? It's not done in any other context, and the only reason it's done in this context is because the way it goes by the non-Jews is the way it goes by the Jews. There the agenda is alternate lifestyle, there the agenda is gay pride, there the agenda is gay marriage, and that's what's influencing us.

I was asked also to address some of the questions talmidim have raised in terms of their reactions, their responsibilities. Specifically, one series of questions relates to a petition that was drawn up, that's addressed to President Joel: should that petition be signed? What difference does it make if I sign? Who am I to sign? Isn't such a petition an affront to President Joel? And isn't it inappropriate for that reason?

Unfortunately, the way the Chillul HaShem unfolded, the way the event was projected, and the way the event was carried out, it was billed and carried out as "being gay at YU." The way the Chillul HaShem unfolded, it unfolded as a reflection on the institution — not on the graduate schools — talmidim in Yeshiva College, it unfolded as a reflection on all of us, because of people involved in the event, attending the event... and when that's how the Chillul HaShem unfolds, not only is there a chiyuv to find some forum, some vehicle to go on record against this Chillul HaShem, but in this context, so that obligation is true many times over. Because right now, the picture projected — obviously a total, total distortion — is that it reflects on the yeshiva. It reflects on every segment of the yeshiva. Administration, rabbeim, talmidim, everyone was implicated by how the program was projected and how it came off: "Being Gay in YU."

Two of the four presenters also spoke about actual mishkav zachor, in addition to the distortions and the Chillul HaShem of what we've spoken about until now. I don't know, the transcript talks about about applause at various points, but there wasn't any mecha'ah. So that's where the record stands, unless everyone, every segment of our community has to go on record saying "no, that's not us. We reject, we renounce, we disassociate ourselves from all of that."

When it comes to k'vod shomayim, a person doesn't ask "who am I, what am I?" That's not an occasion for anava. Rav Ickovits in his hakdama to Nefesh HaChaim: וכל רואי השמש בגבורתו, המה ראו כן תמהו, שעם כל כניעת גופו ונמיכת רוחו למילי דעלמא — my father was so humble, such total bitul of himself — כן נהפוך לבבו במילי דשמיא, ללבוש עוז והדר — but when it came to milei d'shmaya, then a person has to be strong. There's no room for anava there. Who am I, what am I? You're one more voice; each of us is one more voice saying "no, that's not what we represent, that's not what we believe. It was a travesty and a distortion of everything we are, and everything we believe." And heyaos, that that distortion was projected onto all of us — being gay in YU — by virtue of, again, the program, people involved, albeit even those well-intentioned, many of whom were well-intentioned, but echad shogeg, echad meizid. And therefore on every level, both for internal consumption as well as external consumption, a statement has to be made, "no, that's not what we believe, that's not what we are, that's not what we represent!"

What about if the petition — what about the question, is it an affront to President Joel? I'd like to tell you two things, please listen to both. First of all — one answer is to clarify halacha, one answer is to clarify metzius.

To clarify halacha, the answer is, it doesn't make a difference. If you're talking about k'vod shomayim, one does what is right, what is calibrated for k'vod shomayim, and it doesn't make any difference, any other cheshbonos. It doesn't make a difference what anyone else thinks. If it's the right thing for kvod shomayim, if it expresses what should be said and what should be expressed for kvod shomayim, it doesn't make a difference what anyone else thinks. Sof davar hakol nishma — it doesn't make a difference what anyone else thinks. That's the halacha shebo.

The metziyus shebo — it doesn't represent an affront to President Joel, because we all stand on the same side of the issue. He's no more in favor of anything that happened than any of us are. So the metziyus shebo is it doesn't represent an affront. The metziyus shebo is that everyone, on every layer, in every segment of our constituency, has to work together to try to undo and repair that Chillul HaShem.

But ultimately, we will only know that we've done what we can to repair, rachmana l'tzlan, that Chillul HaShem and future occurrences of Chillul HaShem, when we are determined, when we are resolute, to not only renounce Chillul HaShem, but also renounce causes of Chillul HaShem. And as we move forward, the causes, the root causes, of Chillul HaShem, need to be understood, need to be addressed, unequivocally, unapologetically, without any cheshbonos that detract from kvod shomayaim, and all of us, no matter what one's position in the community of yeshiva is, no matter what one's age, all of us have to share that absolute, resolute, determination to again, not only renounce and try to correct the Chillul HaShem, but also to renounce the root causes of it, and to address that as well. And to move forward and to do what we're all here to do, what we spend our time doing, let the posuk of עבדי אתה ישראל אשר בך אתפאר should be said of us and everything we do in Yeshiva.