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

Notes on this translation:

This is an unofficial translation by Shmuel Ross in which the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yeshivish terms have been translated into English. In addition, and for no good reason, a few links have been added to citations. For the original wording, please see the transcript, or better yet, the recording of the shiur.

I have left the following terms untranslated:

  1. To'evah. Rabbi Twersky uses the common translation of "abomination."
  2. Torah. Defined most narrowly, the Jewish Bible; defined most expansively, the whole of Jewish religious thought.
  3. Halacha. Jewish law. The adjectival form is halachic.
  4. Chillul HaShem. Usually translated "Desecration of The Name," this refers to something that reflects badly on Judaism, and, by extension, God Himself.
  5. Yeshiva. A Jewish religious school. Also part of the name of Yeshiva University.

While I've done everything I can to transcribe and translate this speech accurately, any errors herein are my own. (On the other hand, the views expressed here are not meant to represent my own viewpoint.)


With your permission:

Our Sages said that this world resembles night. [Baba Metziah 83b] 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 (the author), and that is that the person sees, but he doesn't see what he's seeing. [Chapter 3] Darkness of night can engender distortions, delusions, illusions, confusions. And if this world is compared to night, and the messianic era is compared to day... it's always darkest 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 conversation 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 three signs of our nation is bashfulness. [Yevamos 79A] But this world is comparable to night; we do need, with the light of the Torah, to try to dispel some of that darkness.

"Do not lie with a male as you would with a woman, since this is a to'evah." [Leviticus 18:22]

Sometimes we quote this verse, but sometimes in a more sanitized version. to'evah is a very strong, jarring word — "abomination." 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 language 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 soul-searching on, how — in other contexts as well, not only in this context — how apologetics can dull our awareness of what the Torah says. Most prohibitions 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 verse 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, children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, hear the word "sympathy," we respond. And it should be that way. The other two signs of our nation are compassion and charitable works. 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. Maimonides says if we see someone who doesn't display these signs, we have to question his lineage, and distance ourselves from him; stay away from making a matrimonial match with a Jew who doesn't exhibit these traits of compassion, bashfulness, and charity. [Issurei Biah, 19:17] So when we hear a plea for sympathy, we respond.

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

So, what is this comparable to? 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, God forbid, 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 those with compassion and charity — and he'll tell us about how his orientation, how his inclination is to covet his neighbor's wife. And he shouldn't be isolated from other people. There should be a club. We'll find a euphemistic description for the club, for those who covet the wives of their neighbors.

So what would our reaction be? One of revulsion! Can you imagine? 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 having an inclination for adultery — 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 lying with a man.

The person needs, and deserves, help in struggling? I suspect granted, that's absolutely true, and that help and appropriate sympathy should be forthcoming. I suspect that most, if not everyone in this room, everyone has different issues that we grapple with. Some of us have personal issues; 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 rabbis. 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, God have mercy on us, 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 na├»ve 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, God have mercy on us, 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. Maimonides has a line in a different context: he writes that at times, compassion, misdirected, can really be cruelty. What is intended, albeit sincerely, as compassion, at times, can turn out to be cruelty. And that's true, not only if that compassion is misdirected, but even if it's exaggerated. Compassion is also one of the traits of God where one has to follow the "middle path." Exaggerated compassion can translate into cruelty.

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. [Translator's note: while this was applied to proposition two as delivered, I believe he changed his mind about the direction of the sentence a few words in, and meant this to apply to proposition one.]

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, "do not lie with a male as you would with a woman."

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 trial. 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? God have mercy on us, 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 know how this sin, how this is compatible with "The deeds of the Mighty One are perfect, for all His ways are just" [Deuteronomy 32:4]. That may be well intentioned, it may be a sincere expression and attempt to extend sympathy, but that is cruelty, nothing less. Because the message that it broadcasts is "I don't expect you to be able to comply with what the Torah says you need to avoid even at the cost of death."

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 cruelty.

Point number three, very briefly: in many contexts, the Rav of blessed memory 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 within 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 rabbinate 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 protest, 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. Moreover, 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 guidance, 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 students 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 — students 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 requirement 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, rabbis, students, 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 "lying with a man," 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 protest. 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 the honor of heaven, a person doesn't ask "who am I, what am I?" That's not an occasion for humility. Rabbi Ickovits, in his introduction to Nefesh HaChaim, writes that everyone who knew his father marvelled at his total humility regarding himself, but that when it came to Divine matters, there was a complete reversal of his nature, and he acted with strength and honor. At such times, a person has to be strong. There's no room for humility 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 as it happened, 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 it doesn't matter whether it was done accidentally or intentionally. 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. One answer is to clarify halacha, one answer is to clarify the facts of the matter.

To clarify halacha, the answer is, it doesn't make a difference. If you're talking about the honor of heaven, one does what is right, what is calibrated for the honor of heaven, and it doesn't make any difference, any other considerations. It doesn't make a difference what anyone else thinks. If it's the right thing for the honor of heaven, if it expresses what should be said and what should be expressed for the honor of heaven, it doesn't make a difference what anyone else thinks. The end of the matter, all having been heard... it doesn't make a difference what anyone else thinks. That's the halacha of this.

The fact of the matter is — 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 fact of the matter is it doesn't represent an affront. The fact of the matter 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 — God have mercy on us — 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 consideration that detract from the honor of heaven, 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 verse of "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified" [Isaiah 49:3] should be said of us and everything we do in Yeshiva.