Opinion | I Shouldn’t Have to Choose Between My Judaism and My Queerness

Opinion | I Shouldn’t Have to Choose Between My Judaism and My Queerness

No one within earshot batted an eye at the slur. I was at a festive Shabbat dinner with other undergraduates at Yeshiva University, a few months into my freshman year at its Stern College for Women. “He’s a fag,” I overheard a student in a spiffy suit say to the woman seated next to him.

A year earlier, as a senior at an all-girls Hasidic high school in Brooklyn in 2016, I had looked forward to being surrounded by open-minded, religiously committed Jews at the renowned Modern Orthodox university in New York City. But in that moment, my fantasies crumbled. As the slur echoed in my mind, glasses clinked, cheerful conversations continued, and the only visible concern in the room was mine. It was my first encounter with casual bigotry at Yeshiva, but not my last.

Over the next four years, I would face ridicule and bullying as a bisexual and nonbinary person advocating for the queer community at Yeshiva. The discrimination wasn’t just from fellow students: Administrators denied us the right to form a recognized L.G.B.T.Q. student group and failed to meaningfully address discrimination by rabbis, students and teachers at the school, actions that effectively encouraged queer students to stay in the closet or leave the university. (In response to a request for comment on these and other allegations, a representative for Yeshiva said there were “factual inaccuracies” but declined to say what they were, and offered no further statement.)

I graduated in January 2021 and in April, I was part of a group of alumni and current students who filed a lawsuit against Yeshiva in New York County Supreme Court. We believe that Y.U. violated the New York City Human Rights Law by denying us the right to form an official L.G.B.T.Q. student group.

I was born and raised in an ultra-Orthodox community in Borough Park, Brooklyn, that adheres to the traditions of pre-Holocaust European Jews. While I did not find the courage to accept my bisexuality until college, the feeling of difference was all-encompassing, even as a young teen. I thought I needed to choose: I could be Jewish or different, Jewish or a feminist, Jewish or happy.

Yeshiva, considered by many the premier Modern Orthodox educational institution, seemed to promise an Orthodox Judaism that offers the best of both worlds. The university’s guiding principle, as well as the de facto motto of the Modern Orthodox movement, is Torah Umadda, loosely translated “Torah and general knowledge,” which asserts that Jewishness and Jewish faith can exist alongside, and even be enhanced by, secular concerns.

When I first arrived at Yeshiva, I knew that by coming out, I would brand myself as an outlier. There were only a handful of out queer people on campus. There was little visible queer community and no designated space for us to gather. It didn’t take me long to feel that was by design.

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For years, undergraduate student advocates have petitioned the school’s administration to approve a club for queer people and allies. Y.U. has repeatedly stalled, hedged and refused. In 2020 the university released a statement noting that “the message of the Torah on this issue” of L.G.B.T.Q. identity is “nuanced” and that the formation of an L.G.B.T.Q. club “under the auspices of Y.U. will cloud this nuanced message.”

It is true that large swaths of the Modern Orthodox world, which adheres to many traditional interpretations of Jewish law, have repudiated the L.G.B.T.Q. community. But the world is changing. Being queer is increasingly recognized as a fundamental, immutable, and integral part of who many people — including religious Jews — are.

Across the Orthodox world, there have been signs that this recognition is beginning to sink in. In 2010, the organization Eshel was founded with the goal of creating community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities. In 2019, Daniel Atwood became the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi.

I have come to understand that queerness and Judaism are not antithetical to one another. Queer Jews are as old as the Torah itself. There are only two anti-queer passages in Leviticus, and there are many more passages in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud that positively or neutrally revolve around queerness, including what some read as the love story between David and Jonathan, and the detailed recognition and description of intersex people in the Talmud.

And despite what those on Judaism’s religious right may claim, our communities have always evolved and adapted to the times, which is why Yeshiva proudly educates women in Torah scholarship, even though traditional religious sources are divided about the permissibility of it.

I hope that our lawsuit is successful, but whatever the outcome, this will not be the end of the fight for L.G.B.T.Q. acceptance at Yeshiva or in Modern Orthodoxy. If the university administration finds the courage to live up to its own ideals, the rest of the community will follow.

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