By Hadassah Penn, Feature Editor
(Names have been changed due to the sensitive nature of this article.)
“I promise I’m not an apikores,” Rachel tells me as we start our conversation.
She’s smiling, but her words are defiant. It’s a statement meant not for me, but for anyone who tries to say that she can’t be both bisexual and Modern Orthodox.
“My mother told me once that Hashem thinks about everything in the world, or it would cease to exist. And if He didn’t want anyone in the LGBT community, then He wouldn’t have created us.”
How to reconcile religion with sexuality — or not — is a thorny issue for many LGBTQ+ people who grow up in Orthodox Jewish households. It’s a consideration that looks different for everyone. I spoke to several Yeshiva University students about how they relate to Judaism, and each offered a different perspective.
Lily, like Rachel, is bisexual. Growing up in a Hasidic community — a community that she has since left — she was tormented by her attraction to women, and comforted only by her simultaneous attraction to men. “The whole identity you have is that you will eventually get married. If I wasn’t attracted to men, I don’t know what I would have done.”
Rachel had similar thoughts when first confronting her bisexuality. “It was a really, really sad place to be in. I don’t encourage that.”
Anne grew up in a yeshivish Orthodox community. “I discovered that I was not straight in 11th grade,” she says, “and it took me a very long time to come to terms with that.” She’s since settled into her queerness, but has distanced herself from religion. “It’s very hard for me to align myself with Orthodoxy when I know that it doesn’t fundamentally support who I am.” She laughs, and the sound is half amused and half bitter. “It’s hard for me to go home and be in an Orthodox community that I know would ask me to leave.”
Josh, who grew up Modern Orthodox, is more pragmatic. “Leaving religion was always a function of practicality…I ultimately knew it was best for me. In my opinion, religion is something that can beautifully enhance the life of people who can fit the mold of a religious person. As a gay person, I did not think I could fit this mold.”
Esther, on the other hand, was and remains a halachic Jew, despite being gay. Her family, although quite religious, is also quite liberal. Esther never struggled for acceptance, either internally or externally. She always believed that LGBTQ+ Jews belong in Orthodox spaces. “At some point I was like, if I’m giving this to other people, I have to give it to myself as well.”
Five queer Yeshiva University students, five different approaches to Judaism. From fondly cultural to strictly halachic, from agnosticism to unshakeable faith in God: Rachel, Lily, Anne, Josh, and Esther may practice differently, but they have in common a pride — or Pride — of identity, a confidence and ease of expression that is both joyful and the slightest bit defensive.
That defensiveness has good reason. Whatever one’s religious expression looks like, attending an Orthodox university — Yeshiva University — while queer, can be frustrating and discouraging.
“I have this argument with my friend — which is worse, being gay or a woman in the Orthodox community?” Esther says wryly. “And I’m both.”
“I’ve sat in classes that have debated whether or not LGBT people should be allowed in the Orthodox community,” says Anne. “People raise their hands and say their opinions on me as a person.”
Rachel is only out to a few people. “At the moment I feel safe. I think if I came out, I would not. It puts a target on people’s backs. And I know that I am not necessarily strong enough to withstand that.”
For Josh, Halacha is at the root of these issues. “Halacha does not really allow people to condone homosexuality,” he says.“The fact that a gay couple can’t feel comfortable in most Orthodox communities is homophobic, even if the intent of exclusion is not one of hostility.”
Esther has a different theory: “I know a lot of people—so many rebbeim, so many great teachers at YU, and I’ve spoken to them and had great conversations with them and every time…they’re not [willing] to go on the record. If you want to say there’s something wrong with religion, it’s that people can’t say supportive things on the record without consequences.”
“Sometimes I get frustrated,” she adds. “Some of the Roshei Yeshiva are like, oh if you make a club then people will say that we can make ketubahs for two men! I know the halachot, I’ve actually learned Even HaEzer, I learned the sugyah about ketubahs, thank you very much.”
What everyone agrees on — except the administration, of course — is the need for some sort of safe space for LGBTQ+ students and allies on campus. Since the administration can’t be trusted for support, queer students turn their trust elsewhere — some of them turn to God, but all of them turn to each other.
“I joined the LGBT group in YU, which totally changed my life,” Anne says. “It normalized me, and what I was feeling. It wasn’t a big deal anymore, and I could have friends who understood who I was and accepted me for who I was.”
“The community at YU is not a physical community. It’s more like a WhatsApp group, which is sad,” says Esther. Her vision for the YU Pride Alliance? “It needs to be a safe space that anyone can enter and feel like they’re not saying anything about themselves, they’re not putting themselves in danger or outing themselves or being seen as an identity they don’t have. [We need to] to make a space for allies and LGBT people together.”
Lily, too, has a vision for YU. “I read Rav Soloveichik’s books; I read Halachic Man before I got here. And I imagined it would be like Halachic Man! And I do think that’s what this place is at its heart. While Rav Soloveichik was a man of his time, a generation of thinkers, he was still on the forefront. I can’t say that he would have supported the LGBT movement, but if he was starting his movement now, he may have.”
“I don’t think that being born gay means you’re not a Jew anymore or that you have to abandon being a Jew,” says Rachel. “It means you have to reevaluate your stance in the world, and how you are going to relate to Hashem. Judaism is the religion of questions. We encourage you to ask the tough questions, we want people to be interested, we want you to be invested. So ask the hard questions, try to find the answers. Do the digging, because then it means something to you.”
If you are a queer or questioning YU student in need of support, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.