Rav Jane Litman

By Jane Litman, Coordinator, Jewish Roundtable

Most people are not aware that even within Orthodox Judaism there are great differences in practice and outlook.  Twenty years ago, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) was founded in opposition to the more socially conservative Yeshivah College, as a haven for Modern (or Open) Orthodox future rabbis.  Since then, YCT has been pushing the boundaries of participation – though not yet ordination – for women; integration of social justice issues; and inclusion of diverse and minority Jews.

Last year, progressive Jews of all denominations were inspired by Rabbi Dov Linzer, now YCT’s president. He said, “’And let it be that we all may know your name and study your Torah.’ Let us make sure that everyone — rich or poor; Orthodox, Reform or unaffiliated; straight or gay; cis- or transgender; those with disabilities and those without; white, black, or brown — that every Jew knows that the Torah is for him or her, and that he or she has a place in our schools, synagogues and communities.”

Queer Jews in particular have been awaiting the ordination of Daniel Atwood, YCT’s first openly gay student.  It is deeply saddening and infuriating that this month, just three month’s short of ordination, YCT has told Daniel that it will not ordain him.  The stated reasons behind this refusal are confused and confusing.  It purports to be because Daniel recently got engaged, and somehow YCT (without telling Daniel) assumed that he would be celibate!

The response of the Jewish queer community has been somewhat mixed.  Some queer Jews are saying that Orthodoxy was never a possible choice, that being Orthodox and queer is a masochistic contradiction in terms, that LGBTQ Jews need to leave the Orthodox world.  However other queer Jews point out that this is price of progress:  this kind of thing happened in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements thirty years ago and in the Conservative movement fifteen years ago.  I lived through that struggle, and my heart goes out to Daniel.

I do not see this painful situation as an indictment of Orthodox Judaism, but rather as an institutional struggle in which some of the leaders at YCT got too far out ahead of key players and donors.  A change in leadership brought a discriminatory change in policy. This happens in all sorts of arenas to those of us who are barrier breakers.  I expect the fight for queer and women’s ordination to continue at YCT, in spite of this huge step backwards.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the immediate past president of YCT made this public statement, “I’ve never been more disappointed in Modern Orthodoxy and its institutions. We are supposed to stand for an unfearing loyalty to halacha (Jewish Law), and it seems to me that there are so many who are acting out of fear and not who they really believe halachically can be a rabbi. We’re supposed to fear God alone, we’re not supposed to fear what other Jews are going to say about it. So it’s a real shameful moment. I hope that there will be dozens of Orthodox rabbis that step forward and say that we want to give this student semicha (ordination) and not dozens that are cowering behind closed doors.”

This month, April, Jews celebrate the holiday of Passover.  In the Passover liturgy we read that each person must understand themself as having personally left slavery for liberation. Daniel Atwood says, “I have always been fully committed to living my life according to Orthodox halacha. At the same time, I refuse to live anything but a dignified life, something I was always transparent about, including not being closeted or secret about my Torah, my identity, my beliefs, or my relationship.”  Let us – and all people of good will – honor Daniel for his Passover message.