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A little over fifty years ago, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the revered Talmudist and theologian, saw ghosts at his beloved Yeshiva University. In 1970, the rabbi publicly shared his fears about the secularization of the institution. By that time, the religious roots of Harvard, Columbia, and Yale felt like a footnote of history, and Rabbi Soloveitchik was concerned that a similar fate lay in store for Yeshiva—a few years earlier, the school's charter had been changed, turning it from a religious institution into an educational organization. Rabbi Soloveitchik was worried that the legal change would effect a change in the status of the institution, and, perhaps more importantly, in the minds of friends and foes alike.

Any fair-minded observer should be able to acknowledge that, whatever the current legal charter says, Yeshiva is obviously still a religious educational institution. Spend even a couple of hours on campus and this will not be in doubt. Nevertheless, though it took half a century to play out, Rabbi Soloveitchik's fear was prescient. His concerns are worth pondering in the context of the recent court case YU Pride Alliance v. Yeshiva University. In 2020, a group of students demanded that Yeshiva recognize and approve an LGBT campus organization called Pride Alliance. When Yeshiva objected, the students turned to the courts, and Judge Kotler of the New York State Supreme Court ruled that Yeshiva was required to approve the Pride Alliance. Yeshiva appealed to the Supreme Court to block this decision, but its request was denied last month.

Lawyers, litigants, and judges will decide the outcome of YU Pride Alliance v. Yeshiva University. Ultimately, Yeshiva can’t do much more than hire the best attorneys to defend its interests in court and pray for a favorable outcome. But there is something else that Yeshiva desperately needs to do. As important as this court case is for Yeshiva, for its gay and lesbian students, and for all defenders of the First Amendment, something seems to have been lost in the learned legal wranglings, something Rabbi Soloveitchik knew but that we are in danger of forgetting. Yeshiva's self-understanding as an Orthodox Jewish institution of higher learning and practice—in short, a yeshiva—hangs in the balance, whether the Pride Alliance club is eventually permitted on campus or not.

It is up to the leadership of Yeshiva University—the roshei yeshiva, rabbis, educators, and administrators—to make the case for what the Torah has to say about the human person, the complementarity of male and female, and the communion of persons that constitutes Jewish marriage. The question of homosexuality in a community of traditional faith is arguably the question of our generation. How do men and women of faith respond to this question? Yeshiva ought to be leading the way for Orthodox Jews—and others of faith—through this vexed, painful issue, providing both clarity and compassion for its students and alumni seeking guidance. It can, and must, do more.

“Torah values” need to be thoughtfully, lovingly—but fully and unapologetically—articulated if the phrase is to be more than a platitudinous cliché or bureaucratized buzzword. Simply repeating “Torah values,” like “family values,” is not enough to preserve and defend the rich, deep, and sacred theological anthropology that animates the Torah’s account of the human person. Merely invoking this phrase—without explicating both the publicly-reasoned relationships Jewish tradition proscribes, and painting a compelling portrait of the sexual lives championed by the Torah—feels wholly inadequate for today’s culture, maybe any culture. It’s certainly not a sufficient form of education for acculturated men and women bombarded daily by counter-narratives of sexual normativity dramatically at odds with tradition.

The book of Numbers provides a model for how the deepest divisions may be healed and truth ultimately vindicated. Korah, Moses’s cousin, foments open rebellion by cravenly critiquing the leadership of Moses and Aharon during Israel’s wilderness wanderings. G-d’s response is swift and devastating: The earth opens, swallowing Korah and his faction. But this seemingly decisive act doesn’t quell the rebellion. Two hundred and fifty men still harbor hopes of political and spiritual revolution until their firepans create a mass conflagration, killing them instantly. Yet the Lord is not done. He unleashes a devastating plague on the people, forcing Aharon, in his role as high priest and chief petitioner on behalf of the Jewish people, to stand “between the dead and the living until the plague was checked” (Numbers 17:13). Even after these three supernatural signs of rebuke, the wrangling seems to continue—until one final, and very different, display of divine favor: “The next day Moses entered the Tent of Testimony, and there the staff of Aharon of the house of Levi had sprouted: it had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds” (Numbers 17:23). Why the need for this aesthetically striking sign after the deadly divine interventions of earth, fire, and plague?

To be clear, I’m not drawing any comparison between Korah and contemporary movements challenging Torah authority. The lesson is a different one, applicable not only in the current case but in any conflict that needs wise, patient, urgent resolution. The lesson is that using raw power to shut down opposition may overwhelm, but rarely creates a genuine change of heart or quickening of the spirit. Critique, even when thorough, decisive, and legitimate, is one thing; a constructive, positive account of what is in keeping with the divine image is another. 

 In The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin laments how often contemporary political discourse emphasizes attacking one’s rivals rather than presenting what is true, good, and beautiful about one’s own account. What’s true in political culture is even more vital when it comes to theological teachings. This is the arena of the logic of the heart, not abstract argumentation or debate. Creating a compelling account of our tradition’s deepest truths, highlighting the beauty and goodness of the halakhic sexual ethic and the virtues of blessed community—as well as doctrine and theological verities—to make those truths come alive is the only way for leadership to ultimately prove itself. And it’s what Yeshiva desperately needs to do—for all her students, alumni, and the larger Orthodox world—whatever the courts decide.

Rabbi Mark Gottlieb is senior director of the Tikvah Fund and a proud alumnus of Yeshiva University.

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