Most people had never heard of the YU Beacon until a week or two ago. I know I hadn’t. Now it seems that it has the Orthodox community abuzz and the YU community in a fierce debate. The article in question was entitled “How Do I Even Begin to Explain This”, and describes the account of a twenty year old Stern College student’s secret rendezvous with her boyfriend, who is Modern Orthodox as well. It is not clear from the story whether the account is fiction or non-fiction.
The article caused quite a stir. Many YU students were up in arms with what they felt was an overly provocative and racy piece that did not properly represent the student body. The Student Council felt that the response from the students was so overwhelming that they set up a meeting with the Beacon’s editors to discuss whether the Beacon should remain an official student club, and thereby receive funding (they were allocated $500 for the school year). The Beacon’s editors, fearing the threat of censorship, voluntarily resigned from “club” status and will run independently to retain their creative freedom.
This week’s Parsha, maybe more than any other, is striking in its honest portrayal of our ancestors. First, Yaakov favors Yosef, which causes the brother’s jealousy. Then there is the teenage Yosef telling his brothers about his dream, aggravating an already bad situation. Then the brothers discuss killing Yosef, only to relent and instead sell him into slavery, while allowing their father to believe that Yosef is dead. Then we learn about the story of Yehuda, who sleeps with his late sons’ wife, Tamar, while she is disguised as a prostitute. Then Yosef is seduced by Potiphar’s wife, coming close to succumbing, but ultimately remaining chaste. While there are numerous explanations in the commentaries and the Talmud for the motivations of our beloved ancestors, the text is quite honest on stories that could reflect on them in a negative light.
Frankly, if the Beacon had published any one of those stories it would probably have elicited a similar reaction.
We shouldn’t take for granted the Torah’s honesty. Last year I was teaching a class Shavuos night to a mixed group and discussed the Torah’s striking honesty. One participant spoke up and said told that he was a Conservative Rabbi, and that when he was in Rabbinic School he participated in a interfaith learning program. He was learning Chumash with a female Muslim student, and she remarked how odd this Jewish text was. She remarked that in Islam, their founders are portrayed as perfect, with little to no human frailties. How could a religion have as its central text so many stories portraying their leaders’ flaws and mistakes?
To me, that is one of the strongest proofs to the Divinity of the Torah. If a human being was creating a text to form a religion they would never have such flawed leaders. It would call the credibility of the entire religion into question. If the founders were so flawed, then why should we follow them?
If the text is divine and the Torah is from G-d, then the book should not be concerned with imperfect founders. G-d is perfect, humans are not. So let’s learn from their trials and tribulations and struggles in comprehending G-d’s ways. There is a confidence that shines through in the Chumash. It’s not trying to convince you of anything, it’s not trying to whitewash anything. Here’s the truth, take it or leave it- but always make sure you learn from it.
This trend does not stop in the Chumash. If anything, it is only amplified in the Prophets and in the Talmud. From the Civil Wars in Israel during the period of the Judges, to the flaws of King Saul, King David and King Solomon, Shimson(Samson), to the rampant idol worship by our ancestors-our texts are always honest and real.
We see in our times how difficult that can be. When it comes to modern Rabbinic leaders, we tend to whitewash. The YU community does it with aspects of Rav Soloveitchik decisions and personality, Chabad does it with the Lubavitcher Rebbi, and the Yeshivish world does it too, as evidenced to the ban on “The Making of a Gadol” ten years ago. We want to to promote and lionize the incredible attributes of our leaders and downplay or ignore the other parts. It makes things less complicated, takes away ammunition from detractors and feels like we are honoring the memory of great people in the process. It is quite normal and human to do so, just as Democrats will lionize JFK and Republicans will Reagan without telling the whole story. We want to protect our own. We want to focus on what makes our Gedolim great.
One could argue that is not really the Jewish way. We embrace our heroes and exalt the Tzaddikim who preceded us. We also learn from their mistakes. We give our children names like Solomon, Saul, Amnon, Avshalom, Judah, Michal, Batsheva, Tamar, and on and on. They led complicated lives, and were involved in some sordid stories. Not too many of us, like Saul, tried to kill their future son-in-law. And yet, he is still our hero. Our flawed, our imperfect, but our great and righteous hero.
My interest in this story is not so much in the Beacon remaining an official club. It is a concern that our reaction to this story sway us to a place where we sweep things under the rug. To their credit the YU Student Council said in their e-mail explaining the Beacon situation to the student body that they were not saying that frank discussions on premarital sex shouldn’t be had, just that they shouldn’t happen in a YU Student Council sponsored forum. On some level I understand that, but I also see the value of a periodical like the Beacon existing and being connected to YU.
Going on to the Beacon’s website, I was very impressed. It is not anti-YU or anti-Orthodox, but it does discuss some of the difficulties that arise by being Orthodox in a modern American milieu. For example, one article discussed a student’s awkwardness in trying to explain to her male cousins why she can’t sing out loud when they’re in the room. Another by a male YU student (the Beacon is co-ed) trying to understand how all of the disparate aspects of Yeshiva University fit under one philosophical purpose. I’m not sure it needs to be a YU club, but I am very sure that it is essential that the Beacon continues to exist. It is providing an essential forum for students grappling with their Judaism and the world around them and trying to make sense of it all. These issues face Jews if all streams of the Orthodoxy, be it Modern Orthodox, Yeshivish, Chabad, Open Orthodox, etc.
The article in question was not written to create controversy. If anything it shows the emotional pain of sleeping with someone who might not really love you back, and how some mistakes leave lasting imprints on our soul and psyche. Like it or not, we as a community are dealing with these issues. We are struggling to make Orthodoxy strong in a modern world that challenges it every day. We promote chastity and abstinence in a world over saturated with sexual imagery and that glorifies the male womanizer and the female seductress. Our singles are marrying later, but the human drives in us all are not changing anytime soon.
As the Editor-in-Chief Simi Lampert wrote:
“No, we don’t encourage or promote the act of premartial sex. However, it happens. It happens in our community, and we as a community prefer to pretend it doesn’t happen.”
The Beacon is not for everyone, nor should it be. It does, however, provide a useful and important space to openly discuss the issues we face as a community from the students’ perspective. As a Rabbi I find it invaluable. In order to address the issues we face now and in the future, we need to know what challenges our young adults are facing. The better we understand the reality, the better we can address it.
My biggest concern is that this not become a trend. We don’t need bans and blacklists now, we need honesty and understanding. That is the Jewish way, the Torah’s way. Not to be scandalous or shocking for it’s own sake, but to be open and honest and not whitewash reality because it is uncomfortable. I hope that YU can be at the forefront of allowing these conversations to happen. To reach out and engage students in their world, and seek to understand it. As a Rabbi, I hope the entire Modern Orthodox community sees value in a periodical like the Beacon. The approach of “keeping it in the family” is a from a bygone era. Whatever we might gain by not openly and publicly discussing our challenges we will lose when our youth feel there is nowhere for them to turn and to discuss the real issues facing them.
The Beacon seems to be an ideal outlet for that. It’s respectful, it’s honest and is an opt-in forum, no one is forced to read it or participate. Our young adults are discussing these issues plenty in blogs, on Facebook and in person. To have a safe space to openly discuss these issues is invaluable.
For me, one of the most poignant moments of this week’s Parsha is a Gemara in Sotah 36b that Rashi mentions in passing. The Gemara states that as Yosef was being seduced by Potiphar’s wife, he was extremely tempted to sleep with her. Suddenly:
At that moment the visage of his father came and appeared to him in the window. He said to him, “Joseph! Your brothers are destined to be inscribed upon the stones of the Ephod (High Priest’s breastplate), and you are among them. Do you want your name to be erased from among them, and to be called a “companion of harlots”?
Would Yosef really have been removed from the Ephod if he had slept with her? It’s not clear. His brothers sold him and they still remained on the Ephod. I think this speaks to Yosef’s mindset more than anything. At the moment of his greatest moral test, Yosef sees his father’s face and thinks about his legacy. His father’s teachings were suddenly reaching him and giving him strength. Did Yaakov ever imagine when he was raising Yosef that he was giving him the tools to withstand the advances of a married woman who was his owner’s wife? Of course not. But ultimately that’s actually what he was doing.
In Our day and age we’re doing the same thing. We teach our children not knowing what challenges they’ll face or even what world they’ll be living in. We know one thing for sure: it will be vastly different than the world we are in today. So YU Beacon, keep doing what you’re doing, and let’s continue to have these conversations for the good of the Modern Orthodox community.
Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz
Congregation Adath Israel
“Bringing Tradition to Life”
1851 Noriega St.
San Francisco, CA 94122