A Liberal Orthodox seminary in Riverdale, New York will not ordain its gay student.
27-year-old Daniel Atwood is openly gay and engaged to be married. He is due to complete his fourth year of Rabbinical studies this spring.
‘Four years ago I came out as gay during my first year at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School, and it was decided that I would receive semicha [ordination] as their first openly gay student,’ Atwood told The Jewish Week. ‘After four years of study and my completing almost all of the program’s requirements, YCT decided not to give me semicha. News delivered to me only a few weeks ago, three months before my graduation, without any prior conversation on the matter.’
‘I always knew that being in the position that I am in would be a difficult process. I was always willing to navigate those challenges and work with YCT throughout this process. And I have always been fully committed to living my life according to Orthodox halacha [Jewish law],’ Atwood continued.
‘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. Most importantly, I am grateful for all the support my immediate family and my partner, Judah Gavant, have given me over my years in rabbinical school.’
Atwood is now seeking an independent ordination.
The school’s response
In an email to The Jewish Week, Rabbi Dov Linzer, YCT’s president, declined to provide any specifics about the case. However, he issued the following statement:
‘We accept all students regardless of sexual orientation, provided that they are fully committed to Orthodox halachic observance. There have been students in the past that did not receive semicha, each one for reasons specific to his case. Out of respect for all our students, the yeshiva does not discuss particular students and why any student may or may not be receiving semicha.’
‘The yeshiva could have handled the process of informing Daniel, and coming to a timely decision, in a much better manner. And we are sorry for the hurt that was caused as a result.’
This decision marked an important turning point for the yeshiva, which was founded 20 years ago as a liberal alternative to the more conservative Yeshiva University. Founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss, the YCT has ordained over 100 rabbis.
YCT’s decision about Atwood is seen by some as an attempt by the yeshiva to be more focused on the Orthodox world. Orthodox halacha maintains that Jewish law prohibits homosexuality. Though there has been more acceptance of the LGBTI community in recent years, it is rare that this inclusion reaches the leadership level.
‘I’ve never been more disappointed in Modern Orthodoxy and its institutions,’ YCT’s previous president, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, said. ‘We are supposed to stand for an unfearing loyalty to halacha. 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,’ Rabbi Lopatin continued. ‘I hope that there will be dozens of Orthodox rabbis that step forward and say that we want to give this student semicha. And not dozens that are cowering behind closed doors.’
Classmates and Alumni
Classmates of Atwood’s were shocked and disappointed by YCT’s decision.
‘The last few weeks have been a very challenging and painful time to be a student at YCT,’ one student, who asked to remain anonymous, said. ‘We feel upset and angered about the process that led to this decision. When Daniel got engaged, I was excited because I thought YCT would affirm his choice and still grant him semicha. It was deeply saddening for me to learn that they wouldn’t.’
Alumni of the school were similarly distraught. They hoped Atwood’s ordination would be the start of a new era for gay yeshiva students.
‘People look to Chovevei to be a beacon for people who are trying to stay committed to the Orthodox world. And at the same time, not have to compromise their moral values,’ one graduate, Rabbi Aaron Potek, said.
‘If the leadership at Chovevei can’t find a way to make space for gay Orthodox rabbis, that sends a pretty devastating message to that community. And to the broader Orthodox community about what is and is not possible to be included in that world.’
‘We’re living at a time when people are trying to figure out how someone can be gay and keep halacha at the same time,’ said Rabbi Chai Posner, another YCT graduate.
‘This would be the first time an Orthodox rabbi would be granted semicha while being openly gay, and fair or not, that reality carries with it a certain level of expectations [in terms of adherence to halacha]. The bar is certainly raised for someone who is going to be a rabbi.’
Orthodox Judaism and the LGBTI community
YCT graduate Rabbi Aviad Bodner works at a synagogue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Here, almost a third of the leadership is LGBTI.
‘The Orthodox community must do more and can do more to be more welcoming to the LGBT community,’ Rabbi Bodner said.