By Shira Hanau
Featured photo courtesy of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah
(JTA) Signaling a red line on how far Modern Orthodoxy is prepared to bend to adjust to societal changes, a liberal New York City seminary will not ordain an openly gay student who is engaged to be married and completing his fourth year of rabbinical studies this spring, The Jewish Week has learned.
In a statement to The Jewish Week, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah student Daniel Atwood, 27, wrote: “Four years ago I came out as gay during my first year at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, and it was decided that I would receive semicha [ordination] as their first openly gay student. 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.”
Atwood became engaged in the fall and is living with his partner.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who was president of YCT at the time of Atwood’s acceptance into the school, is currently the spiritual leader of Kehillat Etz Chayim in suburban Detroit. He is also the founder of the Center for Civil Discourse.
The decision marks a turning point for the rabbinical school, which has served for nearly 20 years as the flagship institution for a subgroup of Modern Orthodoxy often dubbed “Open Orthodoxy.” Founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss as an alternative to the more right-leaning Yeshiva University, the school ordained its first class in 2004 and has since ordained more than 100 rabbis.
The decision on Atwood is being perceived by some as an attempt by the yeshiva to more firmly ground itself in the traditional Orthodox world, which maintains that Jewish law prohibits homosexual relations.
“I always knew that being in the position that I am in would be a difficult process,” he wrote. “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]. 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.
In his statement, Atwood said he is pursuing an independent ordination.
In an email to The Jewish Week, Rabbi Dov Linzer, YCT’s current president and rosh yeshiva, declined to comment on the specifics of the case.
“We accept all students regardless of sexual orientation, provided that they are fully committed to Orthodox halachic observance,” he wrote. “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.”
Linzer added that the yeshiva could have handled the process of informing Atwood in a much better manner.
Rabbi Lopatin was dismayed by the decision to deny Atwood ordination.
“I’ve never been more disappointed in Modern Orthodoxy and its institutions,” he 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.”
Several graduates of the school said alumni are divided over the school’s handling of this decision.
“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,” said Rabbi Aaron Potek, an alumnus and now the rabbi at GatherDC in Washington, D.C. “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.”
Others defended the school, noting the requirement for YCT students to be fully committed to Orthodox halacha and Atwood’s recent engagement to his partner with whom he lives. In 2010, YCT faculty members issued a document urging compassion and inclusion for LGBT members of the Orthodox community, but also asserted that “Halakhic Judaism cannot give its blessing and imprimatur to Jewish religious same-sex commitment ceremonies and weddings, and halakhic values proscribe individuals and communities from encouraging practices that grant religious legitimacy to gay marriage and couplehood.”
Linzer, who has been the rosh yeshiva of YCT since its founding and assumed the role of president last fall, has long been an advocate for acceptance of LGBT members of the Orthodox community.