Home/Rod Dreher/The Cathedral Vs. Yeshiva

The Cathedral Vs. Yeshiva

Beth Weiss, LGBT student activist at Yeshiva University (Fox 5 New York screenshot)
An academic reader who is religious, but not Christian, writes about this lawsuit that Yeshiva University lost, and plans to appeal, but which will now require it to recognize and financially support an LQBTQ club on campus.
A New York judge ruled that Yeshiva is not a religious institution. Can you imagine? From the NYT:

Yeshiva was represented in the lawsuit by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a high-profile public-interest legal and education firm based in Washington, D.C.

Eric Baxter, the vice president of the Becket Fund and the lead attorney on the case, said the judge’s semantic analysis had led to an “obviously mistaken” ruling that missed the forest for the trees.

“Courts don’t get to quibble over whether you said enough in your article of incorporation about your religious character,” Mr. Baxter said. “That is contrary to clearly established case law that says courts don’t get to second-guess a religious institution’s religious activities when its religious characteristics are plain and obvious.”

He added: “There are few religious institutions of higher education that are more religious than Yeshiva.”

Mr. Baxter shared documents in court that illustrated how religion shapes Yeshiva’s operations, including a policy that encourages students to undertake intensive religious studies in Israel, with 80 percent doing so; a requirement that male students spend between one and six hours a day studying the Torah; and another policy stipulating that every door on campus must show a mezuza, a traditional religious item.

Yeshiva also said that student government officers are instructed to help the administration “maintain the religious atmosphere on campus” and that student clubs and other activities are reviewed for “religious compliance.”

“Nobody goes to Yeshiva University thinking they are getting a strictly secular education, and courts cannot get into the business of saying, ‘Well this isn’t religious education, this is secular education,’” Mr. Baxter said.

This is a completely bizarre ruling. How willfully blind do you have to be to say that Yeshiva is not a religious institution? Something tells me that the judge had her mind made up before the first arguments were heard. Another thing that ticks me off is that LGBT rights are widely accepted and celebrated in nearly every college and university in this land. Yeshiva is one of a relative handful of institutions of higher education where people who choose to attend do not have to violate their religious consciences by burning a pinch of incense to the LGBT Caesar. But the Grand Inquisitors of the new religion will not tolerate any dissent. Their god is a jealous god. LGBT has been baptized by capitalism and is now one of the Blessings Of Liberty™ that the United States must establish firmly here, and export like cultural imperialists missionaries the world over. The consequences of this activism are completely and totally irrelevant. The loss of traditional liberties, and the crushing of religious believers who do not submit, don’t matter, as long as the Narrative is locked in. We should have learned this long ago with the general indifference towards inner-city violence that would be national news if it happened in the suburbs.

Anyway, my correspondent writes, about the Yeshiva verdict, “I don’t need to tell you how catastrophic this ruling could be for religious higher educational institutions.” More:
This particular ruling seems to have hinged on a technicality — in 1967, Yeshiva amended its charter to call itself an educational institution. Of course, it has never stopped being religious, and presumably its administration and trustees took for granted that this was widely accepted and uncontroversial; after all, their name is Yeshiva. Since I am a higher education administrator, I know how decisions are made inside universities —  most likely, back in 1967, the amendment to the charter allowed Yeshiva to apply for federal grants and funding that might not have been available to it otherwise. Somewhere in a filing cabinet the minutes of the meeting where that decision was made may exist. Or they may not. Now, here they are.
This ruling terrifies me more than anything that’s happened in this space recently. If religious people are to ever follow the Benedict Option and make a strategic retreat from secular institutions, we will need religious higher educational institutions, and not just Christian ones. We need Yeshiva, we need a Muslim equivalent, we need a broad array.
I’m actually not opposed to LGBTQ+ clubs on public university campuses like mine. We are state-funded and we need to treat RUF, Hillel, the atheist clubs, the Muslim Students Association, the LGBTQ clubs, and every other one, equally. We are bound by the First Amendment.
But this Yeshiva ruling is an unprecedented assault on religious freedom. I despise Donald Trump, I voted for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, but today I hope this case gets to the Supreme Court quickly, and thank God for Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett. (I’m still a little queasy about Kavanaugh….)
I say this knowing that resting my hope in politicians or judges is a form of defeat. I’m a professor, I know that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Fighting the lawsuit may be a bulwark — or may just be buying time.
Yes, I was never a Trump fan, though I did not vote for either Democrat. But I have been come to be grateful to Trump for those SCOTUS picks, and have recognized that if not for Trump, religious liberty would be in much worse trouble today.
We have to do the best we can. There is ultimately no political solution to this cultural and civilizational crisis. But politics can keep the space open for us to create and spread the cultural and religious solutions. Politics are not sufficient to address the crisis, but they are necessary. What the LGBT plaintiffs are doing to Yeshiva is bullying, and I’m sick and tired of it. If and when the backlash comes, they will deserve it. Circa 2005, the naïfs used to say, “How does my neighbors’ gay marriage hurt me?” People like me tried to explain, but they didn’t want to hear it. Now gay marriage is popular, and it’s not going away — but people who don’t accept this ought to be able to have their own spaces and institutions where they can be faithful to their religious beliefs. Many LGBTs and their fellow travelers won’t have it.
Here in Britain, where I’m staying for the moment, there is a bill in Parliament that would ban “conversion therapy” — the attempt to treat someone who is LGBT to help them deny or get rid of those desires. The Tory government wants to ban LGB conversion therapy — including religious prayers! — but leave transgenders out of it. Others, including some Tory MPs, insist on including trans people. One amazing thing about this is that a priest, pastor, rabbi, or imam who prayed with a believer who did not want to have L, G. B, or T desires would, if this thing passes into law, be a criminal.
Put another way, it’s perfectly legal now to practice therapy to convince someone to accept and to act on same-sex attraction, or the feeling that they are of the opposite sex, but one would not be able to do the opposite. Conversion therapy for me (against moral and religious tradition), but not for thee.

The Culture War is really a War of Religion. We are fighting Moldbug’s Cathedral, which, if you don’t know the concept, read this:

I notice more people using this label, which I coined a long long time ago, and have always had ambivalent aesthetic feelings about. I used a capital C, but I see more of the miniscule and I think it’s better.

“The cathedral” is just a short way to say “journalism plus academia”—in other words, the intellectual institutions at the center of modern society, just as the Church was the intellectual institution at the center of medieval society.

But the label is making a point. The Catholic Church is one institution—the cathedral is many institutions. Yet the label is singular. This transformation from many to one—literally, e pluribus unum—is the heart of the mystery at the heart of the modern world.

The mystery of the cathedral is that all the modern world’s legitimate and prestigious intellectual institutions, even though they have no central organizational connection, behave in many ways as if they were a single organizational structure.

Most notably, this pseudo-structure is synoptic: it has one clear doctrine or perspective. It always agrees with itself. Still more puzzlingly, its doctrine is not static; it evolves; this doctrine has a predictable direction of evolution, and the whole structure moves together.

The Cathedral is now every institution in modern Western life. Mostly what’s left to us devotees of rival religions is guerrilla warfare and subversion. Let’s get on with it. In the meantime, understand that we are fighting for our right to exist, and that if that means voting for political candidates we find distasteful, but who will stand up for us when the more respectable ones will not, then we have no choice to be vote for our allies.

UPDATE: A religious liberty lawyer writes:

For years, lawyers at Alliance Defending Freedom, Becket, and First Liberty Institute advised religious universities to expressly define their Religious Beliefs on sexuality — in Articles of Incorporation, Statements of Faith, Employment Handbooks, etc. Time and again, lawyers like us were thwarted by (1) the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) and (2) General Counsel educated at elite law schools. These risk-averse Establishment attorneys instead recommended that Christian colleges “hide” their beliefs to evade detection, to avoid “painting a target” on their back.
Yeshiva lost, in part, because the university failed to expressly define and consistently enforce their Sexual Ethics. Another Live Not By Lives lesson: Ignore risk-averse elite counsel who are addicted to mainstream prestige and desperate to remain in the commanding heights. They will rationalize and advise assimilation when “set apart” distinctiveness and faithful practice is the better course.

This is smart. I remember over a decade ago being told, in explicit terms, by an ADF lawyer that Christian schools had better be VERY explicit about their beliefs on sexual orientation and gender identity, and enforce those beliefs. A court is not competent to sort out theological views on sex and sexuality, but it will look to see if the institution has explicitly stated its views, and enforced them in practice.

So, for example, if Heritage Home Christian School (a made-up name) has not explicitly written down in its charter, and in the statement that it makes parents sign before enrolling their kids, that the school believes that marriage is between one man and one woman, exclusively, and that it believes homosexuality is sin, and so forth, it is leaving itself wide open to a lawsuit — and it’s likely to lose.

If Heritage Home Christian School puts all that in its documents, but doesn’t enforce it when challenged, it will lose. I know of a real-life case in which a Protestant Christian school headmaster and his board were struggling over how to handle a situation like that. They wanted to tolerate the daughter of an out lesbian couple who enrolled her there, because they wanted the child to be exposed to the Gospel, but they also worried that by doing so, they were setting themselves up for a lawsuit down the road.

In a different case, I talked with a Catholic lawyer who was critical of the then-bishop of his diocese dismissing out gay students and faculty from Catholic school. I told the lawyer that if the bishop didn’t do that, courts would eventually force the schools to violate Catholic teaching, because the bishop didn’t enforce it. This lawyer agrees with Catholic teaching, but thought it was better to err on the side of compassion. That is exactly the kind of thing that the woke left will use to destroy any opposition to SOGI.

UPDATE.2: Reader Nachum1 comments:

If I may contribute a few points, as a proud Yeshiva alum:

1. The change was made in 1970. There was a *huge* debate within the university over it. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the leading light of the institution, gave a famous speech (“I see ghosts”) condemning it, and most of the rabbinic instructors did as well. My father (also an alum, and an ordinee of Yeshiva’s seminary) remembers people warning that the Ivies also started as religious institutions and look what happened.

Various assurances were given, various aspects worked into the system, and things calmed down. (The date “1970” actually appeared on the seal of one of the schools for a while, but it was eventually removed, because it meant nothing.) I don’t think any of those protesters in 1970 had any tiniest inkling that this is what would happen. Their concerns were more about what would happen to the school- which, as it happened, changed not one bit- than what it would be *forced* to do. (Incidentally, the school, if anything, became far more *committed* religiously, for reasons that didn’t have to do with the change in status.)

2. You understate the extent to which YU (as it’s called) is a religious institution. No one takes one hour of religious studies a day. Most students take about six or seven, and spend the rest of the day earning a regular BA in their field of choice. I spent four years on campus and finished with 180 credits (a typical BA in other institutions is 128), of which about 90 were in Jewish studies- and I was in a program that was on the low end of that scale. I would estimate that for many students the total would be 100 or more out of 200. Evening Talmudic study is optional and yet the study halls are packed with students participating. Over ten percent of the male undergrads go on to be ordained. The school is completely non-co-ed- the men’s and women’s campuses are on opposite ends of Manhattan, about ten miles apart. (There was even a revolt of the rabbis when a proposal was made that the women’s campus be moved a few blocks away.) YU doesn’t have any religious test for admission, but the undergraduate student body is 100% Jewish and close to that percentage Orthodox. (This is mostly a practical result: Anyone who can get into YU, which is a pretty good school, can get into an equally good- and probably cheaper- school without all these requirements. See below.) Even the graduate schools- whose student bodies are a large majority non-Orthodox and non-Jewish- serve, by rule, only kosher food at all events and are completely closed on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. Etc. etc.

3. What really needs to be stressed here is the absolutely totalitarian character of all this. Take a look at the plaintiffs in the case. One guy is a completely straight “ally”, no longer in the school. (When I dared make some point against this, the guy actually went rummaging in the paper archives of the school newspaper and found a letter I wrote *thirty* years ago in an attempt to cancel me.) One is anonymous. And one is “queer”- which of course can mean anything, and nothing- and is also no longer in the school. And…that’s it. Any sensible court following long-standing Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence would have thrown this thing out immediately for lack of standing.

As you point out, Rod, there are thousands of institutions of higher learning in the US. These kids could have gone to *any* of them. They knew *exactly* what they were getting when they applied to YU. And if they didn’t, they were free to transfer somewhere else in the middle of their schooling. (The vast majority of even Modern Orthodox kids in the US don’t go to YU but to various state schools like CUNY or SUNY or Rutgers or Maryland.) And even if they didn’t…so they didn’t get funding (this is, of course, all about official recognition and funding: The kids can make whatever club they want, YU is a pretty free place) for a club representing their perversions. So what? Would that be their worst tragedy? The gayest parts of the United States are a short subway ride from YU’s campuses. And there are of course rules at YU about numbers of people needed per club, and I doubt they’d meet them. But no, the totalitarian impulse here means that every knee must bow, as Jews say in their prayers three times a day in a very different context.

Back when I was an undergrad, there was an attempt to open a branch of AEPi, the national Jewish fraternity, at YU. YU, by policy, has no Greek life, and so they opened it in an off-campus apartment. One of the rabbis gave a speech to the student body (something like half the undergrads chose to attend) decrying the very nature, not to mention the practical realities, of Greek life. (Because YU is some place, he- one of the more conservative of the rabbinical faculty- delivered part of the speech in Latin, a language he’d majored in when he himself had gone to YU.) I remember well a point he made: In the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, the reading from the Bible is the portion of Leviticus dealing with incest and other forbidden sexual relations. “Why?” he asked. “Wouldn’t you think that no one is actually thinking of forbidden sex at that moment and in that place? But no: Satan isn’t happy tempting us in any random place on any random day. He *has* to do it on the holiest moment in the Holy of Holies itself!” So too, he said, debaucheries can’t just take place in the other 5,999 universities in the US. They have to be imported into Yeshiva itself.

(His fears proved exactly right, by the way. There was a rape scandal, and the AEPi chapter was closed. A few years later, a chapter was opened again, and promptly suffered the same exact fate. The current iteration pretends none of that happened. The school has never recognized any of them.)

Jews are supposed to be a “light unto the nations.” I hope my alma mater fights this thing all the way to the top and, you never know, maybe starts a revolution against all the Woke horribleness.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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