Conversion Therapy

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Conversion therapy is not counseling for people who convert to Judaism. Rather, conversion therapy is an controversial program that is designed to help gay people become un-gay. It is most popular among religious groups who feel that being gay is prohibited by the Bible and they desperately want to rid themselves of their homosexuality.

The problem is that these techniques are shunned by all mainstream mental health groups.

Recently a lawsuit was filed against JONAH for engaging in these unregulated therapy sessions and causing more harm than good. The details are a bit sordid and not really necessary to understand what is happening. The suit alleges that JONAH is using controversial therapy methods to change people’s orientation and are causing serious pain to many of the people whom they are trying to help.

California courts are grappling with this as well. On one hand, a judge has ruled that the therapy should not be used and issued an injunction against its implementation. On the other hand, a federal judge ruled that therapy is mostly “speech” and the government cannot regulate “speech” without contravening the First Amendment. Meanwhile, activists believe that the therapy is effective and feel that it is unfairly maligned. We will see how this plays out over the next year or so.

As it relates to orthodox Jews, Conversion Therapy has become a passionate point of debate recently as well.

In Hakirah, Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky was quoted as a proponent of JONAH, basically endorsing the therapy that they do. This was met with a serious rebuttal in the subsequent (current) issue of Hakirah. The RCA endorsed JONAH for a while, but citing current scientific evidence, the RCA no longer endorses JONAH.

Then there is the lawsuit mentioned above. The suit is being brought to put a stop to JONAH’s practices. Meanwhile, JONAH is operating with rabbinic endorsements. Losing the suit could present a problem for rabbis wishing to endorse JONAH.

In the current issue of Dialogue* (I asterisk it because it is more like a monologue than a dialogue) Rabbi Ahron Feldman writes a passionate article about homosexuality and the frum community. In some places it is mildly progressive, in other places it is not and I believe it to be severely flawed. Perhaps I will formulate a respectful response to the entire article some day. For now, Rabbi Feldman endorses JONAH wholeheartedly.

This sets up a classic point of divergence between the charedi and modern orthodox community. The charedi community still supports JONAH and the working assumption is that the current whims of science are inconclusive or flat out wrong. Whereas the modern orthodox community takes the science that has emerged very seriously and changed their recommendation of conversion therapy based upon that scientific evidence.

I honestly think that it is as simple as that. As for me, unless there is a doctrine of faith that is contravened by science (and I know of none) I see no reason to reject science simply in favor of traditional thinking.

The question becomes, what would influence the charedi rabbis to change their stance? Anything? Is that right or wrong?

While frum men who are only attracted to men (and frum women to women) are left to wonder if they have a place in orthodox Judaism at all. And if they do, where and how. And while it may be interesting to talk about how to help orthodox men who don’t want to be attracted to men, the more important issue remains how important it is that we create safe places for all people to practice and observe their religion, even if they are gay and orthodox Jews.

Links: NY Times, MSNBCHakirah, Dialogue

  • a

    My gut tells me they feel there is no such thing as gay orthodox. Not that they dont exist rather that they are viewed as not orthodox if gay.

    • Matthew

      Or they’re on their way (being pushed) out.

    • Adam Kenigsberg

      There are plenty of men with _that_ desire in the Orthodox Jewish community.

      There is no violation of Torah or Rabbinic law to have a desire.

      In fact, the Talmud implies that there is a higher level of service to G-d to refrain from a sin when you really want to do it.

      It’s a gemara in Kedoshim, going on Leviticus 20:26

      Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya adds, one should not say, “I do not eat pig because I do not like pig meat.” Rather, one should say, I would like to eat pig meat, but Hashem has prohibited me from eating it and has commanded me to separate from the other nations to be His, and only His”

      So I, who do not have this desire to sleep with men, I get very little reward for refraining from violating this command.

      However – a Jewish man who _has_ such a desire, and he doesn’t violate it? WOW! He has the potential to be one of the greatest righteous Jews in our generation!

      The only question is, if a gay tzaddik should be open about his desire that he consistently overcomes.

      I think he should be open about it, as it’s a kiddush hashem.

      However, I see that most of my colleagues disagree.

  • Azi Grae

    The charedi community still supports JONAH…..Whereas the modern orthodox community [doesnt]…..”

    Basically, the more educated a person is the more they understand conversion therapy is a pseudo-therapy. The less educated a person is the more they rely on factless emotion and the more they are in favor of it.

    While frum people who are only attracted to men are left to wonder if they have a place in orthodox Judaism at all.

    There is no place for them. They should remain observant if they want to, but do it on their own, not within the context of a group which rejects their existence.

    • S.

      The problem with your suggestion is that Orthodox education places such an emphasis on the importance and correctness of being Orthodox or frum, not being Torah observant. So many people can’t make their peace with being observant but not Orthodox. If you were raised Orthodox, often it seems completely pointless. I know you said “if they want to,” but just thought I’d raise the point that Orthodoxy tends to discourage and discount any expression of Judaism which isn’t labeled Orthodox (or frum).

      • Azi Grae

        Someone can be observant in Shabbos, Kashrus, etc.. and still not attend Shul or BMG’s annual dinner.

        I think the more difficult part is leaving orthodoxy completely once the person realized they have no place in the community. You can keep kosher and shabbos, but then you are a non member of TWO communities, the Orthodox and the gay communities.

        • S.

          Of course they can. They may have a huge hurdle to jump over though, because much of Orthodoxy teaches that you have to be frum, not Torah observant. I suspect it is hard to get past that.

  • milhouse trabajo

    i know some gay orthodox people. i expect in a couple hundred years people who are clearly born gay will be accepted into “orthodoxy” and allowed to act accordingly as an exception to the express biblical prohibition. of course lots to argue both ways on trying to make an exception based on the biblical language, but eis laasos lashem, and i expect this will come out similar to how Boaz changed the law to allow people to marry Moaviot though that drasha made no sense and was also contradicted by halachic rulings with respect to other converting nations.

  • S.

    The funny thing is, what is traditional about JONAH? As far as I can tell, the idea of some kind of conversion therapy for homosexuality goes back only a few decades.

    • But it’s rooted in traditional thinking (ie Victorian) that gayness is a disorder. If you’re taking that to the bank, conversion makes sense.

      • S.

        First, that isn’t Victorian thinking. It is pre-sexual revolution thinking.

        But semantics aside, as recently as 30 years ago psychology was considered suspicious at best and downright prohibited at worse by many RW Orthodox rabbis. There are kol korehs from less than 30 years ago that assume this.

        Basically, this kind of stuff is not traditional. It’s just the typical 50-year time lag in RW Orthodoxy. Progressive for the ’50s, to begin to confront sexuality, instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.

  • G*3

    > While frum people who are only attracted to men are left to wonder if they have a place in
    orthodox Judaism at all.

    I know it’s not what you meant, but it’s interesting that frum people who are attracted to men either have no place (homosexuals) or a marginalized place (women) in OJ.

  • Dani

    You might want to change the phrase “frum people who are only attracted to men” to “frum men who are…” Otherwise, you are covering about 50% of the community.

    • Fair point. Fixing now. (Editing mistake)

  • The concept that “God Forbade homosexuality and therefore God could not have made a person gay and therefore homosexuality must be learned and can therefore be unlearned” is a hubris in the line with the rest of the chareidi world. We know what god means. We know how god made the world and people. Everything else is impossible you must be wrong.

    No, you don’t know. Nobody knows. They try their hardest to avoid archeology, avoid science on MB”P, avoid what science says about homosexuality.

  • B. Parnas

    So many of the conversations and so much time is spent in OJ circles and many other groups of all kinds around the issue of who belongs to the group and who does not. Not even right and wrong, though many will say the right belong and the wrong do not. On DovBear’s blog, DB listed 7 or 9 other instances in Torah Sh’biksav (written) that are described as abominations, like homosexuality. These other “abominable” behaviors do not carry the who belongs/who does not burden as much. Maybe OJs and the rest of humanity needs to place a different priority on the issue of who belongs/who does not.

    I am reminded that a person who is excommunicated in Torah tradition is still required to follow halacha. That is a crazy idea by our daily standards. If a person is excommunicated, who would expect the person to follow halacha – they must not be doing it now. (I have not learned these g’morrah’s. Maybe I am wrong about the understanding of what the expectations are for an excommunicated person.) It seems that this is a more lenient understanding of proper behavior than our current behaviors.

  • Important to emphasize that the JONAH lawsuit is about more than the relative merits of conversion therapy. I don’t think too many people are against offering therapies – even far-fetched ones – to individuals who are struggling and seek them out. But if half the allegations in the Complaint are true, this is abuse and fraud, not therapy. The plaintiffs are minors and were told lies and half-truths about these “techniques” (I’m struggling to find a better word). Now that the allegations are out in the open, I hope that even someone who embraces conversation therapy as a way to help people who want to remain within the frum community would see this for what it is.

  • YoungerLight

    1) Calling it Monologue is a cute and wonderful cliche but completely irrelevant. They actually published a 20+ page letter AGAINST mb\”p, arguing with a previous article. In the previous issue they also point out Tradition\’s refusal to publish their piece. A little consistency please.

    2) Rabbi Ahron Feldman promotes trying therapy for gay people, he never \”endorses\” the JONAH organization, which is never mentioned by name. It is important to note that the JONAH lawsuit is not for attempting conversion therapy, which is still legal in 49 states, but for not being licensed, doing weird things, etc., things specific to their organization.

    3) It is very obvious that most \”scientific research\” is a little shaky in this field. Science has proven very little, as most of the scientists doing the research are very biased. I imagine that you would not believe \”scientific\” results of an article published in Williamsburg or Boro Park, so you must be careful before believing every word that scientists who believe in gay rights say on the issue.

    To prove my point: Making trauma victims speak about their traumatic experience has been found to lead to suicides and is therefore illegal in the UK. Why hasn\’t California, a state clearly worried about the physical and emotional well-being of its citizens, outlawed that therapy? Can it be that science concerns them less than left-wing political agendas?

    4) Rav Ahron Feldman spends the last page discussing the role of gay men (and women) in the Orthodox Jewish community. If that\’s not enough, he elaborates upon it here:

  • ShlomoZ

    I just wrote a rather lengthy comment addressing the science of this issue. Then my computer gave me trouble and I had to reboot, and I doubt the comment got sent and now it’s lost forever. Rather than re-create it at this late hour, let me just offer a plea to you to look into the issue a lot deeper before you dismiss — mistakenly — therapeutic efforts to modify homosexual attractions. Please feel free to call or email me, and I can put you in touch with men and women who have been appreciably helped by therapy, with researchers in the field, with experienced therapists who work with this population (I include myself), and with other useful resources. In the interest of being fair and open-minded, and because the issue is so important, please take me up on my offer.
    Adam (Shlomo) Jessel
    szjessel at gee-mail.

  • White Smlie

    There Used to be Therapy for Children who Didn’t Believe in God, Being gay is Science telling you to find out Who wrote the Bible How When and Why,