When Political Correctness Trumps Religion

Despite the encouragement of the Jerusalem Post’s editorialists, and despite several signatures from friends and colleagues in Jewish outreach, I believe that last week’s “Statement of Principles” regarding those “in our community who have a homosexual orientation” was a grave mistake.

The statement isn’t entirely objectionable; mostly it is neither new nor newsworthy. Over a decade ago, the Dean of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, Rabbi Aharon Feldman shlit”a — of the Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel of America, those whom the Post would categorize as the reactionaries and extremists — published an open letter in which he provided support and encouragement to a newly-Orthodox Jew challenged by homosexual desires. Rather than calling upon others to treat those with homosexual attractions with respect, Rabbi Feldman provided a paradigm of compassion, warmth and understanding from which we all can and should learn.

To borrow a turn of phrase from another context, the Statement is thus both original and good; the problem is that the good parts are not original, and the original parts are not good. Without attempting to create an exhaustive list, I will focus upon merely three major problems with this Statement.

The first is timing; the Post underscored that “publication of the document coincided with Jerusalem’s annual Gay Pride Parade.” Even more, this year’s parade was itself timed to coincide with the first anniversary of the shooting at a gay community youth center in Tel Aviv. The Statement thus comes across as both Rabbinic approbation for public celebration of homosexuality, and an apologetic response to the murders. Both could hardly be more wrong.

Although homosexual activists rushed to accuse haredim of murder and/or incitement to murder in the wake of the shooting, they did so without a shred of evidence. A private youth center (rather than a public venue for adults, such as a gay bar) is a most unlikely target for a hate crime, and the shooting was obviously conducted by someone familiar with the location, able to enter, shoot, and escape. As for incitement, anti-gay violence is less common in Israel than in the USA and most European countries. There remains no reason to believe that the shooter’s motivation was bias rather than personal animus, and in the absence of that evidence, no reason for a group of Orthodox Rabbis to pander to an anti-Orthodox hate-fest.

Second, the statement glosses over the very real difference between having homosexual desires and celebrating them publicly. It condemns “both the ‘outing’ of individuals who want to remain private and to coercing those who desire to be open about their orientation to keep it hidden.” Given that the only “coercion” possible in the latter case (besides violence) is public disapproval, the Statement thus opposes any condemnation of public expression of homosexuality — and as above, the timing seems to endorse that public expression.

To take a very different example, we accept that most Jews today do not observe the traditional Sabbath. Despite violating this most crucial Commandment, these Jews, in general, “participate and count ritually, [are] eligible for ritual synagogue honors, and generally [are] treated in the same fashion and under the same halakhic and hashkafic framework as any other member of the synagogue they join,” borrowing the language of the Statement.

This is true despite opposition to public Sabbath desecration. While Sabbath protests seem to elicit participation of the least well-behaved members of certain Orthodox subgroups, everyone faithful to Torah objects to public transportation and venues operating normally on the Sabbath. Why should the public expression of homosexuality be granted special status, more than public transgression of any other law?

Finally, the Statement appears to kowtow to politically-correct thought in a still more fundamental — and painful — way. It declares that “while some mental health professionals and rabbis in the community strongly believe in the efficacy of ‘change therapies’, most of the mental health community, many rabbis, and most people with a homosexual orientation feel that some of these therapies are either ineffective or potentially damaging,” and endorses the “religious right” to “reject” what they see as “useless or dangerous.”

When the American Psychological Association announced just last year that its members “should avoid telling clients that they can change their sexual orientation,” it had no new research upon which to base that declaration. Instead, it cited “insufficient evidence that sexual orientation change efforts work,” although most of the data is over a decade old. The APA neither commissioned new studies nor suggested that the issue be examined — instead, it engaged in collective PC-think.

I recognize that there are those who swear by the effectiveness of “change therapies,” and those who say that, at least at present, they don’t seem to work. But psychology is primarily about helping people to change that which they wish to change. If a person thinks (or acknowledges) that he has a problem, psychology is supposed to help him work through it. Where else do we find psychologists throwing their hands in the air and giving up?

The Rabbis’ Statement acknowledges that “Halakhic Judaism views all male and female same-sex sexual interactions as prohibited.” What it does not acknowledge is that the APA explicitly recommended that those with homosexual desires “explore possible life paths that address the reality of their sexual orientation.” The APA recommended a change in life path (read: religion) because, in contrast to religious faith, sexual orientation is an unchangeable fact. This is also the belief of “most of the mental health community” and of “most people with a homosexual orientation.”

Thus the Statement is rife with sweet-sounding platitudes, but tells those who are both convinced of the truth of Torah and have homosexual inclinations that they should give up on having an intimate relationship. Of course it is possible that one will not change, but for one committed to Torah the cost-benefit analysis leans in favor of making the attempt.

A recent Post headline, written in an entirely different context, nonetheless fits perfectly: “Pandering is no substitute for leadership.” The signatories on the Statement would do well to consider that line.

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12 Responses

  1. Lisa says:

    You know, I hear this a lot. “They didn’t need to publish that letter, because everyone already knows that you can’t mistreat people who are gay.” But that’s nonsense. As is the hiding behind terms like “celebrating”. So. My partner and I have a beautiful 10 year old daughter. She calls my partner Ima and she calls me Mommy. So is acknowledging her when she comes up to me in shul “celebrating” something other than parenthood? What you’re really asking for is not that we refrain from “flaunting” things; it’s that we keep things a fearful secret, and never even talk about our lives, lest someone figure out that we’re gay.

    If you say, “My wife told me thus and such last night,” how is that different from me saying, “My partner told me thus and such last night”? If you put a photo of your wife and kids on your desk at work, how is that “celebrating” any more than me putting a photo of my partner and daughter on my desk at work?

    It would be a lot more honest to admit that what you want is frightened silence. And for gays and lesbians to marry members of the opposite sex (and thereby harm those spouses) and stew inside.

    And then using a shooting as a bludgeon with which to hit us? I’m actually very much opposed to having any Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, and have been since the first time they did it. As are many, if not most, of the Orthodox Jews I know who happen to be gay. So you using the secular gay community as a criticism isn’t all that different than someone assuming that you’re mechallel Shabbat because you happen to live in the US.

    Children are rejected by Orthodox day schools — denied a Torah education — because they happen to have two parents of the same sex. Is that acceptable collateral damage for you?

  2. Miriam says:

    What it does not acknowledge is that the APA explicitly recommended that those with homosexual desires “explore possible life paths that address the reality of their sexual orientation.”

    I would say better to have quit while you’re ahead. The point about homosexuality not being a “public” issue is a good one. To then publicly advocate guidelines for advising them just doesn’t fit. And even if you’d suggest this APA recommendation be directed not to the general public but to Rabbis, most clergy aren’t equipped to do that kind of counseling.

  3. Greg says:

    As regards your comparison of homosexuality to the desecration of the Sabbath, you are conflating openly declaring that one is gay with engaging in halachicly-prohibited homosexual behavior. The statement is saying that those who are gay (saying nothing about their behavior, only their orientation) and choose to publicly identify as such should not be coerced. You are making a claim that this is equivalent to publicly encouraging Sabbath desecration, but it’s not the same thing. The statement is speaking about being gay, not engaging in prohibited acts.

    You are also exaggerating what the statement characterizes as public expression of homosexuality. I don’t think this means public displays of affection in shul. You can check with the people who wrote the statement, but I’m pretty sure all this means is coming out as being gay, not license to act in a socially inappropriate manner (which shouldn’t be condoned irrespective of sexual orientation). The point of the statement in my understanding is that an Orthodox Jew who feels that they are gay should not feel coerced by the community into keeping silent about it for fear of suffering some stigmatization. Again, you are conflating being gay with engaging in halachicly prohibited acts.

  4. Baruch Pelta says:

    Re R’ Menken’s claim about therapeutic treatment:
    In the open letter, R’ Feldman made clear it is an obligation for a homosexual to go to reparative therapy, so I think it is important to know his support for that idea. In the same issue of the Jerusalem Letter where R’ Feldman’s open letter to the homosexual appeared, there was also another article in the same issue. Both were reprinted, the latter with a modification, in R’ Feldman’s new book, The Eye of the Storm. R’ Feldman claims a study of Robert Spitzer supports his idea that “the fact that one’s sexual orientation can indeed be changed provided that there is a motivation to do so,” when Robert Spitzer actually thinks the possibility for such change is “rare” and that “it would be a mistake to interpret the study as implying that any highly motivated homosexual could change if they were really motivated to do so.” R’ Feldman claims “it is a fact that there is no member of the animal kingdom that is naturally attracted to the same sex,” but that isn’t true by a long shot. R’ Feldman also claims that NARTH has successfully treated thousands of cases, but that information is unverified (as the APA Task Force report makes clear).

    The American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the National Association of Social Workers, Australian Psychological Society, Royal College of Psychiatrists, Surgeon General, American Medical Association, American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the American Counseling Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the American Academy of Physician Assistants have all made cautionary statements regarding this sort of treatment largely because while there isn’t much proof of efficacy, early studies raised concerns that this treatment can be harmful and lead to some problems like, say, “suicidality”.

  5. Yaakov Menken says:

    Yes, we want silence. Nothing more. In what way is Lisa’s situation different from an intermarried couple? Shouldn’t they also be able to have a family membership?

  6. Yaakov Menken says:

    Baruch writes that Rav Feldman said “it is an obligation for a homosexual to go to reparative therapy.” In fact, Rav Feldman says the precise opposite: “It is not necessary that he change his sexual orientation (if this is at all possible).” The full quote, in context, reads as follows:

    Accordingly, a Jewish homosexual has to make a commitment to embark on a course where he will ultimately rid himself of homosexual activity. It is not necessary that he change his sexual orientation (if this is at all possible), but that he cease this activity. It is obvious that for many people this will be difficult, and will have to be accomplished over a period of time. But it must be done and it can be done.

    I do not possess Rabbi Feldman’s book, but in the quotation above Rav Feldman makes it clear that he completely agrees that even a “highly-motivated homosexual” may not be able to change (“if this is at all possible”). Spitzer’s research entirely supports the idea that orientation can be changed, contrary to those who argue it cannot happen at all. It may be rare, and even highly motivated individuals may be unable to do so, but it is untrue that it cannot happen.

    Baruch’s quotation regarding animals is off as well. In the same issue of the Jerusalem Letter in which Rav Feldman stated, in his introduction, that “the fact that there is no member of the animal kingdom naturally attracted to the same sex would seem to indicate that homosexuality is not genetic,” Rav Feldman also published a detailed analysis of homosexual promiscuity by Nathan Lehrman, a psychiatrist, in which Lehrman asserts the following:

    The highly-publicized, biologic, responsibility-denying explanation of homosexuality, all of which have also been discredited — with much less, if any publicity — contradict all that we know about comparative animal behavior. As we mount the evolutionary scale, the control of sexual and other behavior shifts from the biological and hormonal to regulation through experience as recorded and shaped by the central nervous system. In lower species, where sexual behavior is driven by the mutual attraction of male and seasonally receptive female, homosexual activity is essentially unknown. Only when we reach the level of the monkey do we find that homosexual copulation can sometimes continue to occur even when heterosexual partners are available — but only among animals with previous pre-pubertal homosexual experiences.

    Taken in context, it is obvious that Rav Feldman did not deny the reality of animal homosexual activity, but follows the research which indicates that this is triggered rather than being the animal’s natural attraction. So Baruch’s selective quotations don’t seem to present a true picture, and I suggest that people read Rav Feldman’s letter itself — online, I was only able to find it via an archive, so it may take a few tries to load.

    A study in the American Journal of Public Health reports that homosexuals are six times as likely to attempt suicide. It should be obvious that the subset of that population which feels ongoing guilt and mental anguish is at significantly greater risk than those entirely comfortable with their “lifestyle,” but none of the APAs, AASW, AMA, APS, RCP, etc. etc. etc. have studied the subset that is feeling mental anguish yet does not seek professional help to change their orientation. Rather, they say, and say quite clearly, that these people would be better off if they’ll “simply” change their religion (“explore possible life paths”) and become comfortable with “who they are.”

    Miriam misunderstood me. I’m not suggesting the APA recommendation be followed, of course. I am saying that the signatories chose to accept the APA’s assertion that therapy is useless or worse, while ignoring the APA’s recommendation that people with homosexual desires should instead stop believing that our Torah is true.

    A person who believes that the Torah is true will never be entirely comfortable with his or her homosexual attractions. To recommend that they give up before trying therapy remains sheer folly.

  7. Baruch Pelta says:

    I was the one who directed Rabbi Menken to said archive site. Admittedly, for some reason, I’ve had trouble accessing it for the past several days and wrote based on the information I thought I remembered about it, all of which I now realize was incorrect. I apologize profusely. Here are the salient facts I must admit: 1) The article I’m referring to was not published in the same issue as the letter to a gay homosexual, but a later one. 2) Rabbi Feldman changed his letter to a homosexual baal teshuva for Eye of the Storm, perhaps just to avoid misunderstandings from people who might think what R’ Menken did.

    Here’s the change R’ Feldman made in the quote R’ Menken refers to as it appears in Eye of the Storm:
    Accordingly, a Jewish homosexual has to commit himself to a course which will ultimately rid him of homosexual activity. He must do whatever is in his power to change his sexual orientation by seeking the proper therapy.[/b] If, however, therapy does not work for him, he should not think of himself as a deficient Jew.

    But that’s okay, because that’s not the quote I was referring to. If it was, why did I quote Spitzer? I was referring to this quote:
    Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, in a landmark paper delivered at the American Psychiatric Association’s convention (see Archives of Sexual Behavior, 2003) provided evidence that it is possible to change one’s sexual orientation and that those who did reported that they had a greater degree of happiness and well-being. There is an organization, NARTH (with a website of this name), headed by an eminent psychologist, which is devoted to this effort and has helped thousands of individuals convert.
    The gay community vehemently objects to any attempt to convert, making scientifically [sic] unbased claims that homosexuality is innate and cannot be changed. They have even been successful in passing legislation prohibiting professionals from encouraging their patients to convert. But this cannot change the fact that one’s sexual orientation can indeed be changed, provided that there is a motivation to do so.

    I have apologized for my mistakes. I would appreciate it if R’ Menken retracts his egregious charge that I selectively quoted R’ Feldman out of context.

    I’ll address the animal claim later.

  8. Yaakov Menken says:

    In his initial comments, Baruch presented Rav Feldman as an uninformed Neanderthal (chalila), requiring change therapy on shoddy grounds and pretending that homosexual activity in the animal kingdom does not exist.

    Now, with the correct quotations in hand and quoted in full context, we know that what Rav Feldman actually said, both in the original letter and as published in his book, was both entirely reasonable and in full accordance with Dr. Spitzer’s research. Dr. Spitzer’s study was intended to disprove the “Position statements of the major mental health organizations in the United States [which] state that there is no scientific evidence that a homosexual sexual orientation can be changed by psychotherapy.” As Rav Feldman accurately stated, Dr. Spitzer concluded that on the contrary, it is possible. Not guaranteed, but possible. In context, Rav Feldman clearly intended to say that since orientation “can indeed be changed” in some cases, a person “must do whatever is in his power.” As Baruch notes in his more recent comment, Rav Feldman only stated it as a requirement in the wake of Dr. Spitzer’s successful research, and nonetheless remains consistent with his original position that actual change “is not necessary” in order to live a fulfilled observant Jewish life.

    So while I appreciate Baruch’s apology for his misquotations, the fact remains that Rav Feldman was quoted out of context. Accurate quotations, in context, present an entirely different picture.

  9. Lisa says:

    Handbook of Psychotherapy & Jewish Ethics. Moshe Halevi Spero. Published by Feldheim, 1986. pp. 165ff

    From the halakhic standpoint, however, there is a sense in which having labeled homosexuality as sinful, perverse, and to’evah it could then be subjected to compulsory interventative measures. That is, the Jewish community or individual mental health professional qua agend of beth din may be required to invoke the halakhic concept of Kofin otho, of “compelling” one (or one’s reasonable ego) to remain obedient to Jewish law. While generally invoked in specific applications, such as compelling the granting of a divorce or fulfillment of voes, the “Kofin model” can in fact be applied to any mitzvah. On the one hand, R’ Matt, Bleich and Lamm have correctly noted that since Jewish courts can no longer enforce the capital punishment for homosexuality they may not need to involve themselves with active persecution of homosexuals. However, further analysis is needed regarding the teaching role of Jewish leadership.

    “It may not be necessary to persecute us.” Wow.

    As far as a family shul membership goes, we have never tried to do that. Not ever. We were each refused membership as individuals. We were not demonstrative in any way. But you don’t really need to be in order to be deemed by some segments of the frum community as outlaws.

    And you chose not to answer the question “If you say, ‘My wife told me thus and such last night,’ how is that different from me saying, ‘My partner told me thus and such last night’? If you put a photo of your wife and kids on your desk at work, how is that ‘celebrating’ any more than me putting a photo of my partner and daughter on my desk at work?” There is nothing “sexual” about living together. Just because some people can’t pull their minds out of the gutter doesn’t mean that halakhas of shmirat halashon should be thrown away.

  10. Charlie Hall says:

    There is no “change therapy” that has been shown to be efficacious in changing sexual orientation. Dr. Spitzer’s cautious optimism is based on a small observational study of a biased sample and has not been backed up by the type of rigorous randomized intervention studies that could potentially prove efficacy. I am unaware of any such studies that are currently in progress; I found none at the official clinical trials registry.

  11. Simcha Younger says:

    Lisa – I am not sure what your argument is, except to say that political correctness should trump religion.
    You have not presented any reason why your lifestyle should be considered compatible with our religion, or why as a religious society you expect people to disregard your openly unreligious lifestyle.

    It would have been most informative if you could tell us how you reconcile your lifestyle and religion. Your approach to this could definitely contribute here.

    But in the absence of such reconciliation, we are left unsure of your religious perpective. Your response very much sounds like you do not see any need to fit your lifestyle into your religious beliefs, but instead you simply disregard the conflict, and expect that others do the same to accomodate you.

    The answer to your question is obvious in the context of our religious society — your relationship to your partner violates the religions views on appropiate interpersonal realtionships, which is a central part of our society. This area cannot be freely disregarded.
    Now perhaps you meant your question somewhat differently, and you meant to ask why the religion sees your lifestyle as wrong. This question is legitimate, but even if left unanswered it cannot override religious practice, and definitely cannot be a basis to demand of the community to ignore the relevant religious imperatives.

    Again, this is a question which you can answer best, by telling us how you understand Judaism’s lifestyle expectation in the context of your own life.

    p.s. The last sentence of your second response was ‘bearing false witness against yourself’ — disrespecting others while demanding respect from them while disrespecting the religion is not very compelling.

  12. ben aharon says:

    Greg declares that there is a very clear distinction between “being gay” and “engaging in halachically-prohibited behavior”. I would greatly appreciate an elucidation of what it precisely means to “be gay” in the absence of ANY homsexual behavior. Let’s remeber that according to a number of poskim engaging in the fantasy of proscribed sexual behavior may be equally inappropriate as the behavior itself, certainly if it may lead one to pursue such behavior. Is being gay simply the absence of an attraction to members of the opposite sex? What else is involved that defines this sexual orientation? From my limited experience I have yet to meet a gay individual who has not had thoughts and sexual yearnings for physical intimacy with someone of the same sex. In fact, many mental health professionals use this as a defining criterion. Accordingly, how is a gay person not engaged in gay behavior?

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