Give Gays a Chance

(A slightly edited version of this article appears, under a different title, in the February 24 issue of the Forward)

The recent mini-drama of Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag’s suspension as chief rabbi of his native Amsterdam for signing a document about homosexuality, and his subsequent reinstatement, might well serve as a spur for considering the traditional Jewish attitude on the matter.

Whether homosexuality is fixed or changeable is an open question. There are well-informed people on either side of the issue. Whether the Jewish religious tradition is fixed or changeable, however, is not arguable – at least not for Torah-loyal Jews.

The Torah explicitly prohibits homosexual contact (whether by the homosexually inclined or anyone else). There have been Herculean (and often Bullwinklian) efforts in recent years, even by some nominally “Orthodox” Jews, to cast the Torah’s explicit prohibition of male homosexual activity as meaning something other than what Jewish tradition has understood it to mean for several thousand years. But those millennia in the end are what matter to Jews concerned about what the Torah says to them rather than what they would like the Torah to say.

The Torah does not command hatred of homosexuals or label people who engage in homosexual activity as inherently evil. People who transgress the Torah do not forfeit their humanity or, if Jewish, their membership in the Jewish people; nor are they unworthy of others’ care and compassion. And those inclined to sin but who do not succumb to it are praiseworthy.

But there can be no denying that the Torah in no uncertain terms forbids homosexual acts; and, with equal clarity, sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony.

Modern day society’s embrace of homosexual expression is neither the first nor the only clash between contemporary values and traditional Jewish religious ones. And the Jewish reaction to such Zeitgeists has always been to remember that we are the proud descendants of our forefather Abraham Ha’Ivri – the “other sider” – called that because “the entire world was on one side” of a conceptual river, and he “on the other.”

The document signed by Rabbi Ralbag – along with scores of other rabbis and health professionals – counsels “love and compassion” toward those with homosexual inclinations, but also states clearly that the Torah forbids homosexual activity. It moreover asserts that homosexual inclinations can be “modified and healed,” which judgment was apparently what brought the lay board of the Amsterdam Jewish community to initially suspend Rabbi Ralbag.

Mainstream medical professionals deem psychological counseling aimed at helping people modify their sexual orientations at best pointless (why change?) and at worst counterproductive. There have even been reports of abusive behavior in the guise of such therapy.

But other mental health care professionals insist that, conducted responsibly, such interventions are not only safe but (at least for the highly motivated) effective. And then there are the inconvenient scores of actual human beings who testify that the therapy has helped them realize their goal to live exclusively heterosexual lives. I have met one such individual, an intelligent, sensitive and even-keeled man, and corresponded with therapists who have helped dozens of patients control homosexual inclinations – and as a result live happy, fulfilled, Torah-faithful lives.

Procreation in its traditional form, moreover, is not only a mitzvah, a commandment, but a Jewish high ideal. Understandably, a Torah-observant Jew challenged by same-sex attraction, even if he successfully is overcoming the urge to give vent to his desires, feels torn between what his interior emotional landscape is telling him and what his Torah is. And so it is only logical that he seek ways of alleviating that tension. If there is a possibility of therapy that will enable him to fully lead a Torah-true lifestyle, then such therapy is precisely what he should pursue.

Unfortunately, though, instead of receiving support and encouragement from the broader Jewish community, such Jews all too often face a barrage of cultural critics and media badgering them to give up on their goal of working to mitigate their homosexual orientation.

Those critics and media begin with the premise that any human urge is inherently legitimate (it’s human, after all!), and that there is no reason for anyone to seek to change a sexual orientation. But the premise of someone dedicated to Torah is that G-d’s will matters most and has been communicated to mankind.

A Torah-loyal Jew with homosexual inclinations could opt to live a celibate life. Were that the only option, he would be a truly righteous Jew to do so. But if there are in fact avenues to explore that might lead to the fulfillment (both emotional fulfillment and fulfillment of the mitzvot) of marriage and normal procreation, doing the exploring is a worthy choice, if not a moral mandate.

We traditionally observant Jews wish all Jews shared our understanding of the Jewish mission: to seek to observe the Torah’s mandate, as it has been preserved by the traditional Jewish transmitters over the ages. But if some, even most, of our fellow Jews cannot yet embrace the fullness of our mutual Jewish heritage, we hope that they can at least muster respect for other Jews’ choice to do so. And the good will to realize that those Jews’ attitude toward all matters of human life, including homosexuality, derives not from prejudice or pathology but from the deeply Jewish conviction that the Torah bequeathed us all at Sinai is eternal and real.

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15 Responses

  1. Avi Shafran says:

    Although it has long been my policy to disallow public comments on my postings (while always welcoming private ones to me at the address at the bottom of each offering), I have decided to make an exception here, as I did with regard to an earlier article.

    To ensure that comments do not cross the line into halachically or hashkafically questionable territory, I will personally (and hopefully promptly) vet submissions. To save time and energy (commenters and mine!), I share here the criteria for acceptable comments:

    Taking issue with any or all of the posting is perfectly fine, but comments must deal with the subject of the posting, and not use it as a springboard to comment on unrelated issues.

    Comments must be devoid of mean-spiritedness, ad hominem attacks and criticism of talmidei chachomim.

    They must contain no lashon hora or hotzo’as sheim ra about anyone.

    And they must be cogent and clear.

    If a comment, even in part, doesn’t meet the above criteria, it will not be posted. Comments will not be edited to meet the criteria.

    I thank readers for their understanding, and I look forward to reading any comments that might arrive – and, especially, for insights into other points of view they may provide.


  2. DF says:

    This is a good article, and I especially commend Rabbi Shafran for doggedly speaking of “those with homosexual inclinations”, rather than “homosexuals.” The former might be clunkier, but it is the correct term. The difference between these two terms is vital and absolutely fundamental. Kudos, also, to Rabbi Shafran, for reminding his readers – albeit very lightly – that there is by no means consenus on the notion that homosexual inclincation cannot be cured, not by a long shot. Those of us who belong to professional organizations such as the ABA, AMA, or, what is relevant here, the American Physchiatric Association (who in 1973 removed homosexuality from its listing as a disorder) are all too familiar with the politics that dominate them. The chilling effect of agenda censorship is very real, as the rabbi discussed in the article experienced, and so this point must be made over and over again. Good for Rabbi Shafran for plugging away.

    [I thought the headline was too cute by half, though. The idea is that we should allow people the chance to explore remedies that might change their inclinations, rather than informing them that their feelings are permanently frozen. But it’s a headline that can easily be misinterpreted.]

  3. Orit says:

    Where do you stand on the issue of publicly announcing one’s inclinations? Are these people wrong for announcing their orientation, just as someone announcing their desire for incest would be?

  4. Shanks says:

    I think this is an issue where the mesorah’s clear. When I was frum, I heard a lot about how different “Torah values” were from “secular values.” I think that in the case of “homosexual contact,” as the rabbi put it, there is nothing more true. The values of a secular pragmatist or consequentialist (like myself) are clearly going to be different from the authority-based ethos of the mesorah.

    I take issue with one only aspect of the statement signed by the rabbis, and I think it’s a rather important one, but I see that again the comment policy precludes “criticism of talmidei chachomim.” Ergo, since I don’t want this comment censored, I’ll leave it at that.

  5. Mr. Cohen says:

    Shevet Mussar chapter 4 paragraphs 11 and 12 gives
    tactics for combating the temptation to commit homosexuality.

    Shevet Mussar was written around year 1722 of the Common Era
    by Rabbi Eliyahu ben Avraham Shlomoh HaKohen Itamari of Izmir (Turkey),
    who was born in 1650 CE and died in 1729 CE.

  6. Dovid says:

    Good piece, and I pretty much agree with everything. I would just humbly add two comments about reperative therapy:

    1) The issues of whether it works, how it should be done, and so on require a lot more study and research. I sincerely hope that experts in the relevant fields will be courageous enough to seriously study the issue through an objective scientific lens, and not be scared off by the strong societal push to glorify homosexuality which stigmatizes the idea of reparative therapy.

    2) Before we go ahead and encourage therapy, we should perhaps take a moment and try to imagine ourselves in that situation. What if someone offered us the opportunity to change our sexual attraction so that we will be attracted to members of the same gender, instead of the opposite gender? Let’s be honest with ourselves – the idea of a homosexual union for us heterosexuals is repulsive, not just ideologically off-limits, and even leaving religion aside the thought would sicken us. Isn’t this how it is for those with SSA, in the opposite direction? It’s an unsettling thought, to be sure, but even assuming therapy can be effective, there is an enormous hurdle that needs to be overcome just to get the idea of changing orientation into the person’s head. Is it realistic to expect that to happening on a large scale? I don’t have an answer, but I think the question needs to be asked.

  7. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I am thankful that I don’t have this particular temptation do deal with. I do have, as most people do, a regular, heterosexual yetzer. I have never, thank G-d, been unfaithful to my wife, but we all have our daily struggles. I only want to ask people, why is it that people with my normal forbidden desires for the opposite sex are understood and respected for controlling it, whereas those who have desires for the same sex are stigmatized? The result is that social attitudes drive such people either underground or off the derech.

  8. gavi says:

    While I greatly enjoyed this article, I have two questions on it.
    1. You seem to be stating that if there is even the slightest chance of success, than we should encourage reorientation therapy. Yet only a few paragraphs earlier you note that there have been numerous allegations of such therapies turning out to be abusive. Is it not possible that, sometimes, the risk of having an abusive therapist outweighs the relatively small possibility of being cured? At the very least, wouldn’t it have been wise for the Torah Declaration to employ language similar to the RCA statement encouraging those who resort to therapy to only make use of duly licensed therapists?
    2. Near the end of the article you state that were celibacy the only option than a gay would be expected to remain celibate, yet since there is a possibility of their being other options, they should not be ruled out prematurely. That does not strike me as being what the Torah Declaration which Rabbi Ralbag was criticized for said. It seemed from the FAQ section to be saying something stronger: that it is theologically unfathomable that celibacy should turn out to be the only option, and that, from a theological perspective, reorientation therapy must work, as HKB”H would not create a person with a urge which cannot be satisfied. Am I misreading the Torah Declaration, your article, or both?

  9. James says:

    I belong to a professional organization and am keenly aware of the “agenda” behind some of their actions and statements. The problem with the proclamation signed by Rabbi Ralbag was that it, too, had an agenda. What was the point of mentioning the possibility of change? Why get involved in that debate if not to promote an agenda? Almost all of the professionals who advocate for the possibility of change will admit that change is not possible for everyone. What are we to say to those in that category?

    No one objects to stating the Torah’s position on homosexual behavior but getting involved in an intra-APA debate has nothing to do with Torah. I think the RCA statement on homosexuality was far better and free of any agenda.

  10. Allan Katz says:

    Having heard homosexuals speak , their inclinations is not only limited to a physical contact , but includes the need to love and be loved on an emotional level – the same dynamic as a man and a woman. This makes their situations even more tragic. To relate to the issue as purely physical inclination and attraction is in correct and simplistic

  11. Yehuda says:

    In response to Gavi,

    1 – Allegations of abuse (which are highly suspect, coming from committed gay activist who have an agenda to destroy the very notion of reparative therapy) is specific to an individual, not to a profession. There may be abusive teachers, rabbis, life coaches, therapists or doctors. That does not mean we should stop utilizing those professions because of a few bad apples.

    2 – There is no contradiction between the notion that all people are inherently capable of healing and yet for those who have not yet healed, they have an obligation to remain celibate. Think of a drug addict. It is inherently a possibility for people to kick their addictions, yet for those who have not yet kicked their addiction its still illegal for them to buy/use drugs.

    In response to James,

    The point of mentioning the possibility of change is to give Torah observant individuals clear guidance that they can live a kosher, fulfilling life in accordance with the Torah. Isn’t that one of the main responsibilities of a Rabbi?

  12. James says:

    The RCA statement also mentioned change but didnt make it so central to their position and didnt seem to “bet the house” on its efficacy. The problem with the statement that Ralbag signed is that it seemed to suggest that change had to be possible and any disagreement with that position was due to an anti-Torah amoral bias in the secular world. No one believes that change is possible for everyone. There are varying levels of same sex attraction and for those on one end of the spectrum, change is NOT possible.

  13. Robert Lebovits says:

    In response to Allan Katz:
    The need to love and be loved is a universal human phenomenon and can be experienced in many different contexts. Men can and do have intimate love relationships of a non-erotic nature all the time. Perhaps the love between Dovid Hamelech and Yonason is the exemplar of that type of connection. However, Chazal tells us that the bond between a husband and wife – on all levels of experience – is irreproducible and can only be extant between a man and a woman, and only then when they fulfill the duties and exertions required to build a genuine bais ne’emon. It is truly tragic when an individual is missing that connection in his/her life. Sadly, there are many in our community for whom it is absent for any number of reasons. To suggest that it is somehow intrinsically more tragic for individuals with same sex attraction than for anyone else is incorrect and misguided.

  14. Avi Shafran says:

    My thanks to all for your comments.

    To answer Orit, I don’t think publicly announcing one’s inclinations toward any sin is either proper or advisable. And if it is to express pride in it, it’s objectionable.

    I’d like to note that at no point in my essay did I endorse “reparative therapy” or any particular mode of therapy. I simply noted that people should not be discouraged from seeking counseling in the hope that (as many, having undergone various therapies have claimed) they may be able to better meet the challenges facing them.

    That might mean effective banishing of same-sex attraction and new attraction to the opposite sex, or just assistance in controlling their actions — or anything in-between. It is the larger society’s mocking of such efforts as futile and wrong that I wished to counter with another point of view.

    As to the theological claim of the “Torah Declaration” that Hashem does not give us desires that we cannot change, I must confess that I don’t find it convincing. I did not promote or endorse that assertion in my piece.

    That said, there are people who claim to have essentially changed their sexual orientations. Whether or not that is possible for all who have same-sex attractions is an open question. I am an agnostic on it. But a proponent of caring about those with SSA, and of offering them whatever avenues may make their lives easier.

  15. meir says:

    R’ Shafran, thanks for this post with a reasonable approach that removes the chaff from the valid point brought up (indirectly) by the Declaration. I especially liked your refreshingly honest comments on 2-29-12 4:19 pm.

    That said, I strongly agree with James’s comments and wonder why this and similar absolute pronouncements need to be made public and posted on a website. Although recently a man masquerading as an orthodox rabbi publicly officiated a gay wedding, i don’t think that necessitated a public response like this, because your average person (Jew or Non-Jew) still assumes that orthodox jews are virulently (and maybe hatefully) anti-gay, and such a stunt is just a stunt.

    As it is wrong to publicize one’s sins, it is also not wise to publicly assert positions that can (a) depress people already in a tough predicament (don’t oppress the orphan/widow) and (b) put the K’lal in danger from the gay lobby and cause, which is only getting stronger (we are in galus). I (and most people like me, judging by facebook response) are all for teaching our kids the Torah’s rules, and Rabbi’s speaking peaceably from the podium, but publishing a pronouncement, and one with certain specious (“The key point to remember is that these individuals are primarily innocent victims of childhood emotional wounds”) and unconvincing claims at that (as you implied, the claim that we understand G-d’s ways is not simple), doesn’t seem to be the type of thing the Jewish Rabbinate should spend much time on. If my Rabbi signed onto something like this, I’d want to know why he needed to do that, as it now places a sticker on me (as a constituent of his Syn-agogue) that i don’t really understand or agree with.

    I don’t mean to breach your commenting rules (re mean-spiritedness etc., or cogency for that matter), and of course i am mochel if you don’t post this under such rules. But my takeaway after reading the whole website (although this was after already hearing negative commentaries from “SSA” persons who I am sympathetic too) was that this website wasn’t intended (and funded) to push for open-mindedness as to the reparative therapy approach, but to make such approach the only option, and possibly give a boost to the parnassah (livelihood) of certain medical professionals who provide the controversial treatments referred to therein. To the extent the treatments aren’t dangerous at all, that’s fine, but there are accounts of real suffering that should be taken into consideration (and of course weighed with what the alternatives are).

    Finally, i wish there was an individual that was actually cured by this therapy and chose to go public (you mentioned that you know someone). Without clear examples, the Declaration-writers should have understood the skepticism of the masses, who deal with gay people all the time, and can’t see the possibility of change.

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