Reparative Therapy is Quackery, Rabbis Agree—But that Doesn’t Mean it’s Okay to Be Gay

Three things happened in the gay Jewish Orthodox world this past week: one was reported on CBS and CNN, and the other two passed relatively unnoticed. But to really understand the former, you need to know about the latter two.

The big development was the lawsuit filed by four former clients of JONAH (“Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing”), the leading Jewish “reparative therapy” organization. The clients, and two of their parents, have sued JONAH for fraud, claiming that the organization peddled quack therapies that were ineffective and counterproductive. This is big news, and, if successful, the suit would represent the second major blow against “reparative therapy” this year—the first being California’s banning of it entirely.

What went unnoticed outside the Orthodox world, however, were two very different statements on Judaism and homosexuality.

First, the Rabbinical Council of America (the umbrella organization of Orthodox rabbis) fully withdrew their support of JONAH, claiming, in fact, that they’d never supported it to begin with. This step strongly suggests that the organization has lost credibility in the modern Orthodox world.

Second, and from the somewhat-moderate wing of the ultra-Orthodox community, last week saw yet another rabbinic decree stating that homosexual behavior of any kind is against Jewish law. The opinion, by Rabbi Aharon Feldman, is by far the most up-to-date anti-gay statement from any religious authority.

No howlers here about homosexuality simply being a lifestyle choice; no, Rabbi Feldman is aware that for most people, it is a psychological trait. Nor does Rabbi Feldman assume that the purpose of the traditional ban on homosexual behavior is self evident. Instead he concocts a weird, fascinating rationale for a ban based on the shopworn idea that homosexuality is narcissism, coupled with Kabbalistic ideas about the human soul—the second resembling nothing so much as Catholic dogma about the spirit and the flesh. It’s wacky stuff, but at least it’s somewhat original—which, if nothing else, shows that reflective anti-gay religious figures are aware that their usual arguments don’t hold water.

How Rabbi Feldman relates to reparative therapy is instructive. Having understood that “it is an indisputable fact that most homosexuals are naturally attracted to males,” Rabbi Feldman recognizes the theological problem this raises. The Torah simply does not forbid what is truly natural. There must be an alternative—and reparative therapy is it.

Here again, Rabbi Feldman’s tshuvah is remarkably up-to-date, observing that “the gay community claims vociferously that such therapy cannot be effective,” and that “many psychologists have declared it unethical for members of their profession to offer such help.” (An understatement—all psychological associations have declared it so—but fair enough.) 

It’s at this point that Feldman enters into uncharted territory, and goes off the rails. In fact, from the moment he entertains this proposition—“arguendo that ‘gay’ advocates are correct”—the tshuvah ceases to be sense and turns into nonsense.

Having conceded that maybe reparative therapy doesn’t work, Rabbi Feldman suddenly has to, well, make stuff up. He argues that only heterosexuality is found in other species—false: homosexuality is found in thousands of animal species.

He argues that because homosexuality is banned by the Torah, its “spiritual” harm is no different from the “emotional” harm done by a child molester; terminology unknown in halacha and surely disprovable in practice, if “spiritual” has any content whatsoever. And he claims that “the current culture” holds that the meaning of life is “the fulfillment of appetites”—which of course is absurd; my same-sex partnership is about love, holiness, and family, not appetite.

Finally, Feldman even suggests that celibate gay people go work “spreading Torah” in “far-flung communities”—because that clearly has worked so well in the past.

In other words, reparative therapy, and JONAH in particular, is the only thing holding back the Rabbi Feldmans of the world from unprecedented, weird, and baseless speculation more befitting astrologers and palm-readers than legitimate Torah sages. Everything holds water until JONAH’s finger in the dike is removed. Once it’s clear that reparative therapy is neither reparative nor therapy, the flood is let loose and catastrophe ensues.

This is why the JONAH lawsuit, and the RCA action, are so important. It’s not that poor, Orthodox people are so desperate to change their sexuality that they’re suckered into JONAH’s clutches. It’s that poor, Orthodox rabbis are so desperate to save their theology—and will do so at the expense of young men like Chaim Levin and Benji Unger (both of whom I know through my LGBT Jewish organization, Nehirim) and their well-meaning parents.  

To be sure, there are many alternatives. Orthodox rabbis can interpret Leviticus literally rather than expansively, so that it only applies to anal sex between men, and thus fully include gay people in communal life on the assumption that they are behaving within the bounds of Jewish law. And they can do so—departing from otherwise binding precedent—based on the new scientific information about sexual diversity, a principle that’s been applied in many other areas of Jewish law.  

Of course, as I’ve written about elsewhere, they will only take these steps out of a recognition of the crisis: that a loving God could not possibly want so many people to live without love, that the God of Israel could not want the lies and torments of the “closet.” As long as JONAH exists, it enables rabbis to avoid confronting that crisis.

It’s an out—or, as I’ve called it elsewhere, the last gasp of bad theology.

Ironically, then, the JONAH court case may turn out to be a good thing for Jewish legal reasoning. Denying the facts is not how Jewish religious law is supposed to work; rabbis pride themselves on not sticking their heads in the sand. Indeed, as the RCA declaration said,

As rabbis trained in Jewish law and values, we base our religious positions regarding medical matters on the best research and advice of experts and scholars in those areas, along with concern for the religious, emotional, and physical welfare of those impacted by our decisions. 

The RCA has it exactly right. Desperately clinging to demonstrably false pseudoscience is un-Jewish in the extreme. Who knows? Perhaps a secular court might force Rabbi Feldman and his ilk to be more faithful to the values of their tradition.

JayMichaelson&ltjay@nehirim.orggt'

Dr. Jay Michaelson [@jaymichaelson] is Associate Editor of Religion Dispatches and the author of five books, most recently "Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment" (North Atlantic, 2013). He holds a J.D. from Yale and a Ph.D. in Jewish Thought from Hebrew University of Jerusalem.