Reparative therapy—neither reparative nor therapy—is the lie that will not die. As revealed by Jewish LGBT activist Jayson Littman in The Huffington Post this week, a new “Declaration on the Torah Approach to Homosexuality” is quietly circulating among right-wing Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox rabbis urging zero tolerance for homosexuality in Orthodox communities, and promoting reparative therapy (newly rebranded as “gender affirming therapy”!) as the only “kosher” option for Jews “struggling with same-sex attraction.”
It’s crucial to understand that this declaration does not represent the views of all, or even most, Orthodox Jews or Orthodox rabbis. It must be understood in the context of last summer’s Statement of Principles, now signed by over 200 Orthodox rabbis, calling for more compassion and acceptance of gay people in Orthodox communities, while at the same time maintaining the expansive reading of Leviticus 18:22 as applying not merely to cultic male anal sex (as the text indicates) but to all male and female expressions of homosexuality. Contrary to how it may appear to outsiders, the Orthodox community is religiously diverse, and this declaration is only one point of view within it.
What’s fascinating is that the declaration itself rests on an overt, categorical denial of reality: that there are no gay people who cannot be “healed.” The writer states clearly “The concept that G-d created a human being who is unable to find happiness in a loving relationship unless he [sic] violates a biblical prohibition is neither plausible nor acceptable.”
Well, I agree! This is a fundamental tenet of my recent book: that the closet is not a religiously valid way of life. Of course, the declaration then moves to analogize homosexuality to anorexia, addiction, and other “struggles” that can ultimately be healed. And it trots out the conjectural theory that homosexuality results from “something [having] gone awry in childhood development.” But the admission that God could not possibly want a lifelong closet means that we “homosexual activists” have already won this battle.
Here’s why. Perhaps the author of this Declaration hasn’t read closely the latest “Ex-Gay” books and documents, which admit that sexual orientation cannot be changed—only that gay men (this discourse is always about men, never women) can learn to sublimate their desires and “sexually function” with women. Most people, I suspect, would not really classify this as “healing.” But faced with twenty years of evidence (never released to the public, of course), the Ex-gays have had to manage expectations. In other words, even the Ex-gays admit that Ex-gay therapy doesn’t actually work. It is only a matter of time before this information becomes universally understood.
I don’t want to make light of this Declaration. It is a call for parents to emotionally abuse their children, and despite its rhetoric of love and compassion, it is exceedingly cruel. It is also antithetical to the Modern Orthodox principle of torah u’mada, Torah and secular knowledge—in this case, our best scientific knowledge of human sexuality. By willfully sticking its head in the quicksand of Ex-gay rhetoric, it is a contravention of the very principles of truthfulness which are at the bedrock of authentic Judaism. (Exodus 20:16, Psalms 101:7-8, Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:9)
However, the Declaration backs its signers into a theological corner. Once they admit that a loving God could never want the tyranny of the closet, they are indeed left with few options. And once the data about ‘Reparative Therapy’ becomes better known, they will be left with only one: to follow the venerable rabbinic practice of reading texts as narrowly as possible when a broad reading harms human beings. (Compare Exod. 31:14 and Mishnah Makkot 1:10, Deut. 21:18-21 and BT Sanhedrin 71a.)
There is a way forward for Orthodox rabbis confronting the reality of sexual diversity. And ironically, this cruel Declaration points it out.