Friday, January 27, 2012

To Life, To Life - L’Chaim

Suicide. That is what comes to mind when I read what the torment of being different does to some people. It is my understanding that the suicide rate among homosexuals is much higher than it is among the general population.

That point, among others, is made in a Jewish Press article by an openly homosexual Jew by the name of Chaim Levin (pictured). And I salute his courage in telling it like it is. In my view it explodes the myth that Orthodox homosexuals have an agenda to change or redefine Halacha perverting it to permit acts that are explicitly forbidden in the Torah.

I’m sure there are some who try and do exactly that. Some do actually celebrate the lifestyle as simply an alternative but legitimate one. But in the vast majority of cases, Orthodox homosexuals just want to be a part of the world in which they were raised. They do not seek radical change at all. They only want to be accepted for who they are... and not made to feel like the scum of the earth.

Much of what Mr. Levin wrote corroborates my own view which I have written about many times. I don’t see how any religious Jew can find fault with it.

His article was written in response to a video that he made (and featured on this blog) that spoke directly to young homosexuals telling them that ‘It gets better’. This is an obvious reference to the pain of rejection and hopelessness that many young homosexual Jews feel when they realize just how cruel people can be towards them. Which has in some cases has led to suicide.

That video was harshly criticized by some in the Orthodox world as having an agenda to normalize homosexual behavior and make it as socially and even Halachicly acceptable as heterosexual behavior. I did not see the video that way and as Mr. Levin points out, that was never his intent.

Another very valid point he makes – again one which I have made – is that reparative therapy is not the answer for everyone. And in some cases that too can lead to suicide. I can only guess at the depression this causes in those who when motivated to change their attraction, join a reparative therapy program and if they fail are told it is their own fault. Because they just aren’t willing to put enough effort to succeed at change.

Just to reiterate my own view, which I think Mr. Levin would agree with – Those who wish to try reparative therapy ought to do so. But at the same time they should not become despondent if they don’t succeed. One thing is certain. Any organization that does this kind of work ought to have trained mental health professionals doing it and be licensed by state government.

What Mr. Levin went through illustrates why. He too was motivated to change:

This organization had endorsements from a wide range of rabbanim and I was sure that it was the answer to all my problems. The organization’s executive director told me that he believes everyone can change if they simply put in the hard work. I would have done anything to change, and this message was just the hope I was looking for. I spent two years attending every group meeting, weekend, and individual life coaching sessions they offered. My parents and I paid thousands of dollars. Every day, every session, I was working and waiting to feel a shift in my desires or experience authentic change.

That moment never came. I didn’t change, I never developed any sexual desire for women, and never stopped being attracted to men. Instead, I only felt more and more helpless because I wasn’t changing. The organization and its staff taught us that change only comes to those who truly want it and are willing to put in the work. So if I wasn’t changing, I was seen as someone who either really didn’t sincerely want it, or would not put in the necessary work. In other words, there was no one to blame but myself.

The worst part of my experience in reparative therapy came at the end. In a locked office, alone with my unlicensed “life coach,” I was told to undress, stand in front of the counselor and do things too graphic to describe in this article. I was extremely uncomfortable, but he said that I must do this for the sake of changing and that if I didn’t remove my clothing I wouldn’t be doing the work it takes to achieve change. I would do anything to change, and so I did what he asked me to do. It was probably the most traumatizing experience of my life.

There are two things that this article makes clear. Rabbinic endorsements of places like this as the only solution for help are dangerous. Here is an excerpt from a recent rabbinic statement on this issue:

We emphatically reject the notion that a homosexually inclined person cannot overcome his or her inclination and desire. Behaviors are changeable. The Torah does not forbid something which is impossible to avoid.

Yes. Behaviors are changeable. But it is extremely presumptuous to say that every homosexual can overcome their same sex attraction – implying that a loving and compassionate God would never give someone a condition that would lead to a life of despair. There is ample evidence that God did indeed give some of the greatest figures in the Torah a life full of despair. The patriarch Jacob comes to mind.

The following from that same rabbinic statement is equally troubling:

G-d is loving and merciful. Struggles, and yes, difficult struggles, along with healing and personal growth are part and parcel of this world. Impossible, life long, Torah prohibited situations with no achievable solutions are not.

Yes God is loving and merciful. But to say that lifelong prohibited situations with no achievable results are impossible is also a dangerous presumption. It can cause despair in the very people they are trying to help. Because once they have put in the maximum effort and fail – they will feel so worthless that suicide may become an attractive way out. Al Tadin Chavercha Ad Sheyagiya Limkomo. Unless one is in someone else’s shoes, one ought not make these kinds of blanket judgments.

Both Mr. Levin and I applaud the compassionate and reasoned RCA statement that neither endorses nor rejects reparative therapy. In myview reparative therapy should be an option. But in no way should it be seen as the cure for everyone. Which that rabbinical statement implies:

Abandoning people to lifelong loneliness and despair by denying all hope of overcoming and healing their same-sex attraction is heartlessly cruel. Such an attitude also violates the biblical prohibition in Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:14 “and you shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.”

I do not believe that everyone can ‘overcome’ it. And to imply that is very dangerous in my view. If anything violates the biblical prohibition of Lifnei Eveir Lo Sitain Michshol (Do not put a stumbling block before a blind person) promoting that kind of certainty does.