Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Gay Conundrum

Lo Samod Al Dam Reacha – Do not stand idly by on your brother’s blood. That is the name of a website that hosts a statement about homosexuality that I find troubling. Precisely because of how it treats its subject matter. Back to this later.

When I studied psychology (my major) in college back in the sixties, homosexuality was considered abnormal behavior and a mental disorder. A couple of years after I got my bachelor’s degree (1969) the American Psychological Association made an announcement that has impacted society in a major way ever since. They took homosexuality off of the list of psychological disorders and thenceforth treated it as a normal alternative lifestyle.

Although it began as gradual change it has by now resulted in a tectonic shift in the societal attitude toward homosexuality. One need only look at the way it is treated in the media and all areas of entertainment industry to see that. Today we are witnessing legalized marriage ceremonies… a phenomenon that is celebrated in some circles.

And yet the Torah clearly forbids a man ‘lying with a man as with a woman’. It is considered a capital offense. The question arises, what does an Orthodox homosexual do in the current social climate? This is an issue that I have discussed here many times. My position in a nutshell is - hate the sin love the sinner.

Being attracted to members of the same sex is not sinful. Acting on impulses generated by that attraction is. My approach is to treat all of mankind as created in the image of God. To judge every human being by the content of their character. As long as there is no advocacy of sin it is no one else’s business what goes on in their bedroom. That is left for God to judge –not me.

The fact happens to be that there are still many heterosexual people that see homosexuals in a negative light – and are disgusted by their behavior. Among Orthodox Jews that feeling is reinforced by the way the Torah treats it, calling it a Toevah - an abomination.

Knowing what people actually think about how homosexuals fulfil their sexual desires can and does lead many Orthodox homosexuals into serious depression sometimes ending in suicide! My understanding is that the suicide rate among homosexuals is very high. Which brings me back to that rabbinic statement.

In what they call a Torah declaration by rabbinic leaders and mental health professionals they have made a claim that I do not believe reflects accurately on the reality of this issue. In what I would call in large part an expression of love and compassion towards people with same sex attraction, they have nonetheless made the following claim:

The concept that G-d created a human being who is unable to find happiness in a loving relationship unless he violates a biblical prohibition is neither plausible nor acceptable. 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.

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.

They recommend what has come to be known as reparative therapy. I personally believe that reparative therapy can work in some cases. For example for those who are bi-sexual. And for those who are merely confused about their sexuality. But reparative therapy does not work in every case. Whether homosexuality is caused through nature or nurture is immaterial. There is a ‘hard-wiring’ in some cases that cannot be changed. And trying to do so with individuals like this could have disastrous consequences including suicide.

The truth of the matter is that nobody would choose a lifestyle that much of especially the religious world still sees as an abomination – despite the best efforts of the general society to normalize it. Who would do such a thing to themselves? Reparative therapy that fails can send them into such a depression that they will no longer want to live!

That is why it surprises me that the signatories to this document include some highly respected Orthodox names in the mental health profession. Surely they must know that reparative therapy is not for everyone. It is very telling that some very prominent Orthodox mental health professionals that surely were asked to sign did not do so. I have been told that at least in one case a Charedi mental health professional refused to sign precisely for this reason. I see it as Pikuach Nefesh – a life and death issue. He probably does too. Indeed one must not stand idly by while another Jew’s blood is being spilled which has happened in some cases where reparative therapy has failed.

There is very thoughtful and intelligent essay written by Rabbi Zev Farber, a YCT graduate that deals with this issue and makes a similar observation:

I was also very disturbed. The Declaration advocates strongly for reparative or conversion therapy, a pseudoscientific and medically discredited practice that many professionals consider dangerous; the American Psychological Association goes so far as to say that any therapist who employs reparative therapy is in violation of the Hippocratic Oath.

The Declaration further argues that homosexuality must be both psychological and curable, since God could not be so cruel as to create people with homosexual urges and make it forbidden to act upon them – a theologically dubious argument to say the least. I would venture to say that anyone who is or who knows someone suffering from any of the countless debilitating life-long diseases would be taken aback by the claim that God would never create a person with a biological makeup that could ruin his or her life.

Although he does an excellent job of discussing the Halachic approach to this subject I have some problems with some of his conclusions. Here is one:

What we are asking of the homosexual Orthodox community is impossible. It is simply unrealistic to ask or expect normal adults to remain celibate… Quoting Rabbi Nathan Cardozo he says it’s completely impossible.

Impossible? I think the Catholic Church would take major issue with that. Although celibacy is certainly an issue for them, one would have to admit that the majority of the priesthood is indeed celibate. That is in fact what they are asked to do in service to God. Should we not ask Jews to at least try and make that same sacrifice in the interest of Halacha?

At the same time, I agree that it is very difficult thing to never be able to satisfy their sexual desires.

Perhaps more importantly, Rabbi Farber uses a Halachic device known a Oness Rachmanei Patrei – people are not responsible for sinful acts that are beyond their control. While not condoning the behavior - he goes to great lengths to show how a homosexual acting on his sex drive is such a case. He believes that their own nature forces them to act this way even though as observant Jews they would prefer not to sin.

I hear his argument but ultimately it fails. One can always make a choice about which path to take in any given moment. Even knowing there is no other outlet for his desires – hard as it may be - if he chooses to sin, then he is responsible for his actions.

This is not to say that there are no ameliorating circumstances in the eyes of God. Ultimately it is up to Him. But the sin is not forced upon any homosexual man. It is committed willfully. A choice was made and as acknowledged by Rabbi Farber, homosexual sex is still a sin explicitly forbidden by the Torah. Furthermore an attitude like this will certainly be seen by homosexuals as a virtual Heter for behavior.

However in light of my understanding of the fixed nature of sexual proclivities - I do agree that there should be no social penalty for those who are attracted to members of the same sex even if we think they act on it. We are not God’s accountants. As long as they do not flaunt it as a lifestyle thereby turning an Aviera into a Mitzvah – we should not judge them.