On a single week in late July, a major flashpoint in the internal culture wars of the Orthodox world erupted in two unrelated but connected incidents. The issue was homosexuality.
A group of nearly 90 Orthodox rabbis chose July 22 to release their “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews With a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community,” a surprisingly open and warm attempt at being inclusive, while at the same time not advocating any change in the strict Jewish law that governs sexuality.
Three days later, that Sunday, in a hotel conference room in Connecticut, the Association for Orthodox Jewish Scientists (AOJS) hosted its annual meeting. Addressing 100 members of the respected and decades-old association that explores the crossroads of Jewish law and modern science was Arthur Goldberg, a proponent of “reparative therapy” or “change therapy,” a controversial pseudo-science that attempts to turn homosexuals into heterosexuals. Goldberg, a charismatic former lawyer who served time in prison for financial fraud in the early 1990s, espoused his theory that homosexuality is “an emotional adaptation to childhood pain,” which can be overcome. His presence was due partly to the support of Rabbi Moshe Tendler, who chairs Yeshiva University’s biology department and is a fixture in the Orthodox Jewish establishment.
Like the matter of women’s role in the rabbinate, homosexuality has become a clear dividing line among those on the most devout end of the Jewish religious spectrum — and one more issue that, until recently, was being grappled with by only Conservative and Reform Jews.
“We can’t do what we can’t do,” said Nathaniel Helfgot, department chair of bible and Jewish thought at Manhattan’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, who initiated the statement. “But we wanted to focus on the things that we can do. In the community today, there is a lot of pain; there is a lot of suffering and unnecessary shunning. It’s one thing to say that the Torah forbids homosexual sex. It’s another thing to say that someone who is a homosexual isn’t entitled to come into my synagogue and if they adopt a child, that child shouldn’t be given a Jewish education. Those are very different things.”
The statement, which Helfgot said has gained 10 to 15 additional signatories every day since it was first posted, tries to walk a fine line. It skirts the toughest distinction by stating repeatedly that “the question of whether sexual orientation is primarily genetic, or rather environmentally generated,” is “irrelevant.” Instead, it says that Orthodoxy should “treat human beings with same-sex attractions and orientations with dignity and respect.”
The statement does refer to the specific therapy that Goldberg preaches by saying that “while some mental health professionals and rabbis in the community strongly believe in the efficacy of ‘change therapies,’ most of the mental health community, many rabbis, and most people with a homosexual orientation feel that some of these therapies are either ineffective or potentially damaging psychologically for many patients.”
But what the welcoming sentiments of the rabbis do not do is offer a clear solution for what gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews should do about the conflict between their commitment to Jewish law and their sexual orientation. Helfgot first had the idea for the statement after an emotional and controversial event at Yeshiva University last December that drew nearly 1,000 students, at which a few gay students spoke of the pain they had suffered trying to reconcile these two identities.
Asked about this open question, Helfgot said: “You’re right. This is not a Sanhedrin [rabbinic court], where a few people can come and abrogate Torah law. But we can discuss the things that we can discuss. We can talk about people and their feelings and their place in the community as much as we can.”
Goldberg, however, does try to provide an answer. Through his organization, Jews Offering New Alternatives to Healing (JONAH), he promotes the idea that homosexuality can be overcome through therapy. But the nature of this therapy has come under scrutiny after a video featuring two young Orthodox Jewish men was posted online in late July by Truth Wins Out, a group that battles what it calls the “ex-gay movement.”
The two men, Ben Unger and Chaim Levin, described to the Forward how they had struggled with their sexual identity. Unger told of being sent to therapists who recommended shock therapy, and to rabbis who told him to visit the mikveh (ritual bath) five times a day. He even contemplated suicide.
Unger and Levin both turned to JONAH around the same time, and were referred by Goldberg to a “life coach” named Alan Downing. Both men described a series of psychotherapeutic experiments they were asked to carry out that felt increasingly strange and uncomfortable.
“He told me take a pillow and beat it with a racket,” Unger said, referring to Downing. “He told me my mother is the reason for me being into guys, and I should beat the pillow as if it is her. He said that my dad was not man enough, that he didn’t show me proper masculinity, as if he knew my parents. I actually began to hate my mother. He convinced me it was her fault. But I was completely into it. I was desperate. There was no way out.”
The incident that made Unger and Levin each decide to leave the program involved standing in the mirror with Downing nearby, and taking off articles of clothing until they were naked. Unger said he took off only his shirt. Levin said he took off all his clothes and Downing told him to touch himself.
Contacted by the Forward, Downing said that there was nothing unusual about his methodology, which he referred to as “body work.” He said he works with a number of different “modalities,” including “psychodrama” and “guts work.” But he did say that the two men mischaracterized him as having “malicious intent.” All he wanted, he said, was “to eliminate shame.”
Jack Drescher, a distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association who has written extensively on the “ex-gay movement,” said, “This is a marketing movement, not a science movement. Most of the people who do these kinds of approaches are the least trained of mental health professionals. ‘Life coach’ is not a licensed profession.”
Goldberg said he continues to have trust in Downing and will refer clients to him in the future. The video appeared at the same time that Goldberg spoke at the AOJS annual conference.
After the AOJS first invited Goldberg and someone who could offer a counterpoint to reparative theory — Erez Harari, a doctoral student in clinical psychology and a co-founder of Jewish Queer Youth — the event was canceled. According to Elliot Udell, the conference’s program chair, Goldberg’s presence began to generate too much controversy. But then, Goldberg showed up anyway and was given an opportunity to speak to a room of 100 people and to sell his books afterward without anyone scrutinizing his theories. Udell said that the association had no choice but to offer him a spot, since a number of the conference participants had come expressly to hear Goldberg speak.
Harari was upset that he was excluded, but he understood that the association had not intentionally tried to avoid the tough questioning of Goldberg. In an e-mail from Udell that Harari provided to the Forward, Udell admitted that it had been an error to give Goldberg free rein. He even offered to organize another event. “With lead time, we would not make the mistakes we made this past weekend of not adequately approaching the topic from all sides,” he said.
But according to those present, another reason that Goldberg made his way onto the conference schedule was that he seemed to have the backing of Rabbi Moshe Tendler, the YU scholar, a man venerated by the association members. Tendler told the Forward that he would reserve judgment about Goldberg’s methods until their success could be shown scientifically (Goldberg himself said that he has a 75% success rate). But Tendler did endorse the notion that homosexuality is not biological, but is a “social, learned trait” that can, presumably, be reversed.
Only if homosexuality were somehow shown to be biological, Tendler said, “would I raise my level of empathy, of sympathy for these people. But it would be no different than if someone, God forbid, is born with a deformity, a major physical deformity. I would look at them as people born with a burden others don’t have, but the Torah doesn’t change. That fellow born with that burden is still ordered by God not to engage in homosexual activity.”
Tendler did not sign the July 22 rabbinical statement, and described the effort as a “bunch of rabbis thinking they could work out some kind of compromise when the Torah is immovable on this point.”
Other Orthodox rabbis were very pleased with the statement. Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, one of the signatories, said that he received tearful phone calls from gay Orthodox friends since it was released, expressing relief that their conflicted existences were being acknowledged.
“I think almost everybody agrees that it’s not a perfect document,” Yanklowitz said. “But I think it’s a huge step forward for Orthodoxy in breaking with a homophobic past. It is basically saying that to be gay is not to be anti-Torah.”
Laurie Stern contributed to this report.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman