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A more modern view of homosexuality

by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

December 5, 2012 | 10:29 am

Photo by Ludovic Bertron

Photo by Ludovic Bertron

The American Modern Orthodox community has just entered uncharted territory. Last week, our largest rabbinic organization, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) formally withdrew its support of JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality). JONAH has long been the Orthodox community’s address for reparative therapy, a process that is intended to cure people of their homosexual attractions and to replace these with heterosexual ones. The recently announced lawsuits against JONAH brought by four of its former clients, accusing JONAH of both fraud and abusive practices, was apparently the last straw for the RCA. 

Strictly speaking, the RCA’s statement rejects only JONAH. It, in fact, goes on to say, “We believe that properly trained mental health professionals who abide by the values and ethics of their professions can and do make a difference in the lives of their patients and clients [and that these professionals] should be able to work on whatever issues [their] clients voluntarily bring to their session.” This is, of course, indisputably correct. But the statement’s acknowledgement of  “the lack of scientifically rigorous studies that support the effectiveness of therapies to change sexual orientation” represents a paradigm shift. It is a rejection of the very premise that JONAH and all reparative therapy is built on, namely that sexual orientation is subject to change, and that any client who works hard enough at it can become heterosexual. This may not strike many readers as being a revelation at all. But through this RCA statement, the Modern Orthodox community has formally crossed into a brave, new world. 

[Related: Israel gets same-sex divorce before same-sex marriage]

Any discussion about what the practical implications of this might be needs to be grounded in an understanding — even an appreciation — of the context out of which it emerged. Any of us who grew up in Orthodox institutions in the 1980s or earlier knows firsthand that homosexuality, and, in particular, male homosexuality, was spoken of with disgust and revulsion, and that homosexual slurs were de rigueur. (In our own defense of course, the larger social landscape wasn’t much different.) And even as the campaigns for gay rights and recognition played out over the ensuing decades, Orthodoxy remained largely unmoved and unchanged. There was only one serious grappling with the issue during this period, and that was the essay written by Rabbi Norman Lamm in 1974 which, while utilizing language that is offensive in today’s context, took the unprecedented step of distinguishing between the “sin” and the “sinner,” asserting that while “the act itself remains an abomination, the fact of illness lays upon us the obligation of pastoral compassion, psychological understanding, and social sympathy.”  

Though Rabbi Lamm’s words undoubtedly, and with good cause, arouse anger, pain and resentment in many contemporary readers, understanding why he used them is crucial to understanding the true significance and implications of last week’s developments. The “illness” paradigm for explaining homosexuality (which was, indeed, the American Psychological Association’s paradigm as well until 1973, just one year prior) was Rabbi Lamm’s — and Orthodoxy’s — legal and theological lynchpin. Legal in that it provided access to the legal category of “transgression as a result of compulsion,” a category that elicits a more generous judgment. Theological in that it provided a response to the conundrum that God, who is all-knowing, just and kind, could not possibly prohibit that which cannot humanly be resisted. As long as homosexuality was an illness, a person’s failure to resist its temptations need not be ascribed to a Divine failure, but to an unfortunate human one. Needless to say, the “illness” paradigm also led inexorably to the obligation to seek therapeutic intervention. And while the most modern end of the Orthodox spectrum began to eschew reparative therapy some years ago — see, for example, the July 2010 “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews With a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community” (http://statementofprinciplesnya.blogspot.com/) — the balance continued to insist upon it. (See, for example, the 2011 “Declaration on the Torah Approach to Homosexuality” — www.torahdec.org.)

The statement of the RCA however, quietly, boldly and courageously breaks new ground. In recognizing that there is no evidence that reparative therapy is effective, and that there is, consequently, no obligation to pursue it, our community is acknowledging that homosexuality may very well be simply part of the human condition. Accordingly, we have decided that homosexuals should not any longer have to pay the psychological, emotional and even physical price for our theological comfort. We have effectively designated our theological question as a teyku, one whose answer still needs to be determined. But one that will, meanwhile, not prevent us from seeing the human truths in front of our eyes. 

It is not realistic to expect that Orthodoxy will some day recognize homosexual relationships as being equal to heterosexual ones, or to authorize gay marriage, or even to drop the idea that gay sex is a transgression of biblical law. Orthodoxy’s foundational beliefs concerning the Divinity of Torah and the authority of halachah (received Jewish law) preclude such developments. In other words, if the Torah declares a particular action prohibited, it’s not within our authority to say otherwise. But we can regard homosexual acts as we do other forms of nonobservance, as we do, for example, the nonobservance of kashrut, both in the sense that it doesn’t carry the charge of immorality and also in the sense that it doesn’t harm our ability to have a normal familial relationship with someone. The shift from Rabbi Lamm’s “sympathy” to the RCA’s recognition of the reality of sexual orientation can and should bring us to a place in which we can accept our friends and children and siblings for who they are, grant them the dignity and respect that any person deserves, and love them as our own. 

Within our community, it’s a brave, new and better world.


Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

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