When Political Correctness Trumps Religion


Despite the encouragement of the Jerusalem Post’s editorialists, and despite several signatures from friends and colleagues in Jewish outreach, I believe that last week’s “Statement of Principles” regarding those “in our community who have a homosexual orientation” was a grave mistake.

The statement isn’t entirely objectionable; mostly it is neither new nor newsworthy. Over a decade ago, the Dean of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, Rabbi Aharon Feldman shlit”a — of the Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel of America, those whom the Post would categorize as the reactionaries and extremists — published an open letter in which he provided support and encouragement to a newly-Orthodox Jew challenged by homosexual desires. Rather than calling upon others to treat those with homosexual attractions with respect, Rabbi Feldman provided a paradigm of compassion, warmth and understanding from which we all can and should learn.

To borrow a turn of phrase from another context, the Statement is thus both original and good; the problem is that the good parts are not original, and the original parts are not good. Without attempting to create an exhaustive list, I will focus upon merely three major problems with this Statement.

The first is timing; the Post underscored that “publication of the document coincided with Jerusalem’s annual Gay Pride Parade.” Even more, this year’s parade was itself timed to coincide with the first anniversary of the shooting at a gay community youth center in Tel Aviv. The Statement thus comes across as both Rabbinic approbation for public celebration of homosexuality, and an apologetic response to the murders. Both could hardly be more wrong.

Although homosexual activists rushed to accuse haredim of murder and/or incitement to murder in the wake of the shooting, they did so without a shred of evidence. A private youth center (rather than a public venue for adults, such as a gay bar) is a most unlikely target for a hate crime, and the shooting was obviously conducted by someone familiar with the location, able to enter, shoot, and escape. As for incitement, anti-gay violence is less common in Israel than in the USA and most European countries. There remains no reason to believe that the shooter’s motivation was bias rather than personal animus, and in the absence of that evidence, no reason for a group of Orthodox Rabbis to pander to an anti-Orthodox hate-fest.

Second, the statement glosses over the very real difference between having homosexual desires and celebrating them publicly. It condemns “both the ‘outing’ of individuals who want to remain private and to coercing those who desire to be open about their orientation to keep it hidden.” Given that the only “coercion” possible in the latter case (besides violence) is public disapproval, the Statement thus opposes any condemnation of public expression of homosexuality — and as above, the timing seems to endorse that public expression.

To take a very different example, we accept that most Jews today do not observe the traditional Sabbath. Despite violating this most crucial Commandment, these Jews, in general, “participate and count ritually, [are] eligible for ritual synagogue honors, and generally [are] treated in the same fashion and under the same halakhic and hashkafic framework as any other member of the synagogue they join,” borrowing the language of the Statement.

This is true despite opposition to public Sabbath desecration. While Sabbath protests seem to elicit participation of the least well-behaved members of certain Orthodox subgroups, everyone faithful to Torah objects to public transportation and venues operating normally on the Sabbath. Why should the public expression of homosexuality be granted special status, more than public transgression of any other law?

Finally, the Statement appears to kowtow to politically-correct thought in a still more fundamental — and painful — way. It declares 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,” and endorses the “religious right” to “reject” what they see as “useless or dangerous.”

When the American Psychological Association announced just last year that its members “should avoid telling clients that they can change their sexual orientation,” it had no new research upon which to base that declaration. Instead, it cited “insufficient evidence that sexual orientation change efforts work,” although most of the data is over a decade old. The APA neither commissioned new studies nor suggested that the issue be examined — instead, it engaged in collective PC-think.

I recognize that there are those who swear by the effectiveness of “change therapies,” and those who say that, at least at present, they don’t seem to work. But psychology is primarily about helping people to change that which they wish to change. If a person thinks (or acknowledges) that he has a problem, psychology is supposed to help him work through it. Where else do we find psychologists throwing their hands in the air and giving up?

The Rabbis’ Statement acknowledges that “Halakhic Judaism views all male and female same-sex sexual interactions as prohibited.” What it does not acknowledge is that the APA explicitly recommended that those with homosexual desires “explore possible life paths that address the reality of their sexual orientation.” The APA recommended a change in life path (read: religion) because, in contrast to religious faith, sexual orientation is an unchangeable fact. This is also the belief of “most of the mental health community” and of “most people with a homosexual orientation.”

Thus the Statement is rife with sweet-sounding platitudes, but tells those who are both convinced of the truth of Torah and have homosexual inclinations that they should give up on having an intimate relationship. Of course it is possible that one will not change, but for one committed to Torah the cost-benefit analysis leans in favor of making the attempt.

A recent Post headline, written in an entirely different context, nonetheless fits perfectly: “Pandering is no substitute for leadership.” The signatories on the Statement would do well to consider that line.

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ben aharon
5 years 3 months ago

Greg declares that there is a very clear distinction between “being gay” and “engaging in halachically-prohibited behavior”. I would greatly appreciate an elucidation of what it precisely means to “be gay” in the absence of ANY homsexual behavior. Let’s remeber that according to a number of poskim engaging in the fantasy of proscribed sexual behavior may be equally inappropriate as the behavior itself, certainly if it may lead one to pursue such behavior. Is being gay simply the absence of an attraction to members of the opposite sex? What else is involved that defines this sexual orientation? From my limited… Read more »

Simcha Younger
5 years 3 months ago

Lisa – I am not sure what your argument is, except to say that political correctness should trump religion.
You have not presented any reason why your lifestyle should be considered compatible with our religion, or why as a religious society you expect people to disregard your openly unreligious lifestyle.

It would have been most informative if you could tell us how you reconcile your lifestyle and religion. Your approach to this could definitely contribute here.

But in the absence of such reconciliation, we are left unsure of your religious perpective. Your response very much sounds like you do not see any need… Read more »

Charlie Hall
5 years 3 months ago

There is no “change therapy” that has been shown to be efficacious in changing sexual orientation. Dr. Spitzer’s cautious optimism is based on a small observational study of a biased sample and has not been backed up by the type of rigorous randomized intervention studies that could potentially prove efficacy. I am unaware of any such studies that are currently in progress; I found none at the official clinical trials registry.

5 years 3 months ago

Handbook of Psychotherapy & Jewish Ethics. Moshe Halevi Spero. Published by Feldheim, 1986. pp. 165ff

From the halakhic standpoint, however, there is a sense in which having labeled homosexuality as sinful, perverse, and to’evah it could then be subjected to compulsory interventative measures. That is, the Jewish community or individual mental health professional qua agend of beth din may be required to invoke the halakhic concept of Kofin otho, of “compelling” one (or one’s reasonable ego) to remain obedient to Jewish law. While generally invoked in specific applications, such as compelling the granting of a divorce… Read more »

Baruch Pelta
5 years 3 months ago

I was the one who directed Rabbi Menken to said archive site. Admittedly, for some reason, I’ve had trouble accessing it for the past several days and wrote based on the information I thought I remembered about it, all of which I now realize was incorrect. I apologize profusely. Here are the salient facts I must admit: 1) The article I’m referring to was not published in the same issue as the letter to a gay homosexual, but a later one. 2) Rabbi Feldman changed his letter to a homosexual baal teshuva for Eye of the Storm, perhaps just to… Read more »

Baruch Pelta
5 years 3 months ago

Re R’ Menken’s claim about therapeutic treatment:
In the open letter, R’ Feldman made clear it is an obligation for a homosexual to go to reparative therapy, so I think it is important to know his support for that idea. In the same issue of the Jerusalem Letter where R’ Feldman’s open letter to the homosexual appeared, there was also another article in the same issue. Both were reprinted, the latter with a modification, in R’ Feldman’s new book, The Eye of the Storm. R’ Feldman claims a study of Robert Spitzer supports his idea that “the fact that one’s sexual… Read more »

5 years 3 months ago

As regards your comparison of homosexuality to the desecration of the Sabbath, you are conflating openly declaring that one is gay with engaging in halachicly-prohibited homosexual behavior. The statement is saying that those who are gay (saying nothing about their behavior, only their orientation) and choose to publicly identify as such should not be coerced. You are making a claim that this is equivalent to publicly encouraging Sabbath desecration, but it’s not the same thing. The statement is speaking about being gay, not engaging in prohibited acts.

You are also exaggerating what the statement characterizes as public expression… Read more »

5 years 3 months ago

What it does not acknowledge is that the APA explicitly recommended that those with homosexual desires “explore possible life paths that address the reality of their sexual orientation.”

I would say better to have quit while you’re ahead. The point about homosexuality not being a “public” issue is a good one. To then publicly advocate guidelines for advising them just doesn’t fit. And even if you’d suggest this APA recommendation be directed not to the general public but to Rabbis, most clergy aren’t equipped to do that kind of counseling.

5 years 3 months ago

You know, I hear this a lot. “They didn’t need to publish that letter, because everyone already knows that you can’t mistreat people who are gay.” But that’s nonsense. As is the hiding behind terms like “celebrating”. So. My partner and I have a beautiful 10 year old daughter. She calls my partner Ima and she calls me Mommy. So is acknowledging her when she comes up to me in shul “celebrating” something other than parenthood? What you’re really asking for is not that we refrain from “flaunting” things; it’s that we… Read more »