Conversion Therapy and Our Roshei Yeshiva
“Hear the word of God, O chiefs of Sodom; give ear to the teaching of our God, O people of Gomorrah,” wrote the prophet Isaiah to the people of Jerusalem. “‘Why do I need your numerous sacrifices?’ says God” (Isaiah 1:10-11). In these lines, Isaiah was critiquing the Jews who brought lavish and extensive offerings in the Temple, only to ignore the disadvantaged of society. The sacrifices mean nothing, claimed Isaiah, provided they are not coupled with kindness in the ways we act. Isaiah understood and responded to a fundamental flaw in religious human nature — a tendency to focus on minutiae of piety and devotion while ignoring the physical and emotional needs of others.
In 2010, four YU roshei yeshiva, including Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rabbi Moshe Dovid Tendler, Rabbi Yitzchok Cohen and Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Haim, were listed as signatories to the Torah Declaration. The Declaration proclaims that for homosexual people, “The only viable course of action that is consistent with the Torah is therapy and teshuvah. The therapy consists of … helping him or her understand and repair the emotional wounds that led to its disorientation and weakening, thus enabling the resumption and completion of the individual’s emotional development.” In effect, it mandates conversion therapy as the method of dealing with homosexuality. “There is no other practical, Torah-sanctioned solution for this issue,” states the Declaration.
There are other online resources in which YU roshei yeshiva discuss the proper halakhic approach to homosexuality, including a 2010 dvar torah from Rabbi Schachter, Rabbi Mayer Twersky, Rabbi Michael Rosensweig and Rabbi Mordechai Willig. It claims that people who “feel same sex attraction (ssa) … should be encouraged to seek professional guidance.” It can only be assumed that the professional guidance in question is reparative therapy.
These sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) are not well scientifically understood and endanger individuals who undergo them. In 2009, the American Psychological Association published a report which analyzed studies on SOCEs to date. The report concluded, “The results of scientifically valid research indicate that it is unlikely that individuals will be able to reduce same-sex sexual attractions or increase other sex attractions through SOCE.” Additionally, the report warned that SOCEs “can produce harm for some of its participants.” All other major scientific organizations that conducted reviews of the studies surrounding SOCEs have come to similar conclusions.
When our roshei yeshiva recommend conversion therapy, they are advocating for a dangerous, scientifically unsound practice. Religious LGBT individuals frequently experience stress because of communal and religious resistance to their orientation. Encouraging these individuals to seek therapy that focuses not on their well-being but on their orientation reiterates the flaw in religious ideology that Isaiah fought millennia ago.
Conversion therapy is not the only halakhic approach. Other YU faculty, including YU rosh yeshiva Rabbi Ezra Schwartz, have signed the Statement of Principles, which affirms “the religious right of those with a homosexual orientation to reject therapeutic approaches they reasonably see as useless or dangerous.” The attitudes of the Statement are, I believe, the attitudes of the majority of the YU community.
But these roshei yeshiva’s attitudes towards this practice normalize institutional acceptance of it. In April this year, the Marsha Stern Talmudic Academy (MTA) hosted a mandatory event at which Dr. Gavriel Fagin, a conversion therapist, spoke to parents. The Forward reported at the time that Fagin’s website advertised services for issues related to same-sex attraction, although the advertisements for those services have since been removed in compliance with the ban on conversion therapy that New York passed at the beginning of this year. The YU community should reject the attitudes of the roshei yeshiva if they advocate for illegal practices, and we must work to create a culture in which Orthodox Jewish children do not feel stigmatized to change their sexual orientation.
It has been many years since the Torah Declaration was issued, and I do not mean to ascribe attitudes to the roshei yeshiva in question that they no longer hold. Still, if that is the case, they should remove the divrei torah that are posted online in their name that advocate for the encouragement of conversion therapy for LGBT individuals. “Learn to do good, seek justice, vindicate the victim, render justice to the orphan, take up the grievance of the widow,” wrote Isaiah. “Come now, let us reason together.”
Editor's Note: Since the publication of this article, The Torah Declaration has been taken down. The link given in the article is now to an archived version of the webpage.
Photo Caption: A man protesting gay reparative therapy.
Photo Credit: Flickr.com