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Orthodox Judaism vs. Secular Sexual Values

the.guard Thursday, 26 January 2012

Over the past few months, I have been quoted (and misquoted!) several times in various publications regarding the Orthodox Jewish position on homosexuality and mental health treatment. There are two major areas of concern regarding this hotly debated topic. The first area is that many in the secular world simply find it hard to accept Orthodoxy’s intolerance toward homosexual behavior. The very idea that we label a certain behavior as immoral and pathological is offensive to people with a secular values base. The second area of concern is about whether reparative therapy is actually helpful, ethical and even if it can cause harm.

Regarding reparative therapy, if there is informed consent between therapist and client about the academic debate over its effectiveness and the person truly feels a desire to modify his or her attraction to persons of the same gender, it seems that a therapist and client can engage in treatment. As with many mental health diagnoses, there are enormous variations from person to person in terms of the origin, severity and ability to recover. So too, regarding homosexuality, for some people, treatment is more likely to be effective than for others, based on many factors. Additionally, regarding mental health interventions, although there are some forms of psychotherapy that are evidence based, many of those studies are hotly contested as well. It is my impression and opinion that most experienced therapists will have an eclectic approach, borrowing from various modalities and using the interpersonal relationship and therapeutic alliance to help the client develop greater ego strength and ability to manage the internal and external stresses of life. Psychotherapy is more art than science, even today and relies on the empathic bond between therapist and client to reprocess past experiences, learned behaviors and dysfunctional adaptations. Through this relationship and developmental process, a client learns more functional cognitions and matures into more adaptive behaviors.

Can reparative therapy be harmful, as is being alleged by some? That is possible, especially in the hands of 'therapists' who are mavericks, operating on the fringe of acceptable practice. But then again, I am reasonably sure the same can be said about almost any therapy or medical treatment. When valuable research avenues and discussion are squelched because they don’t seem in consonance with the political climate, this is what strengthens the acceptability of fringe and quack therapists to those who are desperate. This is unfortunately the state of affairs in regard to reparative therapy and it can scare legitimate and compassionate therapists from seeking training in how to provide treatment or from publicizing that they offer such treatment.

Recently, I asked to be removed from the so-called Torah Declaration about homosexuality, not because I have any sort of liberal agenda, nor because I do not believe that some can be helped via treatment. Rather, I found their absolutist tones, that convey an impression that every kind of homosexuality can be treated with today’s expertise, to be scientifically inconclusive, nor to be a required belief by the Torah. I fear that speaking is such black and white tones would be the mistake that Iyov’s friends made of being insensitive to a person who is in a situation that subjectively feels to be unresolvable (see Bava Metzia 58b). The argument put forth by the Torah Declaration folks, that Hashem would not forbid homosexuality if it was not treatable is lacking in nuance. There are many situations in Torah life where a person may be required to permanently abstain from sexual intimacy. [For just a few examples, consider the lifelong fate of a tumtum, androgynos, katalonis (Yevamos 64b and Rashi Yevamos 26a), muchzekes sheroeh mechamas tashmish (Niddah 66a), and an aguna. These people may never be able to get married. (Translating and explaining these terms are beyond the scope of this essay, so please forgive me for this. However, suffice it to say, that each of these persons are obligated in mitzvos and yet, due to their circumstances, may never be able to marry.] To date (January 2012), the Torah Declaration people have not removed my name from the list of signators despite my many requests, which I find disturbing.

Regarding the difficulty that many persons of the secular world have with the Orthodox Jewish belief that homosexual behavior is immoral, in truth, there is a bigger issue at play here. Let us leave the debate about homosexuality aside and focus on sexual values in general. After all, the Torah has many, many restrictions on sexual behavior that are as severe as homosexuality. The real story here is about a failure in today's society to articulate modern sexual values that are healthy and protective of human dignity. American society is in mass denial over its systemic failure to successfully manage and regulate family and sexual life.

According to a study referenced in a NY Times article, published December 14, 2011, our country is out of control when it comes to protecting people from sexual assault. The article tells us, “Nearly one in five women surveyed said they had been raped or had experienced an attempted rape at some point and one in four reported having been beaten by an intimate partner. One in six women have been stalked, according to the report.” Those numbers are absolutely chilling. If we were talking about disease, it would be categorized as a plague and a national emergency.

The cognitive dissonance is so strong that no conjecture is made in the article of how this has come to be. It strains credibility to think that the incessant sexual messages that adults and children are exposed to through every conceivable form of media has no impact. Billboard and magazine advertisements that are essentially soft porn, as well as movies and TV shows depicting intense sexuality and violence in the most casual manner must be having an awful and destructive effect upon us all. Young adults are overstimulated and society at large is desensitized to sexual restraint and moral behavior. We hear on a regular basis about political leaders, heroes, role models and sports figures who become ensnared in juvenile sexual scandals. We are failing to regulate and reign in our sexual impulses to the detriment of our own welfare.

All of this stimulation and overexposure has robbed children of their childhood. Recently, I saw a young boy and girl in a local playground sitting together on a swing, amorously kissing. They could not have been older than twelve years of age, quite possibly ten or eleven. These “kids” were no doubt acting out what they see in movies or on the Internet. How overwhelming and painful it must be to feel like a sexual object at such a young age. How do they handle the pressure? I couldn’t help being struck by the irony of this scene taking place in a playground, where in prior times, children that age would be frolicking and playing on the swings in a childlike innocent manner.

Orthodox Jewish Tradition has an important message for the world to hear about sexuality. Essentially, the Torah sees sexuality as either selfish/masturbational or loving. Sexuality is beautiful and spiritual when conducted with respect and love between two married individuals who are bound to each other by their mutual commitment. The Mishna (Kesubos 5:1) tells us that a man who lives with his wife without a kesuva (marriage contract) is, for all intents and purposes, as if he is living with a zonah. The contractual obligations spelled out in the kesuva are an actual and symbolic representation of the idea that marriage and love must be bonded by personal responsibility and respect. On the other hand, two people that enter into a relationship with a focus primarily on their selfish needs are just engaging in mutual masturbation, not true and holy marital intimacy. The Torah forbids masturbation not out of arbitrary prudishness but rather a deep respect for the power of human sexuality and the potential to channel it toward love and connection instead of mere self-gratification.

A society that indulges in every kind of hedonistic gratification with no limits produces selfish people who are unfit for the sacrifices it takes to be parents and to sustain long term relationships. Some of the weaker elements of society feel sanction to act on their impulses even when it harms others. Children today are contending with sexual abuse, sexting, relationship violence and overexposure. We must show the world how we conduct ourselves with dignity and become thoughtful about how we lead our lives and what we allow to enter into our family life, to protect the next generation.

The Torah is a wonderful heritage and resource for those who are wise and find the strength to follow its precepts. Let us focus on the timeless messages of the Torah, inspiring people to take responsibility for our impulses, delaying gratification, and channeling them toward authentic human connection, committed love and respect.

© 2012 Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW and Chaya Feuerman, LCSW. 718 793-1376 Material may be copied and distributed freely provided that the articles are printed in their entirety and this note is printed on all pages.