Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Oh dear.

Mark Twain once famously said that “in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane.” While everyone is entitled to opine as they will, there are some statements that make my stomach turn. The following article, published in last Wednesday’s Jewish Press, is one such article. Written by self-pro-claimed “prolific author”** Rosally Saltsman, I’m copying the text of the article below and interjecting my own comments between paragraphs.  I usually do not write so candidly, but this article makes my blood boil and I’m expressing that through my somewhat cynical tone.

Reflections And Feedback
Reb Nachman of Breslov has an interesting parable. He speaks of a prince who thinks he's a turkey. No doctor could help him until a wise man comes and says, "You know what, I'm a turkey too." And then, as he's pecking around with the prince, he says, "You know, we can still be turkeys and eat people food." And so they do. And the wise man convinces the prince that he can wear human clothes and still be a turkey, and so on, until he gets the prince to realize he's not a turkey after all.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was a genius of a man who’s lessons also included the concept of Ahavat Chinam, baseless love.

The Torah is very much based on the concept of Na'aseh V'nishmah. Who you are is predicated upon your actions. If a man or a woman is in an exclusively heterosexual relationship, by Torah definition he or she is not gay.
These analogies do not hold water. In fact, you have completely misunderstood Na’Aseh V’nishma. In the context of Jewish history it does not mean that “who you are is predicated upon your actions,” but that “your actions are predicated upon who you are.” By Har Sinai, the tribes of Israel were destined to become the Jewish people and therefore were willing to accept the Torah with blind faith. It was not their faith that made them Jewish, but their Judaism that instilled them with such faith. Furthermore, being in a heterosexual relationship does not make one heterosexual. Were I abstain from eating meat for a few years, would that make me vegetarian? Not necessarily.

I have received a lot of feedback regarding this series of articles over the last few months. It is indicative of how volatile an issue it is, considering that it is the most feedback I have ever received in all the years I've been writing. The feedback has been both positive and negative, appreciated and enlightening.

Which brings me to the first obstacles for change. There are gay men who are making it their life's cause to keep people from attempting therapy, by decrying the efficacy of change therapies in the media.  They do this because of their own inability to achieve success in these therapies. It's like secular Jews who feel so threatened by people who become religious that they do everything in their power to keep them secular. Militant gays petition for the right to be acknowledged for who they are but don't accord others the right not to be gay anymore if this is what they desire.
The gay men who decry the effectiveness of conversion therapy do so to inform others struggling with the issues we have gone through that options exist. We want these people to know that, when these therapies fail, and they will fail, it does not mean that the individual is flawed or perverted, but that G-d created them just as they are and that is okay. As we request acknowledgment from the greater Jewish society, we do not force anyone to decide upon any specific path. If someone wants to live a depressed and repressed life, we let them. We never force anyone out of the closet.

"The gay community sees themselves as a persecuted minority group," says Rabbi Shmuel Rosenberg, who lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey and who has been a Clinical Social Worker and family therapist for 22 years. In the course of his work he says, he has helped dozens of people, most of them men, overcome the limits of SSA (Same Sex Attraction).
 SSA. That sounds serious. Almost as bad as HIV. Except...one of those is an actual disease that ravages the bodies of thousands, if not millions, of individuals around the world.
I’m glad this man has found a “cure.”

Homosexuals often suffer a great deal of pain and rejection, condemnation and judgment by their families and their community and deal with a tremendous sense of frustration and failure when they feel they are unable to change. But when a gay man succeeds in changing his lifestyle, he is met with displeasure and even coercion from the gay community in the form of social hostility for having betrayed them. On the other hand there is a tremendous amount of support among strugglers and ex-strugglers themselves.
The pain and rejection we experience is best evidenced in articles such as this one. The author refers to a “lifestyle” that has been altered through the course of this treatment. Contrary to pop-media portrayals, there is no “lifestyle” common to all gay men. I believe the author’s intent was to claim that a gay man succeeds in changing his attraction.

People have been criticizing change therapies for not being a quick fix or any solution at all. Well, the fact that therapy has helped certain men and women to give up their homosexual lifestyles, marry and have children is enough proof that there are people who can be helped by it. It means that at least for some people, there is an option, there is a choice and there is hope. There is no reason not to offer those people the benefits of the potential resources available.
“Some” is not valid statistical evidence and thus does not constitute proof. Furthermore, the individuals to whom you are referring may have been bisexual to being with. I agree, this can be “an option,” should someone choose to undertake it. However, the gist of your article seems to indicate that therapy is the only option.

Reuven is what people call a "textbook case" of a person with SSA: divorced parents, overbearing mother, submissive father, molested as a young child. What isn't textbook, however, is that he never acted on his SSA and he's now married with a young child.  Reuven discovered Judaism in college at about the same time he considered becoming actively homosexual - and so with one foot out of the closet, he went back inside.
What textbook? I am disappointed that such a well published author would omit her sources.  To play devil’s advocate, let’s, for a moment, assume that this is the textbook case of someone “suffering” from homosexual feelings. Let’s say that 15%-20% of the population, both men and women, identify as suffering from SSA.  If the above stated is true, and the typical case is caused by childhood molestation and number of other factors, then there is a vast amount of childhood abuse occurring in the US and across the world, including in the Jewish community. Therefore, along with “repairing” the individuals with SSA, we really should work harder to stop all of this abuse.

If a homosexual lifestyle were a foregone conclusion of the above personal history then Reuven would never have had a chance. Today, Reuven enjoys a healthy marriage, Baruch Hashem, to a woman he is attracted to.
 I’d like to reiterate the fact that many people with homosexual feelings are bisexual. This means that a man or woman in a happy heterosexual relationship may harbor same sex attraction as well as attraction to his/her chosen partner.
           Another obstacle is that many people repress memories of molestation and abuse. Reuven had blocked them out and they only surfaced under hypnosis, which is how his neighbor was finally convicted. A childhood trauma could be the trigger, which sets the stage for a homosexual lifestyle later in life. It's important to investigate where this inclination stems from because, contrary to the claims of pro-gay groups, there is no evidence that this is mostly a genetic precondition.
            Sources! I’d also like to point out that any memory of parental rebuke brought to the surface through hypnotherapy can be skewed to an understanding of abuse, if that is the chosen interpretation.
"As soon as I started viewing this as a midda, not an illness or a condition, it was much easier to deal with," says Reuven. "Everyone comes into this world to do a tikkun and if it wasn't going to be this it was going to be desire for money or gaava or jealousy. People talk about accepting yourself but the self I'm trying to accept is the real self, the self who came into this world to fix something. If I identify with that and not my body, that's my real self. Anyone ignoring their middot is going to have an issue in this world. It's a lifetime work like any other middot work. It's hard going through the process and no one should think it's not."
OK, but the author does see this as an illness and a condition.

Another obstacle is overly high expectations. There are different definitions of success. If someone can get to a point where he has a good marriage and isn't engaging in homosexual activity, even though he's still attracted to men, that's a success. If someone is even engaging in less frequent homosexual activity, that's also a success. Change is incremental.
The gay man abstaining from sex is to be deemed on the road to a cure. Does this mean that the straight man abstaining from sex and not acting on his heterosexual feelings is turning gay? I’ve been abstinent because I believe that sex is something intimate and not meant to be wasted, I assure you, I am not turning straight.

"Therapy is different for each individual," says Adam Jessel, a therapist who referred some of the people who were interviewed for this series. "It will depend on many factors like their age, how they feel relative to the gay community, how much homosexual experience they've had, etc. The success of therapy is dependent on both internal and external parameters.

"Therapy doesn't work so well when people come to therapy because of pressure from others such as parents and authority figures. It requires an intrinsic motivation.  It won't work if it's somebody else's agenda.  In general, understanding the issues and the individual are prerequisites for change."
Somebody else’s agenda…like the one published here?

               Rabbi Rosenberg adds: "There's a message out there that if you have homosexual attraction you must be gay and will only be fulfilled in a homosexual life. There are sanctioned gay clubs in high schools and universities which make that claim and give legitimacy to a homosexual lifestyle. It conveys the idea that either sexual orientation is equally acceptable. This makes it harder for people with SSA to commit to a process of change."
Rabbi Rosenberg, there are many gay-straight alliances in high schools and universities across the nation. I am sure that, before these groups came into existence, the idea was scrutinized by boards of mental health and education professionals to determine if this was a good idea. If it were not for groups like these the tragic suicides we saw only a few months ago would be far more numerous.

Another impediment to people struggling with SSA is the media. It sends out confusing and misleading messages about relationships.

"They need to see that marriage is a lifestyle and not about sexual prowess like the messages propagated in the media," says Rosenberg. "When they see the superstuds in ads and movies, they question their own sexuality. Many of the patients who come to me are not really homosexual but they think they are because they have difficulty keeping up with what they think they ought to be." Rosenberg says that many people think at one point in their lives that they may be gay. This is especially true in a sexually segregated society like religious Judaism where there is a great deal of same sex interaction.  This promotes feelings but these feelings don't make you gay - it's more opportunistic than homosexual.
Perhaps the individuals aren’t questioning their sexuality, but are experiencing body image issues similar to those that often cause eating disorders in young women. The lifestyles of sexual promiscuity that are promoted in the media are not exclusively homosexual. In fact, I’d wager that, more often than not, sexual acts references on TV and in the cinema are between a man and a woman.

            Reuven feels it's important to get rid of the stigma.  "People should be aware that SSA exists, it happens. The most dangerous part of it is for the frum community not to be aware of it and not encourage people to get help." Reuven worries that if you put so much of a stigma on it and people don't get help now then what's going to be with their children if they get married? It perpetuates a vicious cycle. And if there are parents who have children who have been abused and molested and are perhaps blocking out their memories, they should get help for them.

             Because even if it doesn't manifest as SSA, it will manifest as something else. People are never aware to what degree abuse takes. Even verbal abuse. A few comments like "You're so stupid, you're just like your father." That's all it takes to damage a child.
Child suffering from abuse like this should be removed from their parent’s inadequate care.

So there's a double-edged sword, people assuming they're gay who actually aren't, misinterpreting other feelings for SSA, and people who may have a tendency for SSA not getting the help they need to deal with it because of the stigma attached.

But despite all these roadblocks, there is a great deal of change taking place out there, both in people's perceptions and in their willingness to embrace change. The road to teshuva, the road to mental health and the road to finding one's bashert are very, very long. To people with this particular nissayon, the road may seem endless. As a community we need to be supportive and encouraging of individuals. However, misplaced tolerance and acceptance of a homosexual lifestyle as a legitimate choice will only stand in the way of an individual's potential to build a happy and normal Torah home.
Teshuva for what sin? Why is repentance equated with mental health? Yes, gay people do find it difficult to find a bashert…because the men and women we are supposed to end up with are hiding in the closet or attempting conversion therapy. Perhaps I will not build a “normal” home as viewed by Ms. Saltsman, but I assure you that my home will be filled with Torah and happiness. “As a community we [do] need to be supportive and encouraging of individuals,” no matter what path they have chosen to follow.

I got the wonderful news that one of the men I interviewed for this series, Alan (Through a Different Lens), got engaged and married to a wonderful girl. Alan has gone from not being attracted to women to being attracted to this amazing one (who knows of his issues), and looking forward to spending the coming years growing in his relationship with her.  I'm sure we all wish them mazal tov! I can't think of a more effective endorsement for therapy of this kind. If we're going to wait for 100% success rate for any life change or a life altering decision, we'll never be espousing change at all. Every marriage is a milestone, every life matters, and every small step to success is gigantic.

May we merit many more simchas of this kind.

To contact Adam Jessel for personal or phone therapy:
972 (0) 54-672-0336

To contact Rabbi Rosenberg
Why, pray tell, has this article turned into an advertisement?
This entire article is rife with conspiracy theories and misplaced zealotry. It reminds me of the lies propagated in the infamous “The Principles of the Elders of Zion.” Rather than focus on the Jews as an evil, Ms. Saltsman focuses her spiteful pen upon the men and women who have struggled to find the courage to accept their sexuality. While Ms. Salstman reiterates the “success” of these therapies, she offers no conclusive evidence. I challenge her to publish research reviewed by unbiased experts in the field of psychology.
The original text of the article, without my comments, can be found here: http://www.jewishpress.com/pageroute.do/46369


  1. What is wrong with gays staying in the closet, without therapy?

  2. There is nothing wrong with someone staying in the closet. As I wrote, I would never force someone out of the closet. Nor is there anything wrong with someone not undertaking psychological therapy. I do think that a therapist or another confidant can be helpful to someone in the closet. In my experiences, closeted individuals usually have a lot of emotions, questions and concerns that can be a lot to deal with without assistance.
    Let me make something clear: I would never condone reparative/conversion therapy. Should someone I know choose to undergo such a process I would support them in their decision because they are my friend, but not because I think it is a wise decision.
    My varioius suggestions to closeted gay men and women are, and will continue to be, available for review through this blog. The more I write, the more suggestions will flow.

  3. What do you think about the upcoming Eshel retreat? You are already a proven leader. Make your voice heard.

  4. I think the upcoming retreat can do a lot to strengthen a sense of Kehilla for gay Jews, especially in light of the fact that many people at times feel excluded from their normal communities. Unfortunately, I will not be attending because I have a prior engagement.
    Thank you for the compliment, but I do not know that I would yet constitute a "leader."

  5. What is leadership? The founder of JQY is a leader. Anyone brave enough to speak out publicly is a leader. You have been interviewed in print media and appear sane and credible on you tube. How many others have done this? Not many.

    Is there a benefit to speaking out on the topic? No flattery intended. You do it well.

  6. vy,
    I suspect you are confusing me with another Benjy. Now I know how every Jewish Sarah feels. I have not been interviewed in print-media nor do I have any youtube videos in which I discuss the issues I discuss here, nor am I a founder of JQY. If you have questions that you feel should be directed at me and not for the general public to view, please send your correspondence to the e-mail address provided on my user profile.