Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review June 25, 2001 / 4 Tamuz, 5761



When religious Jews struggle with homosexuality




By Adam Jessel

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WHEN 21-year-old Avi Korman (not his real name) confided to his parents that he was experiencing unwanted homosexual urges, they weren't sure where to turn. Eventually, the young man and his parents approached Rabbi Sam Rosenberg for help. Rosenberg, an Orthodox Jewish therapist in family practice in New Jersey, did what he always did with new cases, namely research the options. He discovered that a number of therapy and support groups across the United States seemed to offer promising treatment. Most, though, were overtly religious, and none were Jewish.

Eventually, the Kormans teamed up with several other Jewish families facing similar challenges to launch JONAH --- Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. The New Jersey-based non-profit organization is staffed entirely by volunteers, with Rabbi Rosenberg assisting as a clinical consultant. JONAH serves as a worldwide information and referral center, operates therapy groups for people who want to overcome homosexual orientations, and provides professional guidance to similar groups in Israel.

Not surprisingly, those involved in JONAH are Jews who respect the traditional Jewish approach to homosexuality --- for the most part, but not exclusively, Orthodox Jews. While valuing every human being and the struggles people shoulder, Jewish law and tradition unequivocally prohibit homosexual behavior, and some expressions of homosexuality are considered so detrimental to the individual and society that they are included by the Torah among the basic moral prohibitions incumbent upon all humanity.

The Reform movement, by contrast, permits its rabbis to formalize homosexual unions and ordains open homosexuals. While the Conservative movement has not officially sanctioned the practice, some of its rabbis do officiate at same-sex ceremonies, and the former rector of one of the movement's two rabbinic seminaries has openly endorsed the blessing of "gay unions." Indeed, when a representative of JONAH was invited by a teacher and her class to speak before them at a Conservative Hebrew high school, the principal stepped in to cancel the event.

With that approach, the non-Orthodox Jewish movements are embracing the contemporary societal consensus that regards homosexual orientation as innate, irreversible, and morally neutral. That view, effectively promoted by gay activists, leaves no room for an organization like JONAH, which caters to people who do not consider homosexual activity a viable alternative and supports their efforts to change.

"Strugglers", as the group's clients are called, want to overcome their same-sex attraction for any of a number of reasons. Some have been involved in homosexual activity for years and became disillusioned with a promiscuous lifestyle and unstable, stormy relationships. Some simply want to marry and have children. Still others are already married, and want to eliminate the difficulties brought to their marriages by unwanted homosexual attractions. Those who were born religious or became religious later in life are motivated by a clear religious obligation to avoid homosexual activity and wish to reduce their same-sex attraction.

Steven (also a pseudonym) had been pursuing an active homosexual life when he started reading about Judaism. "Jewish philosophy and practice started to make a lot of sense to me, and I eventually had to make a choice: Either continue to be openly homosexual, perhaps even becoming a Reform rabbi or make a commitment to overcome my homosexual urges."

Taking the second path is never easy. Whether people like Steven manage to control or eliminate their unwanted same-sex attraction depends on many factors, including to what extent they regard change as possible. Indeed, many Jews with unwanted homosexual attractions are discouraged from seeking help because they have heard that homosexuality is something innate that cannot be changed.

Rosenberg acknowledges that there may be people who cannot change their same-gender attraction. "However," he adds, "I have never met such a person."

His confidence in the ability to change is not based solely on his own clinical experience. He received strong support from a report by a Columbia University Professor of Psychiatry delivered on May 9 at the annual convention of the American Psychiatric Association (APA). In the report, Dr. Robert Spitzer announced the results of a study he had conducted, concluding that "contrary to conventional wisdom, some highly motivated individuals, using a variety of change efforts, can make substantial change in multiple indicators of sexual orientation."

According to Rosenberg, "We cannot make a man interested in women [against his will]. But we can help him attain that goal if he wants. Generally, a diminishing of the unwanted homosexual attraction is accompanied by an increased awareness of attraction to the opposite gender."

The researcher interviewed 200 men and women who have experienced a significant shift from homosexual to heterosexual attraction, and have sustained this shift for at least five years. By the time of the study interview, three-quarters of the men and half of the women had become married.

"If somebody wants to change and it's not because they are just responding to pressure, it shouldn't be assumed that it's irrational or giving in to society," Dr. Spitzer told an interviewer.

While other studies have likewise demonstrated the fluidity of sexual orientation, Spitzer's personal involvement in this particular study is of special significance: He was a leading figure in the 1973 APA decision that removed homosexuality from the official diagnostic manual of mental disorders.

Rabbi Rosenberg is sympathetic to those who feel that they cannot change. "While there's no question that Judaism prohibits homosexual acts, we must be mindful that it can be a very painful struggle, one that you can't judge if you've never been there."

"Still, although it can be difficult, "the potential for change is always there."


Adam Jessel is a therapist and research consultant living in Israel. A former staff member in the Faculty of Medicine at Hadassah Hospital, he has authored numerous studies in medical and scientific journals. JONAH can be reached at Jonahhelp@aol.com or by phone at (201) 433-3444. Click here to comment on this column.

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