Science and religion are by no means irreconcilable, but science’s ever-deepening look into the structure of things and religion’s understanding of truths as God-given and therefore unchanging often require each to do a delicate dance around the other.
Some things change, others remain the same, and our human brains scramble to keep up.
Our understanding of same-sex attraction has changed enormously over the last few decades. The precise relationship of nature to nurture in human sexuality in general is not at all clear. The biblical proscription against at least one form of male same-sex behavior is clear; it is called an “abomination” in Leviticus 18:22. Society in general has become much more accepting of openly gay men and lesbians. Religious organizations have had to confront the increasingly pressing need to reach out to them and welcome them, even though, in many parts of the Jewish world, they must continue to make clear that they disapprove of their sexuality.
Jonah, a Jersey-City based organization that claims to help men and women “struggling with unwanted same-sex attractions to journey out of homosexuality,” uses a form of treatment it calls “gender-affirming processes” and its opponents call aversion therapy.
Jonah finds itself beleaguered of late. It is being sued by four gay men and their mothers, who say that the therapy it offers does not work and has harmed them. In a novel move, the men and their mothers are suing for fraud.
The Rabbinical Council of America, the umbrella group of Orthodox rabbis, wrote a message to Jonah in 2004, and Jonah posted the note on its website, www.jonahweb.org. That message suggests that rabbis should consider getting in touch with Jonah if they have congregants “dealing with unwanted same sex attractions, or any families who have a member thereof facing such an attraction.”
However, the RCA says, its 2004 pro-Jonah message no longer reflects its position with any accuracy. That is why the RCA sent out a press release on Thursday, Nov. 29, saying that its members could no longer endorse Jonah’s methods.
Moreover, according to the press release, in 2011 the group decided “to withdraw its original letter referencing Jonah. Despite numerous attempts by the RCA to have mention of that original letter removed from the Jonah website, our calls, letters, and emails remain unanswered.
“We believe that properly trained mental health professionals who abide by the values and ethics of their professions can and do make a difference in the lives of their patients and clients,” the press release continued. “The RCA believes that responsible therapists, in partnership with amenable clients, should be able to work on whatever issues those clients voluntarily bring to the session. Allegations made against Jonah lead us to question whether Jonah meets those standards.”
Shmuel Goldin, rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, is the RCA’s president. The email was sent out now, he said, because, with the lawsuit pending, the RCA feels “that it’s important that our position be properly understood.”
Goldin said he finds the situation frustrating. “Jonah doesn’t refuse outright” to remove the letter, he said. Instead, “they don’t answer. We’re looking into legal action.
“The letter preceded most of us who are active in the RCA now,” he continued. “It came at a time when Jonah was new. It was being touted as a positive development.”
Members of the RCA no longer are convinced that the development is positive, as was made clear by an email it sent in 2011 and posted on its website, www.rabbis.org. “On the subject of reparative therapy, it is our view that, as rabbis, we can neither endorse nor reject any therapy or method that is intended to assist those who are struggling with same-sex attraction,” it read, adding that all therapy must be done by licensed, trained practitioners, and only for willing participants.
“Any therapy has to have clear safeguards and be done properly,” Goldin said. “It cannot be abusive, or off the charts in any way. If the therapy is abusive, then it should be shut down.
“We clearly heard reports about Jonah that concern us,” he continued. “We are looking for the truth to come out, and until it does, we cannot and will not recommend people to a therapy that is under question.”
That is not any kind of endorsement of homosexuality, he added. The balance between human compassion and halachah – Jewish law – is a tightrope, but it is necessary to walk it without toppling.
“We respect all endeavors to learn what can be done to make people happier,” he said. “At the same time, we hold to our religious posture about what behaviors are or are not acceptable within the context of a religious life.”
According to Jonah’s co-director, Arthur Goldberg, there is no reason to take down the RCA’s letter. His lawyer told him “that it’s a historical record, and there is nothing wrong with keeping a historical record,” Goldberg said. As for the lawsuit, “basically we think it’s without merit. It’s a politically motivated event.
“We’ll see them in court.”
Goldberg, who is not a psychologist or therapist and does not practice therapy himself, said, “we never use the words ‘aversion therapy.’ We use ‘gender-affirming process.’
“It’s not abusive in any shape, matter, or form,” he continued. Instead, both the lawsuit and the RCA’s request that its message be removed are motivated differently. “It’s a political maneuver.”
In fact, he suggested, all the attacks on Jonah are fueled by political correctness.