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Confronting the last Taboo – Orthodox Judaism and Homosexuality

November 5, 2009 – 7:10 pm268 Comments

handsMichael Barnett of Aleph takes Orthodox Jewry to task on treatment of same-sex attracted Jews. His article is followed by a response by Orthodox Rabbi, Shamir Caplan.

Homosexuality, Orthodox Judaism and Psychological child abuse

by Michael Barnett

Orthodox Judaism is responsible for child abuse.

This statement will sit uncomfortably with many people, but it is an undeniable fact, based on logic and reason.

For over a decade I have been trying to bring awareness of the dangers of not accepting homosexuality or same-sex attraction as a normal and natural part of human sexuality, to the Jewish community.  Recent events (see this and this) have precipitated a need to escalate my efforts to raise such awareness.  Around the same time, overwhelming evidence has also become available that further substantiates my claims.

Child abuse can be physical, sexual and psychological.  Society and the law does not tolerate physical or sexual abuse of children and there are harsh penalties for perpetrators.  Psychological abuse of children is not dealt with quite as harshly, but is just as damaging and the outcomes are no less tragic.

Whilst the exact percentage of people in a population who are same-sex attracted is unclear, evidence shows that it may be as high as 10%, or 1 in 10 people.

Recent research (see here, here, and here) has shown that children who are same-sex attracted and who are not encouraged to express their sexuality freely are prone to depression, anxiety and behaviour that may lead to suicide.  These attempts at suicide have been shown to occur at rates of up to 14 times higher than for their heterosexual peers.

Orthodox Judaism comes into this discussion due to its vehement intolerance of homosexuality and homosexual sex between consenting adults.  Orthodox Judaism does not tolerate or encourage two men or two women to freely love each other and have a meaningful relationship with each other that includes sexual activity.  There can be no denying this.  The Torah unambiguously forbids homosexual practices and Orthodox Judaism leaves no room for satisfactory interpretation or compromise.

As children go through puberty they start developing sexual feelings and attractions.  It is a natural and normal part of sexual development for people to be attracted to others of the same, opposite or even both sexes (see this).

Children with same-sex attractions in Orthodox Jewish environments are told by their parents and/or community that their innate sexual attractions are sinful and wrong. They are coerced to behave in a way that is extremely unnatural and uncomfortable for them and are prone to developing depression and/or anxiety because of the conflict between the child’s natural sexual feelings and the heterosexual way they are expected to behave.  If these emotions spiral out of control it can lead to suicidal behaviour.  This intolerant behaviour clearly constitutes psychological child abuse.

This insidious form of child abuse isn’t restricted to Orthodox Judaism.  Any person, group of people or organisation that perpetrates intolerance of same-sex attraction is complicit.

Just like an alcoholic needs to accept they have a drinking problem before they can address their alcohol abuse, the Jewish community needs to accept that within it there is an endemic problem of psychological child abuse due to intolerance of homosexuality and must then collaborate to prevent further harm.  This can only happen when it accepts homosexuality as normal, natural and healthy and starts treating people who have same-sex attractions with dignity and as worthy members of the community.

Ironically, the Jewish community has a fantastic network of support organisations that deal with mental health issues, family violence and discrimination, yet none of these services advertise or appear to deal with matters involving homosexuality.  It makes one wonder how seriously they take their charters.

This abuse must be stopped immediately.  Do you want your child to be the next (suicide) statistic, at the expense of religious beliefs? (See this boy’s story and another one.)

Michael Barnett is the head of Aleph Melbourne, a friendly, secular, social and support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and supporters who have a Jewish heritage, living in or around Melbourne.

The following is a response by Rabbi Shamir Caplan

For many reasons, the topic of homosexuality has to be one of the most challenging issues facing Orthodoxy today, not the least of which being that it pits two central tenets of Orthodoxy against each other:  a) the expectation that people strive to live in what is considered the ideal way of life, and b) the fundamental need to show compassion to those who are truly suffering.

Since Orthodoxy has understood heterosexual relationships to be the ideal lifestyle, it is expected that individuals try to structure their lives in that direction.  Indeed, in all matters regarding which Judaism has a say, there is an expectation that people make serious and sincere efforts to pursue the ideal, even if it goes against their natural proclivity.  In the first instance, the same applies to sexuality.

But some important caveats exist:  firstly, the process by which a community expects its members to make reasonable efforts to pursue the ideal should be a healthy process, and should NOT have to involve the use of negativity, such as guilt, fear or anger.  That is more a question of appropriate parenting or education, as opposed to Orthodoxy per se.

Second caveat: I agree that if people were completely honest, we would find that gender attraction is a continuum, not an “either/or” proposition.  Likely, most people would be on the heterosexual end of the spectrum, a good number would be somewhere in the middle (having some feelings of attraction to both genders), and some would be on the homosexual end.  For the “strongly heterosexual” and the “people somewhere in the middle”, the expectation of a heterosexual lifestyle is very achievable, even if it involves some self-limitation (indeed, what healthy marriage wouldn’t?!)  On the other hand, history shows that even after serious effort, some individuals will find that they are unable to pursue a heterosexual lifestyle.  That being the case, the expectation that they do so would have to fall away.  If an individual felt that to sleep with someone of the opposite sex would be as unnatural as it would feel for a heterosexual to sleep with someone of the same sex, then to tell them to do so anyway would be cruel.  Conversely, treating them with empathy and understanding is nothing short of pikuach nefesh, saving a life.

For people in such a situation, the appropriate course of action would be to pursue a compromise position, the substance of which extends beyond the scope of this brief response.  Certainly, there are many Orthodox voices emerging from our community that are ready, willing, and able to lend support in this no doubt difficult process.  Further, the role of the broader Orthodox community should be to approach people who are “strongly” homosexual with compassion and sensitivity, as they would of any person who genuinely sought to be a part of their community.  Sadly, this doesn’t always take place.  While communal leadership should be setting the appropriate tone, if an individual nonetheless finds that their Orthodox community is not ready to accept them, they might have to find another Orthodox community that will.  I believe that they can, and often do.

Third caveat:  the Orthodox responses (and there are different ones) to homosexuality are evolving, just as society’s own understanding of it is evolving.  Although their responses would be very different from each other, it is safe to say that from the left to the right, all Orthodox communities are responding to homosexuality today differently than they would be ten years ago.  By the way, I believe it is as inappropriate to speak generically about “the Orthodox community” as it is to speak generically about “homosexuals” – doing so leaves no room for understanding subtle distinctions and finding reasoned compromises. Inflammatory speech certainly serves no one’s best interests.

I for one am happy to continue the conversation, hopefully in an environment of sensitivity and mutual respect.  There is much more to be said, and I might suggest a good resource for further reading (see this website). For now, let me just conclude by saying that the way forward is to be honest, to listen carefully, and to act lovingly.

Rabbi Shamir Caplan is chaplain of a local orthodox college and is also a local congregational Rabbi. He can be contacted by email: scaplan at alumni.utexas.net

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