Avi Shafran’s recent article in the Forward discussing gay “reparative” therapy has made me reflect on my philosophy of life. It’s always difficult for me to know the balance between halacha and happiness. I grew up in a world where Judaism came before all else. I still believe strongly in the importance of keeping the laws of the Torah. But the experiences of the past few years of my life have taught me something else: happiness– and I don’t mean that fleeting feeling we experience at a party of good friends, or when watching a particularly good movie; I mean the deep-seated satisfaction of a life being lived in the right way, and in a way that represents what you believe in, loving others and loving yourself, and being loved by others– is key.
Now, I’m not gay and I’ve personally never been through any therapy of the sort, but I have friends who are and who have been. I’ve also read enough accounts of traumatic experience, if not downright abuse, at the hands of those who claim to offer the ability to ‘fix’ their clients, and turn them straight. In fact, in recent posts on the Facebook group Orthodox Jews Against Homophobia, Chaim Levin posted asking whether his vocal protests to therapy are harmful. Every single person who responded told him, in one way or another, how important it was for him to continue speaking out against the way this therapy is being conducted.
Shafran fairly presents both sides of the argument of reparative therapy– those who believe it will harm its patients, versus those who have faith in its ability to make its patients functioning heterosexuals– but concludes, essentially, that in spite of the many arguments against reparative therapy, those who wish to truly devote their lives to Torah would (and, possibly, should) go through this therapy in order to be able to marry and have children with a member of the opposite gender.
Putting aside the rather weighty– and growing– pile of evidence against the effectiveness of reparative therapy, there’s a problem I have with the claim Shafran is making overall: that one who wishes to remain a Torah-observant Jew should either enter into heterosexual marriages, or remain celibate.
First of all, let’s just address celibacy: um, what? Celibacy is just about the worst option. Ever. Have we not seen that with the practice of Catholic priests? It’s unfulfilling, unsatisfying, and lonely. And I don’t just mean being sexually celibate, I mean any form of living without a life-long partner.
Shafran acknowledges this, and offers, instead, marrying a person of the opposite gender in order to leave to fulfillment. This, to me, sounds just as absurd, for every reason that arranged marriages wouldn’t work in a modern society, plus a few thousand other reasons. The pressure to marry someone to whom one is not attracted, and never can be, will only lead to pain for both partners, and possibly even their children, should they be able to procreate.
These arguments aside, there are a small number of reparative therapy patients who claim to have gone through treatment and come out a happy, healthy heterosexual. I don’t want to question the validity of their claims, and I’d like to believe it can actually work. But the percentage of those who go through the treatment and come out unchanged or worse, hurt in some way, far outstrips that of those who feel benefited. Thus, any pressure from rabbis and the community to attend such sessions can be nothing but negative.
But. If it can help people, there is a responsibility of the community to refrain from publicly shaming those who do attempt reparative therapy. Presumably these individuals are aware of the risks of reparative therapy and are choosing to try it anyway. These people should be able to do so without feeling like an outcast. It might end up being a mistake but sometimes you have to make the mistake yourself.
For everyone else, though, we are left with a halachic knot. According to halacha, homosexuals can’t be in a same-sex sexual relationship, yet being in such a relationship may be the only path to personal happiness, which is a goal I feel Judaism promotes. How can we feel comfortable telling others that their happiness in life is secondary?