I can think of no worse situation for a gay person than to belong to a traditional religious community. For some the negativity and self-loathing is so internalized that they turn on themselves and other gays, exhibiting intensely homophobic attitudes and behaviors. Others suffer in silence.
In the Orthodox Jewish community there has been a very low level of discussion about this for a number of years. It began with Rabbi Steve Greenberg’s pseudonymous article about his own homosexuality in a 1993 issue of “Tikkun Magazine.” It has been explored in the film “Trembling Before G-d.” Some empathetic Orthodox rabbis signed onto a “Statement of Principles” that attempts to emphasize the importance of treating gay Orthodox Jews with dignity and understanding.
Needless to say, the vast majority of Orthodox Jews are not on board with this. One such individual was moved to pen an op-ed in the Orthodox American newspaper, The Jewish Press, back in June when he happened upon a YouTube “It Gets Better” video by someone he knew:
Seeing him speak shamelessly as a homosexual on YouTube pained me. “Why?” I asked [his] image on my computer screen, as if he could somehow hear me. “Why must you publicize your orientation for the whole world to know?”
Being attracted to other men while growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community must be difficult for any young male. And keeping one’s struggles private can be lonely and depressing. But are closeted homosexuals the only ones who struggle in solitude and silence? Don’t tens of thousands of Orthodox teenagers and young adults – to say nothing of older men and women who never married – struggle silently with their attraction to the opposite sex?
For so many issues, one can attend lectures that offer chizuk and advice. Hardly any for this issue. In so many areas of life one can discuss personal difficulties with friends. Not in this area. Some individuals hint at their struggles to a particular rebbe to whom they feel close, and here and there one may also encounter allusions to this topic in various sefarim. By and large, though, unmarried heterosexual Orthodox Jews suffer in solitude.
But do those Jews complain? Do Catholic priests, the overwhelming majority of whom remain celibate their entire lives, complain? No. They wage their internal battles quietly, recognizing that not every topic need be discussed openly and not every feeling need be publicized and validated.
Why, then, can’t Orthodox homosexuals do the same? Why can’t they struggle silently and heroically as do so many others?
…But openly homosexual Orthodox Jews apparently care little about the very essence of what it means to be a servant of God and demand that everyone accept them as they are. Their needs, their wants, their desires are what matters.
This, I am told, is the prevalent attitude of Orthodox Jews to the gays among them. They should shut up and suffer in silence like those good Catholic priests do. Insert your own joke about that one here.
Well, the boy in the video, Chaim Levin, did not keep silent. The Jewish Press printed something that he wrote, too:
In the YouTube video I talk about the endless bullying in my childhood, the trauma of reparative therapy and my suicide attempt as a result of a frum community that seemed to not want me to exist simply because I was gay.
My message was that, with time, with understanding friends and with self-acceptance, it gets better. I hoped to tell other kids who may be on the brink of suicide to stick it out, because life gets better; even for gay Jews growing up in the Orthodox community. This video never talks about private behavior, never mentions any assur activity, and certainly does not divulge anything about what I do behind closed doors. However, simply because I talk about how I was bullied for being gay, the author tried to make me feel horrible for simply sending a message of hope. He succeeded in embarrassing me and making me feel unwanted by this community.
He goes on to reveal the humiliating abuse that he suffered at the hands of an Orthodox “reparative therapy” process. He also laments another declaration by Orthodox rabbis about homosexuality with its own extensive website that explicitly mandates that discredited approach in shocking terms:
We emphatically reject the notion that a homosexually inclined person cannot overcome his or her inclination and desire. Behaviors are changeable. The Torah does not forbid something which is impossible to avoid. Abandoning people to lifelong loneliness and despair by denying all hope of overcoming and healing their same-sex attraction is heartlessly cruel.
…The only viable course of action that is consistent with the Torah is therapy and teshuvah [repentance]. The therapy consists of reinforcing the natural gender-identity of the individual by helping him or her understand and repair the emotional wounds that led to its disorientation and weakening, thus enabling the resumption and completion of the individual’s emotional development…
These processes are typically facilitated and coordinated with the help of a specially trained counselor or therapist working in conjunction with a qualified spiritual teacher or guide. There is no other practical, Torah-sanctioned solution for this issue.
The site also features various quotes from the American Psychological Association taken out of context and a number of attacks on its integrity. The whole thing is just dreadful.
“The Jewish Press” found itself under attack for having the nerve to publish Chaim Levin’s article. Advertisers were threatened and the usual crap ensued. To their credit, they did not take it lying down:
…The Torah itself is very clear on where it stands on homosexual acts.
But the Torah is also very clear on how one should treat one’s fellow Jew, and certainly one who tries to be religious — whether he or she succeeds or not — should not be driven by fellow Jews to contemplate suicide.
A situation where religious Jews are provoking children and adults who are different to consider suicide is unthinkable and unacceptable.
Following the publication of this op-ed, a number of Jewish Press advertisers were approached and threatened. They were told to stop advertising with The Jewish Press.
The Jewish Press won’t give in to threats and we won’t be silenced.
We thank our advertisers who have notified us that they plan to continue with us despite the threatening letters and that they won’t give into threats either, particularly when an article like this one may have very well have saved a Jewish life.
It’s very easy for someone like me to scratch his head in bewilderment about why anyone would remain in a community with these attitudes. Yet I can also fully understand – though never agree with – the reasons he would stay.
Certainly, the traditional religious world is enslaved to a set of values and assumptions created for another era. By the same token, I appreciate and respect the efforts of those traditional believers, few though they may be, who demonstrate some level of empathy. Empathy is the root of true human morality.
Now that I’ve said something nice, allow me to be blunt. Religion can be a force for good when it wears its liberal guise. But when it does not, when it remains mired in ancient values and ideas unsuited to our time, and when it is unmoored from true morality, it is a powerful force for repression and evil.