This is something I posted in conversation on the Nefesh ListServe right after the devastating Orlando terrorist act. I am gratified that many of the points I made here seem to be related to points made in Part One of the Fall 2016 edition of The New Atlantis. After reading that publication, I decided to post this publicly.
I work with gay clients. Gay men who are orthodox. Some of them struggle with wanting to come out and embrace their homosexuality but remain conflicted with their Torah identity, others wanting to embrace their Torah identity but remain conflicted with their homosexual identity and still others who are simply conflicted about what their homosexual impulses mean to them. I have bared witness to the palpable pain of some of my clients when hate crimes are perpetrated against the gay community.
A sociology professor of mine commented that in modern times, Orthodox Jews are roughly thirty years behind the general Western culture in terms of grappling with what should be considered normative behaviors. I surmise that what was discussed forty years ago by the general culture regarding the normalization of homosexuality is hitting the waves of Orthodox culture for the first time now. Much like marijuana usage was almost unheard of in much of the Orthodox Jewish world thirty years ago.
As a singular group of orthodox Jewish therapists there are many differences amongst us regarding our exposure and acceptance of societal norms. As professionals, trained by and exposed to the mores of Western society’s universities we accept certain ideas about identity, happiness and the hierarchy of human needs. And when we contemplate certain areas that address the intersection of modern psychology and religion we bring with us our modern day training. And this, in my opinion, is overall absolutely amazing. I still believe very strongly that as a whole there are areas of Torah that are waiting to be explored, explained and taught by us as a group to the general population given our unique and expert understanding of humanity. But some of us are more exposed than others to Western norms. I tend to think I lie on the less charedi side of many of these discussions.
Some of our clients accept certain ideas and norms from the Western culture as fact and others resist. And their resistance has real world implications in areas where politics, history and social pressures impact our clinical understanding. These differences are not just amongst individuals but are powerful differences amongst the various cultures within Orthodox Judaism. To compound this, we as therapists also come from varying backgrounds. In discussing our Orthodox clients we bring not only our own values and clinical training to our work but we contemplate the various backgrounds of the people we treat.
And so, the discussions we have amongst ourselves as therapists about sexuality sometimes feel so off kilter. Unfortunately when discussing topics like homosexuality things get offensive and personal. (As is true in the larger general society as well.) Besides, there is often the risk as therapists, who are in the position to have all the answers, to come across as definitive and judgmental. We need to listen better to each other. Orthodox Jewish Rabbis, who are on the front line of dealing with communal issues, have yet to figure out how to wrap their heads around the plethora of issues involving homosexuality and they are turning to therapists. I get the sense that many Orthodox Jewish therapists don't know how to wrap their heads around these issues either. And this has been confirmed to me by the plethora of discussions I have had with colleagues, supervisees and with Jewish educators.
It would be detrimental to this discussion to not include a social history of homosexuality. Detrimental because there are nuances missing from what people have written sensationally about the LGBTQ community.
Let me be very clear. Homosexuality is a painful topic that the various Orthodox Jewish cultures are becoming more aware of the need to grapple with. We are forty years behind the general culture, so we are roughly in line with how my sociology professor framed it. The struggle of men and women feeling as if they can never marry or have emotionally and sexually fulfilling relationships in the year 2016 in our sexually-drenched, emotionally-craved and socially-anorexic Western culture is beyond fathomable. The pain that single people feel in our family-oriented frum world adds just another layer. And yes, I too have been moved to tears listening to the struggle of some of my gay clients.
What is often missing from this discussion is how social-constructionism plays into the narratives the Western world tells about homosexuality. Social constructs are the way social groups tell their story, or self-identify. Meaning becomes attached to various experiences based on how an individual or groups of individuals chooses to accept or define natural occurrences. In this vain, a social construct is an idea that appears to be natural and obvious to people who accept it but may or may not represent reality. Certainly it may not be how other social groups accept the very same natural occurrences. Once meaning is attached to a natural phenomenon the narrative that follows simply flows.
“Homosexual identity” is a very new social construct. A narrative that became public and accepted in the United States in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Other than first-world Western countries it is essentially unheard of. Let me be clear, I am not saying that homosexuality doesn’t exist the world over. I am talking about the narrative told about homosexuality which is where the word “identity” fits in to this discussion.
Psychological conceptualizations about identity cannot be the “end-all” in trying to understand this topic. Anthropology, sociology, the arts, philosophy and religion all have what to say about the definition of identity as well. What gets lost in this conversation is the role of social constructionism. The history of sexual politics is one wrought with friction, visceral pain and enough power to have affected massive change in this country and much of the Western world, for better and for worse. I think that the idea of having frum sex-therapists and marriage counselors is amazing. It is something that could only have grown out of Western views of repression vs. sexual gratification and the importance of a couple developing meaningful relationships. These are things that got lost, didn’t exist or weren’t too important in the lives of pre-war Europe and post-war Orthodox Jewry (in many cases). But society is absolutely drenched with sexuality. And the narratives that follow are simply based on the pendulum swung in the opposite direction by Woodstock.
Not everyone who is homosexual has a homosexual identity. Nor wants one.
This very notion is deemed “homophobia” (internalized or externalized) by the social constructs created by the gay rights agenda. I think this word is also socially constructed. Calling it a phobia, in clinical terms, connotes a “pathological fear of”. For many people with homosexuality their dystonic (unwanted) relationship with their sexuality is not pathological, nor is it a fear (ala “the Holy Roman Empire” is neither holy, nor roman, nor an empire). How the notion of “homophobia” is used and attached to various experiences as well as what to do about it is where I take issue. If someone wants to see a gay affirmative therapist and diminish their homophobia that’s their prerogative. And I embrace them as a human being. Their story fits neatly into society’s narrative.
But if sexuality is fluid and malleable then so is identity. Many of the clients I treat are born and raised in religious homes where their identity are formed around their religious culture. Homosexual identity is not an identity that is part of their culture. There are lots of narratives told about sexuality in their cultures but there is no narrative told about people who have homosexual desires or impulses. I appreciate the push now to create a narrative. But the one pushed by the social constructed identity of the homosexual agenda is misguided. It is not so simple to take pre-packaged ideas that the Western world has accepted for decades and super-impose them on the Orthodox Jewish world.
Many orthodox Jews don’t view their religion as another part of their identity, akin to what flavor ice cream (chocolate vs vanilla) they like. They don’t engage with the world as simply another member of society who happen to practice one set of faiths and rituals. It is the core of their identity. Ethnocentrically excluding other identities. While we as Orthodox Jewish therapists continuously discuss the confusion our Orthodox clients make out of cultural norms, minhag, Halacha, pathology and other clinical issues, the Identity of so many of them simply doesn’t and probably never will include the Western narrative for homosexuality. There are many reasons for this. But there is one simple one.
The saturation of sexuality, the craving humanity has for it and the sexual values that have been borne out of it are not the same values that the Orthodox Jewish world places on sexuality. Yes, we could make arguments about what pathology this leads to. But it’s simply the way it is in Yeshivish and Chassidish communities. Let alone, asking them to accept a social construct that is wrapped around a love where the primary expression of that love involves sin (namely, any sexual expression outside of a marriage [narrow Halachic views of female sexuality not withstanding]) is also intellectually dishonest and downright bullying.
There is also a big difference between what a Rabbi might advise a client and how a community keeps its standards. For example, it is one thing for a Rabbi to advocate for a single woman to use the mikvah before she engages in intercourse to avoid the severity of sin and it is quite another thing to change mikvah policy and open doors for single women. This is simple sociology. To suggest that a community’s values of family and sexuality victimize a group of people who would like to espouse an identity that conflicts with that community is not only to misunderstand what a community is, it is an act of gaslighting. A community needs to keeps its values and boundaries, otherwise it ceases to be a community.
There are two problems with the gay agenda for us in the Orthodox world.
Firstly, the way the narrative blankets, militantly, those for whom homosexual impulses are either not part of their identity or who don’t want to identify as homosexual. The gay agenda finds it offensive that someone with fluid sexuality might choose a heterosexual identity and work to either diminish, eradicate or avoid via behavioral or analytical means, their homosexual feelings. Yet, and it’s not a secret, these are things that are done in therapists offices (religious and secular alike) all the time. Many of them who are unwilling to enter the fray of this discussion because it's not worth the heat of the discussion or their professional AND PERSONAL reputations. As is evidenced by the number of private email conversations I have been having about this topic.
Secondly, the notion that homosexual people are not only the expert on the psychology of homosexuality but get to call into question the empathy or professionalism of any therapist who might disagree or have a different narrative is simple sensationalism. In almost every other area of our clients lives, therapists keep two balls juggling one called empathy and the other called curiosity. One ball reserved for embracing and holding our clients where they are and the other hungry for knowledge of what else might be possible. For some reason self-definition goes out the window when discussing homosexuality. You either buy into your homosexuality or you’re homophobic. I spend months with all my clients trying to help them find their own narrative as opposed to adopting a narrative made for them. I try to help them think, not skeptically, but authentically before they choose. The homosexual agenda affords “freedom” for those who choose to adopt only their agenda.
Lobbying for people within the frum community to be respectful of a person’s inclinations is paramount. I grimace when people make racist or homophobic jokes. Judgementalism is an epidemic in our community. I embrace my clients. I don’t think it’s good for anyone to feel hurt. In fact I’ve dedicated my life to that. But it bothers me when empathy seems to miss the point. When a group bullies their way into a scene and demands a certain kind of special status.
Of course the LGBT community is in pain in the light of the recent Orlando massacre. As we are every time a suicide bombing takes place in Israel or a beautiful young lady gets stabbed in her bed. But a call to arms to embrace the LGBT community WITHOUT the context of international terrorism is misplaced empathy. The intended shooting was clearly associated with terrorism and with this particular terrorist’s issue with homosexuality. Just like it is misguided to call WWII only a war against Jews. Victims of any type need to be careful how they use their personal narratives when they are seeking compassion from their environment. Isn’t this what we help our clients do? Grieving is a process and takes all forms but we, as therapists get to see the objective beyond the veil of the subjective. We can’t and shouldn’t forget to help our clients see the bigger picture of their experience (of course when they are ready).
Sexual confusion is the bread and butter of what most male Orthodox Jewish therapists seem to be treating in their male clients. Sexuality is very common in our practices. Compulsive daily masturbation by a male at the age of 23 without any sexual experiences with another human being is psychologically unhealthy. Yet we have a Torah. And I have scratched my head many times at what Hashem is thinking in this day and age with the sexual desires, urges and cravings that single (and married) people have. The option for a person to explore his sexuality in therapy is paramount. Let’s not forget that there are many Orthodox Jewish clients for whom a homosexual identity is not a serious option for. How do we respond to them? And for those for whom a homosexual identity is a reality we need to do serious soul-searching and questioning about how our religious community can manage to maintain our values in light of the desire we all have to “do no harm” as therapists, as religionists and as human beings.
And finally, I won’t diminish the pain that people feel. As much as I argue about the social constructs of the gay agenda, I won’t be so callous as to suggest that the pain of individuals who come into my office is not real. Even if their pain is based on a socially constructed narrative. And I am capable of holding ideas and values that are different than those of my clients. As we all are. The pain of Orthodox Jewish people with homosexual identities is palpable. It is very real and I am glad we are discussing it.