With the controversial idea that gays and lesbians can be “cured” through therapy rippling across the Orthodox Jewish world of late, Rabbi Simcha Feuerman recently found himself in something of a dilemma.
The rabbi is a licensed clinical social worker who serves as the president of Nefesh, a prominent international network of Orthodox mental health professionals. But he is also an Orthodox Jew who believes that homosexuality is prohibited by Jewish law and that “many people who wrestle with homosexual feelings and want to change them can be helped.”
So when he was presented with a so-called “Torah Declaration” — a document initiated, according to its website, by “a committee of approximately 25 people consisting of individuals who have successfully overcome their Same-Sex Attraction … along with Rabbis and concerned fellow Jews who strongly support their brave journey” — Rabbi Feuerman signed on. The petition advocates repentance and therapy for Orthodox gays and lesbians.
But the rabbi’s professional responsibility soon collided with his religious beliefs. And this week, in a sign of how thorny the issue of homosexuality is in the Orthodox community, he asked that his name be removed from the petition.
Rabbi Feuerman told The Jewish Week that he originally signed the document “because I feel it is important to make the Orthodox Jewish position clear, and not stand silent in the face of propaganda that all homosexuals are born that way and cannot be changed.”
However, Feuerman decided to ask that his name be removed from the document — which was also signed by over 120 rabbis from the Litvish, chasidic, Sephardic and Yeshiva University communities, along with 24 mental health professionals — because although he “[agreed] with the general intent of the Torah Declaration, the parts that imply all forms of homosexuality are absolutely treatable with our current knowledge base [do] not adequately convey the complex clinical dimensions of this matter.”
Feuerman added he was also moved to remove his signature because “though I signed with my credentials as president of Nefesh, which is true, it may mistakenly imply that I speak for the organization on this matter. In fact, Nefesh as an organization has not taken a position regarding the Torah Declaration.”
The authors of the declaration “emphatically reject the notion that a homosexually inclined person cannot overcome his or her inclination and desire” and assert that “these individuals are primarily innocent victims of childhood emotional wounds … [who] deserve our full love, support and encouragement in their striving towards healing.”
Feuerman’s decision comes just a few weeks after the annual Nefesh conference, which, The Jewish Week reported, was attended for the first time by the founder of a social/support group made up of religious and formerly religious gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews.
The article noted that until this year the only organization dealing with the issue of homosexuality to attend the Nefesh conference was JONAH, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that advocates “reparative” or “conversion” therapy. According to the American Psychological Association, reparative therapy is “based on the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder.”
This type of therapy — apparently advocated by the Torah Declaration — has generated significant concern among mainstream psychological and medical organizations, which have issued cautionary statements noting the lack of evidence for its effectiveness as well as its potential to cause harm.
Indeed, according to Rhea Farberman, a spokeswoman for the American Psychological Association, “The science is that we don’t know that [therapy to change one’s sexual orientation] works. And there are some who believe it can cause harm. Thus it would be problematic in our eyes for any mental health professional to tell a patient that ‘we can change your sexual orientation.’”
According to Michael Salamon, senior psychologist and director of ADC Psychological Services in Long Island and an Orthodox Jew, though “conflicts between what a therapist believes and what a patient presents with” do exist, “When an individual takes an oath to be a licensed professional they are obligated to adhere to their professional code of ethics. These ethics require an understanding of and being sympathetic to the cultural, religious and ethnic diversity of the patients being treated. …
“But to impose one’s own values or beliefs on another,” Salamon continued, “is not only unethical it often has a significantly negative impact on treatment outcomes.”