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Orthodoxy and Gay Conversion Therapy

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avatar by Shmuley Boteach


Marchers in a past Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Over the weekend, Israeli Education Minister and Bayit Yehudi leader Rabbi Rafi Peretz trod gleefully upon a social-political landmine in affirming his belief in the highly controversial practice of gay conversion therapy. Worse than his omission of any disclaimers — and more callous than his ignoring the sky-high risks of coercing an exchange of sexuality, personality, and identity — was his disclosure of the as-of-yet unknown fact, “I have also done it [conversion therapy].”

He meant that he had administered the therapy, a fact I’m sure even many of his voters found shocking.

As expected, Peretz brought upon himself the condemnation of just about every Israeli political figure. What I assume he expected less, though, was that he drove yet another wedge between the political platform of the Israeli right and the voters who could return it to power.

In fact, he made his own prime ministerial candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu, that much less electable.

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Conservatives regularly sacrifice their rock-solid fiscal and foreign-policy points on the altar of social concerns, which, governmentally speaking, pale in comparison to security and prosperity.

All American presidential candidates usually embrace some far-out ideas that they don’t really believe in order to accommodate some extremists in their party. For Democratic candidates running today, that generally means embracing far-left economics and diplomacy. For Republican candidates, though, the albatross left by the primaries has been rooted less in practical issues like commerce and war, than in odd ones like sex and guns.

Traditionally, the costliest Republican social obsessions were contraception, abortion, and gay marriage. With the recent rise of mass shootings, though, the fanatical regard for every possible gun right has become the biggest pink elephant in the red elephant’s room.

What Peretz, Betzalel Smotrich, and others on the Israeli right have shown is that they have found a social issue of their own to bleed away their appeal. In fact, they’re willing to risk a “Prime Minister Ehud Barak” and another Palestinian state just so that everyone knows they believe that gays can — and, we must assume, should — be converted to being heterosexual.

Amazingly, unlike in the United States, here the issue is not same-sex marriage. It’s same-sex attraction.

These beliefs are made more problematic by the dogmatism and extremism with which they’re held. For Republicans, this often means defending Americans’ right to buy assault rifles modified with bump-stocks and with minimal background checks. Peretz showed fanaticism too. Why else would he feel the need to express these views as an acting Israeli minister? Why on a prime-time interview?

To be fair, we must assume Peretz was referring to those young Orthodox Jews who, despite experiencing certain homosexual tendencies, insist on living a heterosexual life. People in situations like these write to me all the time. Many are in deep anguish. Some are suicidal. The situation is tragic. But none of this vindicates the unsubstantiated and often brutal practices of gay conversion therapy, which have at times incorporated forced nude-cuddling and electro-shock treatment.

Moreover, that some “want” to be “converted” says nothing of the social and cultural pressures that actually push them through the process. Most importantly, by expressing an undiscerning support for gay-conversion programs, Peretz and others imply that gay people are imperfect and need to be improved — a notion which is not just offensive, but dehumanizing.

Worst of all, one cannot begin to discuss matters as sensitive as these without the necessary disclaimer of just how high the stakes are in cases of LGBTQ rights and acceptance. As my friend, Justice Minister Amir Ohana — who, in June, became the first openly-gay minister in Israeli history — rightly pointed out: “[Gay-conversion therapy] is dangerous and can cause pain and suffering to youth and even lead them to suicide. … LGBTQ youth commit suicide three times as often as their percentage of the population. This is a matter of saving lives.”

If he was aware of one or all of these sensitive facets and factors, why didn’t Peretz say anything to address them? If he didn’t have time, why didn’t he say so? From a human perspective, that would have been the sensitive thing to do. From a PR perspective, it would have been sensible, too.

More than sensibility, however, we must focus on sensitivity. One can assume there are tens of thousands of gay men and women in Israel and hundreds of thousands homosexual Jews worldwide. Many, if not most, of them have been forced to face humiliation and contempt from a world where so many still refuse to accept them.

In not acknowledging any of these facts and disclaimers up front, Peretz acted with the insensitivity of a bull in a china-shop. In Israel, as in all healthy democracies, politicians pay for what they break.

Though the context here is political, we must consider that this statement came from a religious minister representing a religious party in a ministry coveted by religious parties. Therefore, it requires a religious response.

People of faith will often depict homosexuality as being especially sinful, because the Bible calls it an “abomination.” But that word appears approximately 122 times in the Bible, describing at other times blemished sacrifices, non-kosher food and shellfish, and a twice-divorced woman who marries her first husband (which, in the United States, is a marriage that no one disputes). Proverbs goes so far as to label envy, lying, and gossip as abominations.

As an Orthodox rabbi, I do not deny the Biblical prohibition on male same-sex relationships. I simply place it in context. There are 613 commandments in the Torah. One is to refrain from gay sex. Another is for men to marry and have children. So when Jewish gay couples tell me they have never been attracted to members of the opposite sex and are desperately alone, I tell them, “You have 611 commandments left. That should keep you busy. Now, go create a kosher home. Turn off the TV on the Sabbath, and share your meals with many guests. Put a mezuzah on you front door. Put on tefillin every day. Pray to God in synagogue with all your heart, for you are His beloved children. He desires you and seeks you out.”

All of this, of course, stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of sin. The Ten Commandments were given on two tablets to connote two different kinds of transgression: religious and moral. Homosexuality is a religious, not a moral, sin. A moral sin involves injury to an innocent party, like theft or adultery, which is all about deception and breaking one’s vows. But who is harmed when two unattached, consenting adults are in a relationship?

It may be a religious sin, akin to lighting a fire on the Sabbath or eating on Yom Kippur. But it is not immoral, and we have to end the disgusting demonization of gays in religious life. People who drive to shul on the Sabbath are welcomed into the community as equals, even as they openly violate a Biblical prohibition. Would Rafi Peretz send them to conversion therapy? Or would he insist, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe did, that all Jews be lovingly encouraged to keep as many of the Torah’s commandments as possible, without condemnation for those they don’t.

The tragedy of politics, however, is that ultimately the people bear the costs of their leaders’ needless whims. Only September’s elections will tell how Peretz’s words affected his political standing. But already now, one can feel him re-cementing the divides that Israel so desperately needs to escape. Let’s not make coming together any harder in Israel than it already is. And let’s make the Torah a source of Jewish unity rather than division.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books, including Judaism for Everyone. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.

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