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Conversion therapy: It isn’t what it sounds like

Rafi Peretz means well when he aims to help LGBTQ Orthodox Jews who are unhappy with their sexuality, but his efforts are misguided and don't work
New head of the Jewish Home party Rabbi Rafi Peretz arrives to the party's preliminary elections in Ramat Gan on February 4, 2019. (Flash90)
Rabbi Rafi Peretz, head of the Jewish Home party, arrives at the party's elections in Ramat Gan on February 4, 2019. (Flash90)

What is conversion or reparative therapy? The answer differs in theory and in practice.

  1. Fantasy meaning: Turning someone from gay to straight. This doesn’t happen; it is not something in the realm of the possible, at least with modern technology.
  2. Best case scenario: Behavior therapy to help gay people who want to have straight sex perform. This does not make them straight.
  3. Worst case scenario: Pushing someone to change their orientation or sexual behavior in a way that leads the person to frustration, depression, and possibly suicide.
  4. Abusive scenario: Predatory therapists come up with bizarre tasks for their patients to gratify their own sexual proclivities.

Laying this out is not simply a pedantic exercise, but it lies at the heart of the false impression that people like Rabbi Rafi Peretz, Israel’s current education minister, convey when saying they support conversion therapy.

Ostensibly, Peretz has a reasonable defense. In explaining why he supports conversion therapy for those who want it, he said:

During my years as an educator, I met with students who felt terribly distressed over their sexual orientation and chose to turn to professionals to change their [sexual] orientation. What I said in the interview was from my personal acquaintance with similar cases.

It is definitely true that in certain communities, especially the ultra-Orthodox community, there are gay people who would rather be straight. The fact that Rabbi Peretz feels their pain is commendable. But what, exactly, is he offering them?

People have a tendency to relate to the debate about conversion therapy the same way they might relate to debates about plastic surgery or sex changes. “God made us each what we are,” some have argued, and therefore people should not change their appearance through surgery or hormones. Others respond that people have a right to be happy and mold their bodies in the image that feels right to them. In a liberal democracy, people have the right to choose whether to pursue such options or avoid them.

But this is not really comparable to the conversion therapy debate. What plastic surgery and sex changes have in common is that they both work. If someone wants liposuction to remove fat from their bodies, it can do that. If a woman wants to take hormones or even have surgery, so as to have the appearance of a man, this can be done. Whether they will be happy or not with the results is a separate question, but the procedure accomplishes what the patient is told that it will.

Conversion therapy, however, does not convert a homosexual person into a heterosexual person. Nothing does. Which brings us back to the question of what people, such as Rabbi Peretz, are telling these poor students. It would be nice if he would tell them that Orthodox Judaism has a place for homosexuals, and that they should not feel bad about themselves for who they are. But even if he won’t say that, what he cannot say is “Don’t worry: with some effort on your part and some therapy, you can become straight,” since it is not true.

Perhaps he can say this: “Look, I can’t help you become straight, but if you go through rigorous behavior modification therapy, you can eventually be brought to a point where you can perform sexually with a member of the opposite sex and have children. We will also teach you techniques to help you fight your homosexual impulses. No, you will never be attracted to your partner and you will always long for a relationship you will never have, but there is a decent chance you will be able to function.” This, however, is not what people think is being offered by conversion therapists.

A few years ago, when JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing) existed and was strong, a website called The Torah Declaration was published. Over a hundred Orthodox rabbis, educators, and therapists signed this declaration, which advocated for gay Orthodox Jews to undergo this therapy. (The website is no longer online.)

One of the site’s pages was titled “Open Letter to Gay Advocates” and it addressed Rabbi Steve Greenberg and me as rabbis (Rabbi Greenberg is himself gay), and Chaim Levin, a survivor of conversion therapy who has written extensively about its ugliest aspects. The section of the letter addressed to Levin stated how sorry the author was for what Levin went through, but mentioned an article by another participant in JONAH’s therapy, Jayson Littman, who was ostensibly helped by it.

I clicked on the link to the article and here is what Littman wrote: he attended reparative therapy, his therapist was very nice, they spoke about his past and his family, etc., and the experience was overall positive. And yet, he continued:

After going through five years of conversion therapy and completing all the tasks required to transition to heterosexuality, including, but not limited to, setting up profiles on Jewish dating sites and doing my share of pick-ups in the lobbies of Upper West Side buildings named after sunny places in Florida, I still felt, well, gay. I stopped dating women, usually responding to queries of set-ups with the common Jewish response, “Oh, I already know her.”

The confidence I gained in conversion therapy actually allowed me to proudly come out as a gay man. The leaders at JONAH were quick to state that I was not willing to do “the hard work necessary to completely change” or that I wouldn’t shed the “politically induced gay identity.

This was the article the JONAH people themselves chose to link to. “So that is their best foot forward,” I remember thinking, a case in which the therapy did not harm the patient and helped him gain confidence, yet did not make him straight at all. In other words, the best they could come up with was someone who experienced therapy, without the “conversion” part.

The failure of such methods is sadly highlighted by the recent scandal surrounding one of the therapists, a prominent individual who signed the Torah Declaration, who failed to make himself straight and was found out to be on a gay dating site, a phenomenon well known in other conversion therapy initiatives as well.

The group eventually crashed. “The Rise and Fall of JONAH” describes a combination of harsh behavioral modification techniques combined with sexual acts that are at best bizarre, and at worst meant to be titillating for closeted gay therapists.

The problem of such predatory therapists ended up being so serious that JONAH was forced to close down and pay damages, and their entire approach was declared to be illegal in the United States.

But even without the abuse, when someone like Rabbi Peretz states that this therapy “works” and is an option for gays who wish to be straight, he is leading them down a path that will inevitably end in disappointment, since that is not what this therapy does. Thus, even though this therapy remains legal in Israel, what it is and what it isn’t needs to be made crystal clear.

There is no “conversion therapy,” only behavior modification therapy. The reason this remains unclear, and the advocacy is always so opaque, is that the sector which Rabbi Peretz represents does not want to admit or even face the fact that sexual orientation is what it is and cannot be changed. This allows them to avoid responsibility for gay Jews who are part of their communities.

In other words, if sexual orientation can be changed, they can put the onus on gay Jews in their communities to do so. If it cannot, however, the onus is on them and their communities to accept gay members as they are. By pretending that sexual orientation is amenable to change, these communities unfairly weigh their gay members down with guilt and self-loathing, risking their very lives to grant themselves a false feeling that the world can be as they want it, if only their gay members would “fix themselves.”

I hope that in the near future, the leaders of this community will finally face reality head on and do what is right for their members. Perhaps then we will finally be able to put the pernicious swindle of “conversion therapy” to rest.

About the Author
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the editor of TheTorah.com and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
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