Why Did the ultra-Orthodox Anti-gay Manifesto Disappear From the Web?

The Torah Declaration, which denies the existence of homosexual identity, goes offline in a possible victory for LGBT activists who have fought it for years.

A participant in Jerusalem's Gay Pride parade, Jerusalem, 2015.
Reuters

The Torah Declaration, the paper that outlines the ultra-Orthodox position on homosexuality, is no longer accessible online, signaling that at least some of its backers in the community may be distancing themselves from the document’s uncompromising stance on LGBT identity.

The declaration, which was uploaded in December 2011 at torahdec.org, was taken down on November 30, and the page remains under construction as of Monday.

The document denies the possibility of a homosexual identity and says that under Jewish law, anyone with such feelings should try to change them; that is, go through conversion therapy. The practice promises to turn LGBT people from gay to straight and has been widely condemned as pseudoscience.

The document had 223 signatories, including rabbis, mental health professionals and community organizers, though a page listing the signatories is also offline. The authors of the document are unknown, though Susan Rosenbluth, the spokeswoman for the Torah Declaration, says she met with the authors when agreeing to work with them.

“I met with about two dozen men, all of whom had either gone through conversion therapy or were in the process,” she said. The men believed that living a homosexual lifestyle wasn’t the Jewish way and so created the document, she added.

Rosenbluth, who is also the editor of the New Jersey-based paper Jewish Voice and Opinion, said she was unaware that the page had been removed and that it must have been a glitch or the site was hacked.

“There are people with agendas who want it taken down,” she said last week, adding that within two days the declaration would be online again. More than a week later it was still down.

Some LGBT activists believe the removal could be connected to a recent court case. In June, a New Jersey jury found JONAH, the only Jewish gay conversion therapy organization, guilty of consumer fraud and liable for $72,400, according to this reporter, who followed the trial.

JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (the H stood for Homosexuality until 2011), was sued by three of the organization’s former clients and two of their mothers. They contended that the group misrepresented the program by claiming that it was scientifically based; that it had specific success rates and could adjust a person’s sexual orientation in two to five years.

The defendants included JONAH directors Arthur Goldberg and Elaine Berk, and one of its counselors, Alan Downing. Their lawyers argued that the program’s ideology and methods were both scientific and based on Torah values.

Goldberg said after the trial that he and his codefendants maintained their innocence and were considering an appeal. When the verdict was passed, it was announced that there would be a hearing to determine attorney fees and other legal steps against the organization, including the possibility of shutting JONAH down.

According to a Jewish Week investigation over the summer, and according to Mordechai Levovitz, the executive director of Jewish Queer Youth who has been active in Jewish LGBT work for a decade, the Torah Declaration was “inextricably tied” to Goldberg and JONAH.

Goldberg being found liable in the civil court case “likely was the last straw. I can imagine that a critical mass of rabbis just lost trust in him,” Levovitz said, adding that consumer therapy practices were getting closer to being considered illegal and could pose liabilities for these rabbis.

When asked about the declaration, Goldberg declined to comment and referred Haaretz to his lawyer, Charles LiMandri, who did not return calls seeking comment.

Goldberg has played a key role in crafting ultra-Orthodoxy’s approach toward homosexuality. Besides founding the only Jewish conversion therapy organization, in 2009 he published a book called “Light in the Closet: Torah, Homosexuality, and the Power to Change.” His name was on a 2011 article in the influential Orthodox journal Hakirah, featuring a discussion between Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, an internationally respected ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Philadelphia, and himself about the necessity of “setting forth Torah values” and touting JONAH’s conversion therapy services.

Within months of the magazine’s publication in the fall, language from that article, in some cases word for word, appeared in the now phantom Torah Declaration.    

Over the last 18 months, some rabbis have asked to have their names removed from the document, either because their views had changed or because they were unaware their signatures appeared on it to begin with. Some got their names removed, like Rabbi Dr. Martin Schloss, director of the Jewish Education Project. Others have reached an impasse.

Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, a licensed clinical social worker and president of Nefesh, the International Network of Orthodox Mental Health Professionals, said he signed the declaration because he thought it “was merely a stance on the idea that sexual orientation is not absolute” and that some motivated clients could “find a healthy way to manage heterosexual relationships.”

But he later took issue with the “unequivocal language that all homosexuals can be treated with today’s available clinical expertise.” Despite asking to be removed several times, he said, his name remained on the website.

Eshel, a nonprofit organization that provides support to Orthodox LGBT teens and families, spearheaded an initiative to educate signatories about the declaration and see if they still wanted to be supporters. If not, Eshel urged the signatories to reach out to the declaration’s leaders to have their names removed.

When asked if signatories could be removed from the declaration, Rosenbluth, the spokeswoman, was adamant. “They’re not taking anybody off,” she said. The authors handled it as though someone had signed a petition on paper and they had taken a picture of it, she wrote in an email in June.

Miryam Kabakov, the executive director of Eshel, believes the document may have been taken down due to pressure from the unwilling signatories, though she did not note any connection to the JONAH trial.