Sexual Conversion Is Not a Jewish Value

Science teaches that homosexuality is not a mental illness, so why should religion view it as something that must be 'treated?'

About a year ago, a friend and I were discussing the issue of homosexuality and Judaism. I had argued, inspired by my teacher Rabbi Gordon Tucker, that Judaism needed to rethink and revoke the prohibition on same-sex intimacy. In proper Jewish fashion, my friend responded with a kushya (challenge) to my argument. “Arie, if in twenty years they developed a pill that made someone only attracted to members of the opposite sex, would you still believe that the prohibition should be revoked?”

It was a worthy question, and I did not have an immediate answer. The question responded directly to the reasoning for my theological argument. I had argued that I could not imagine God condemning so many people to a life of unhappiness, for how could God state in the same Torah that “it is not good for a person to be alone” and then forbid a percentage of the population from finding physical intimacy with someone they love. Forced to choose between the positive commandment and the negative commandment, I affirmed - and continue to affirm - that Judaism must choose the positive, and allow all people to pursue love through a monogamous partnership.

While such a pill does not exist, there are organizations in the Jewish community who think they can achieve the same result through “conversion therapy.” One such organization, Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), has recently made the news due to a lawsuit filed by former clients who underwent treatment there. The lawsuit has brought the controversial therapy back into the news, and with it the voices celebrating and condemning the practice.

At its core, the controversy over the practice exposes a tension between religion and science. Religion - at least in some people’s understanding - forbids same-sex intimacy, and therefore some use religion to justify trying to change people’s sexual orientation. Science, on the other hand, makes no judgment about the morality of sexual attraction, and the American Psychiatric Association says homosexuality is not a mental illness and rejects the notion that sexual orientation can be changed.

Given the opinion of modern science, it is incumbent on JONAH and similar organizations to cease “conversion therapy,” and even shut down. No religious authority should support them. This does not mean that science need dictate religious values. My late professor Stephen Jay Gould taught that religion and science could coexist because they dealt with different “magisteria,” different realms of authority. According to this teaching, religion can continue to forbid same-sex intimacy but it must recognize science’s authority in teaching that sexual attraction cannot be “converted.”

This is the end of the conversation for those who believe that the literal word of the Torah is binding due to its direct transmission from God. But for those who believe that the Torah was divinely transmitted through human authors writing in human language, the controversy over JONAH forces us to rethink our stance. If we believe that we should accept people for who they are conditionally — that is, we think the ideal is opposite-sex relationships but accept same-sex relationships so as to be tolerant — we will continue to encourage programs like conversion therapy. For until we accept people unconditionally, we will encourage others to want to change them.

After putting some thought into it, I had an answer for my friend and his question about a pill. No, I would not change my opinion about Judaism sanctioning same-sex relationships. I have realized that my support of same-sex intimacy is absolute: Judaism should support same sex relationships because it is the right thing to do, not because we have no other choice.

Science teaches that sexual orientation cannot be changed by therapy. Religion should teach that there is no need to try.


Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM- the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.

Olivier Fitoussi