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Queer Orthodoxies

LGBTQ issues, the Orthodox Jewish Community and Psychotherapy

Wikipedia Commons, used with permission
Source: Wikipedia Commons, used with permission

By Alison Feit, Ph.D. and Alan Slomowitz, Ph.D.

An Orthodox Jewish man walks into his Rabbi’s office and says: “Rabbi, I am in trouble, I seem to be only attracted to other men. What should I do?” The Rabbi is not sure what to say. He wonders to himself: “Is he asking me for a religious ruling or does he think I am I therapist?” After an awkward silence the rabbi says: “Let me call Dr. Goldstein maybe he can help both of us.”

What does this man want from his rabbi? What does the rabbi believe Dr. Goldstein can say to this gay man that he cannot? Does the rabbi believe Dr. Goldstein can or should change this man’s sexual orientation?

The referral by an Orthodox rabbi, or any member of the clergy, who believes that the purpose of therapy is to change sexual orientation, poses ethical and legal challenges. Now, more than ever, such referrals highlight powerful cultural and legal issues that are difficult or perhaps impossible to reconcile.

This vignette, while focused on Orthodox Judaism, encapsulates a fundamental problem facing most traditional religious groups for whom same-sex desire and sexuality are in opposition to integral religious and spiritual percepts. Such religious groups can no longer ignore that Sexual Orientation Change Therapy (SOCE), as it has been practiced, is unethical, dangerous, politically untenable and in some states illegal. Additionally, the Supreme Court ruling that gay marriage is a constitutional right in all 50 states, and the New Jersey court decision that SOCE as practiced by JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing) is consumer fraud have created a radically new legal and cultural reality.

Clinicians used to have clear-cut answers for religious individuals who entered therapy seeking to change fundamental aspects of their sexuality—clinician and patient typically agreed that same—sex desire was both a moral and psychological illness. However, since 1973, when homosexuality was formally removed from the official list of psychiatric illnesses, the cultures of traditional religious groups and official mental health practice have significantly diverged.

Leading researchers and practitioners in the mental health field view same-sex sexuality as healthy, it is often categorized as illness by religious leaders. This creates tremendous internal conflict for the religious LGBTQ individual. Today, LGBTQ members of any religious denomination can legally join in a civil marriage, even if they cannot marry in many traditional religious ceremonies. Such individuals now face an ethical conflict when seeking out—often crucial and life saving—help for mental health issues arising from this complicated emotional conflict.

For the majority of Orthodox Jews the recent Supreme Court Decision is regarded as a terrible mistake. As things become more heated, many wonder how LGBTQ Orthodox Jews can find their place in the social and religious life of the community. Must they hide their sexual orientation in order to remain part of mainstream Orthodox Jewish life? How can this attitude of non-acceptance be justified when the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American political system are opposed to what has been a bedrock Orthodox Jewish belief?

So what can Dr. Goldstein say to the gay man? At a recent conference in April 2015, called Desire, Faith and Psychotherapy, organized by the authors, we discussed some of the barriers between LGBTQ members of the Orthodox Jewish community and Orthodox rabbinic and community leaders. For the first time, rabbis sat on panels with LGBTQ activists and attempted to work collaboratively on a problem that will not go away on its own.

Strange alliances were created. During a particularly acrimonious moment, an LGBTQ activist exclaimed, “I am not asking you to change Jewish law, but I am asking you to recognize that LGBTQ students in Jewish schools are ostracized and shamed!” The rabbi replied, “you are right, we must stop this now!” And thus a dialogue began.

It was a day of unusual transformations. One clinician who had been working with Orthodox LGBTQ patients remarked, “I have to completely rethink how I work with this community.” A rabbi responded: “I suddenly realized that I don’t even know what I don’t know.” More recently, after the tragic murder of a teen at a gay pride rally in Jerusalem, a prominent Orthodox rabbinic organization, the Rabbinical Council of America, officially participated in a memorial service in NYC at the LGBTQ Center- one of its prominent leaders spoke poignantly from a lectern draped with a rainbow flag.

While the divide might be narrowing, there is still intense opposition to recognizing LGBTQ as an acceptable identity. However, it has become clear to us that rabbis and educators want to find a way to hold onto religious values, while also sensitively and supportively engaging people encompassing a range of gender and sexual identities.

Therapists are at the forefront of this cultural shift as their training focuses on following the patients’ lead and helping people to explore sexual and gender identities without imposing their own cultural and religious values. It is our hope that in the coming years religious, political and LGBTQ leaders will continue to forge alliances to help LGBTQ religious individuals better navigate these complicated issues.

Alison Feit, Ph.D., is an Associate Editor of the journal Contemporary Psychoanalysis and is member of the Artist Group, the Sexual Abuse Service and the Trauma Service at the William Alanson White Institute. Her office is in on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Alan Slomowitz, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst and psychologist and a graduate of the Division I program at the William Alanson White Institute. He is on the editorial board of Contemporary Psychoanalysis and the Internet Editor of the Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action blog, Dr. Slomowitz is a supervisor of psychotherapy at the William Alanson White Institute and the Ferkauf Clinical Psychology Health Emphasis Ph.D. Program. Dr. Slomowitz is in private practice and his office is at Columbus Circle on the Upper West Side.

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