Today was the day that we’d worked for all these years: finally the doors of the Conservative movement have been opened to gays and lesbians. So why didn’t I celebrate?
It was a thrill standing in the cold today, huddling outside the Park Avenue Synagogue as the news dribbled in over cell-phones. Yes to Dorff (the “compromise” pro-gay position)… no to Tucker (the more radical one)… law committee members resigning… Admittedly, the minutiae are only of interest to a few dozen people in the world, but as one of them, it was a thrill to be on the front lines.
Yet after the euphoria wore off, it somehow feels like less momentous than one might have expected. Part of the reason, I’m sure, was that my own personal stake in the matter has lessened with time. I no longer care that urgently about how a group of Conservative rabbis interpret a verse from the Torah. Not as a personal matter, anyway; I do still care very deeply about the closeted Jews I meet all the time through my work, and about the larger repercussions that this decision has — basically, as one more religious group remembering that homosexuality is not as big a deal to God as some people would have us believe. But now that I’m in love, and partnered, it feels less like personal salvation and more like some other people finally figuring it out for themselves.
Part of the reason, too, was that this was a compromise, not a victory. This is probably how it should be — if activists like me are thrilled, it means that folks on the other side are infuriated. This way, my side got a ruling that will let gays into rabbinical school, and their side got a ruling that maintained the ban on at least one kind of (male) homosexual activity. Functionally, there is no real difference, since the opinion makes “don’t ask, don’t tell” the law of the movement. But since the opinion equivocated, our celebration is muted as well.
And of course, it really has been long in coming. I am enormously grateful to the immense amount of volunteer work by the rabbinical students in Keshet, JTS’s advocacy group on this issue. But even they seemed to feel like the decision was inevitable. Only an eleventh-hour procedural maneuver — which did derail the Tucker opinion — threatened what has, for several months at least, seem like a foregone conclusion. Yes, Virginia, there really are gay people in the world.
Not that there weren’t surprises, the most odious of which was certainly the surprise passage of the Levy opinion, which held that reparative therapy should be promoted as an option to those who seek it. Let me use this forum to share a little bit of My Jewish Learning on the subject: reparative therapy is a hoax. It doesn’t work. And it’s not reparative. First, the success rate of the “therapy” is less than 2%. Second, “success” is defined simply as being able to function sexually with a member of the opposite sex, while suppressing one’s desires for same-sex partners — that’s not repair, it’s deceit. Third, the “therapy” has been disavowed by all reputable psychiatric bodies, including the American Psychiatric Association. It’s basically aversion therapy, in which subjects are conditioned to associate a given stimulus (in this case, inappropriate sex objects) with nausea and disgust, coupled with browbeating so people feel guilty about their illicit desires.
I can’t believe that any rabbi who knew what this “therapy” entailed would ever recommend it to anyone, regardless of ideology. It’s a disgusting form of abuse, and should be outlawed in any civilized country. And how do I know this? Unlike, I suspect, Rabbi Levy and his supporters, I actually know people who underwent it. Kids — kids! — forced into it by their perhaps well-meaning but ultimately clueless parents. Adults whose rabbis recommended it to them. And others. The stronger of these people find it preposterous — the weaker ones find it deeply disturbing. For a thorough debunking of the claims that this “therapy” works, please read Wayne Besen’s Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the ‘Ex-Gay’ Movement. As the title implies, it’s not an unbiased book. But the facts are the facts.
Still, I think such “therapy,” in the Conservative Jewish world at least, will remain a marginal phenomenon, and thus Levy’s tshuva is a marginal, if morally repellant, footnote. Conservative Jews tend to be worldly people, and a simple Google search will reveal this horrible practice to be the sham that it is. Really, it’s the last refuge of a scoundrel — the last option that some rabbis have to somehow maintain that homosexuality is a lifestyle, freely chosen and freely revocable. As one activist (not with Keshet) joked this afternoon, let’s see Rabbi Levy try reparative therapy — maybe he can “cure” his heterosexuality.
So, on the whole, a happy day, though I don’t know anyone breaking out the champagne. I’m very surprised that Rabbi Roth and others quit the Law Committee, particularly as Roth himself was so excoriating of those who parted with his movement over the issue of ordaining women as rabbis. And I’m certainly not rejoicing, even though it does mean the next Law Committee will be much more liberal than the present one. Mostly, I’m hopeful that, beyond all the details, this decision will help a simple, banal truth take hold in the world: that even if you’re religious, it’s OK to be gay.
Not earth-shattering to me anymore — but to some kid out there, it might be.
STATEMENT BY JAY MICHAELSON, DIRECTOR OF NEHIRIM (A NATIONAL JEWISH GAY & LESBIAN ORGANIZATION), FROM PRESS CONFERENCE ON CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT DECISION ON HOMOSEXUALITY
Good afternoon. My name is Jay Michaelson, and I am a gay religious Jew. I observe the traditional sabbath laws, I keep kosher, and I share my life with my partner, who is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston. I am gratified that, today, the Conservative movement’s law committee has recognized what those of us who are gay or lesbian, or who have gay or lesbian relatives, have known for a long time: that homosexuality is a trait, not a choice; and that a God who loves God’s children could not possibly want them to hate themselves, to lie to everyone they know, and to destroy a fundamental part of themselves, the natural, God-given gift of sexuality.
“The closet” is a rather cozy metaphor to describe what lying about your sexuality really is. I should know — I lied about mine for fifteen years: to myself, to my girlfriends, to my family, and to everyone else. And I can tell you: it’s not a closet — it’s a tomb. Sexuality isn’t a preference, it isn’t a choice, like choosing vanilla ice cream instead of chocolate. It’s part of who you are — and shutting it down shuts down the heart.
My relationship to God, to holiness, is among the most important things in my life. And I can tell you firsthand that lying and Godliness do not go together. The more any of us denies this basic truth about sexuality — that it is natural, inborn, and God-given — the more repression, the more scandals, the more fear, the more hatred of self and others.
Yet today we breathe a bit of fresh air. Because our age-old traditions are wiser than passing prejudices. Because they take account of new information, like what we now know to be scientifically true about sexuality. And because, slowly, deliberately, perhaps even haltingly, the Jewish halachic system sometimes works.
Today’s decision does not mean that the sky will fall. All the rabbis in that closed room did today was say “There’s a verse that could mean a lot of things, or it could mean the one thing it says. We think it means just one thing.” And we think that not for expediency, not for political correctness — but because it is inconceivable that a loving God creates gays and lesbians only to have them mutilate the gifts that God has given.
To those who say today’s decision will tear Judaism in two, or compromise our basic values, I ask that you just look at me. Am I such a nightmare? Am I here to destroy the institution of marriage? No — I am here to love God, to serve God, and to make this world worthy of God.
Excluded from the rabbinate of the movement into which I was born, I today do this work in other ways. I direct a national organization that runs spiritual and cultural programming for gay and lesbian Jews. I write books and for newspapers and magazines. I teach at schools and synagogues. I meditate and I pray. I speak out. And every week, I hear from religious men and women still trapped in the “closet,” still believing that, because of something they cannot control, God hates them.
I know today’s action may cause some controversy. But if today’s ruling tells one of those religious men and women, or just one gay teen, or just one worried parent of a gay or lesbian youth, if it tells any one of them that God and love go together, then it is worth it.
If today’s ruling saves one gay man from being harassed, or threatened with violence, or told he does not belong in a place of worship, then it is worth it.
And if today’s ruling helps lift some of the misconceptions about what the Bible does and does not say about homosexuality, then it is worth it too.
But apart from all of those things, today’s ruling is right because it is true. “The seal of God is truth,” we are told in the Talmud. And what is that simple truth, underneath the fear, the discomfort, and the ignorance? It’s just this: that gay people exist, because God made us that way.