Dr. Spitzer admitted he was wrong and apologized. How about Rabbis Levy, Mackler, Wise, Weiss, Frydman-Kohl, and Roth?
The NY Times recently published an article about an unusual public apology by Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, a prominent psychiatrist. In the early 1970’s, Dr. Spitzer was instrumental in the American Psychological Association’s decision to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder. Much later in his career, he interviewed individuals who were undergoing reparative therapy intended to change their sexual orientation, and published a 2003 article concluding that reparative therapy could change sexual attraction in individuals who were highly motivated to change. Although this article was published in a peer reviewed journal, due to his prestige, instead of actually undergoing peer review, the article was published without review alongside commentaries critical of his methodology and his interpretation of the evidence presented. Spitzer has come to agree with the critics of this work, publicly declared that his conclusions were wrong–giving detailed explanations of why these conclusions were wrong, and apologized to those who underwent reparative therapy based on the prestige and credibility he lent to such treatments. You can read more about this in The NY Times article.
So what does this have to do with Judaism? In 2006, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative Movement voted on several respona regarding homosexuality and Judaism. Much was written at the time about the fact that conflicting respona each received sufficient votes to be considered acceptable interpretations of halacha. The Dorff, Nevins, and Reisner Responum narrowed prohibited behaviors sufficiently to open a path to homosexual Jewish marriage and ordination. Two others, the Roth Responsum, and the Levy Responsum, concluded instead that homosexual Jewish marriage and ordination were not compatible with halacha. The Levy Responsum uniquely claimed that reparative therapy to change sexual orientation could be effective, explicitly suggested such therapy as an option for adults unable to have opposite-sex relationships, and also implied that such therapy should be suggested to teenagers.
The Levy Responsum approached this recommendation for reparative therapy in an odd way. It cited research on the fluidity and ranges of sexual orientation, and then made the logical jump to argue that since sexual orientation is fluid, it might be possible to actively work to change one’s sexual orientation. To support this jump, the resonsum cited personal correspondence and press articles from organizations and therapists actively promoting and/or profiting from reparative therapy. The responsum cited only one article from a peer reviewed journal to support the supposed effectiveness of reparative therapy, in “Fact #5” on pages 6-7 of the responsum. That article is the now dis-avowed article by Dr. Spitzer, mentioned above.
The only cited scientific evidence behind this responum’s conclusion regarding reparative therapy, has been disavowed by its author. The responsum was approved by Rabbis Aaron Mackler, David Wise, Loel Weiss, Baruch Frydman-Kohl, Leonard Levy, and Joel Roth. I don’t expect this development to change their opinions regarding homosexual behavior. Still, they placed the recommendation for a practice known to be hurtful and to have little to no positive benefits into halacha. Do these rabbis still support this responsum and recommend reparative therapy as a halachically valid option? If not, will they publicly say so?
There’s also a lovely bit of irony here. After the votes on these responsa, most or all of the above six rabbis resigned from the CJLS because the liberal responsum was also approved. . Rabbi Roth explained his reasoning as follows, “What divided us was the question of our right to adopt a legal stance attributed to one sage that the prohibitions against sexual behavior other than male intercourse are rabbinic in status, d’rabbanan, and not biblical, which attribution is itself open to serious question and is denied by most decisors.” Yet, at the same time, Rabbi Roth and colleagues codified into halacha the practice of reparative therapy based on the opinion of a single (modern) sage who was in strong disagreement with most other sages in his field. Rabbi Roth even testified to his own ignorance regarding reparative therapy on page 28 of his own responsum, “I am not competent to judge (and neither, I believe, are the other members of this Committee, or, to a very large extent, homosexual men and women throughout the world) which side of this debate is correct, and whether whatever side seems to be correct today will remain correct tomorrow, or in ﬁve years, or in ﬁfty years,” and made clear that the issue of reparative therapy was irrelevant to his larger thinking on this topic. Despite self-declaring himself not competent to judge, he did exactly that by voting to support the Levy Responsum.
While I could end this as a critique of just these six rabbis, this episode challenges the Conservative movement’s approach to modernity & halacha. The Conservative movement still formally considers the Levy responsum, an opinion that directly cites unsound science, as halachically acceptable. Even if all 6 rabbis who voted for it disavow it now, is it possible to formally change the status of a previously accepted position (it was already accepted in parallel with a disagreeing responsum)? More generally, any type of Judaism that uses modern science to interpret halacha faces programs when scientific knowledge evolves. The Conservative movement is young enough that the scientific understandings behind halachic interpretations don’t often change, but the Levy Responsum won’t be the only time this happens. I prefer a halachic system that uses our scientific understandings, even when flaws like this arise, to a system based on ignorance–but what is the scientific threshold for calling a previously accepted halachic interpretation invalid?
It’s also easy for me to focus on the Conservative movement because it’s my own movement, but Dr. Spitzer’s work is cited by Jewish organizations in other movements, too. Any guesses on whether any other Jewish organizations will now publically change their positions on reparative therapy?