Culture, Religion, Sex & Gender

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?

16 thoughts on “Dr. Spitzer admitted he was wrong and apologized. How about Rabbis Levy, Mackler, Wise, Weiss, Frydman-Kohl, and Roth?

  1. Wow. I never read Roth’s resignation letter before, but it’s amazing (and I don’t mean that in a good way) on multiple levels. He rejects the category of “kevod haberiot” (which, admittedly, isn’t the strongest possible argument for equality) because “[i]n our case there is no social context, since sexual relations are, by definition, private. Therefore, the category is inapplicable.”
    In other words, he uses the argument that sexual relations are private, and not connected to a social context, to justify his broader position of excluding LGB people from public positions of religious leadership based on assumptions about what they must be doing in private.

  2. @BZ, I read these all back in 2006/7, but it’s interesting to reread now focusing just on the issue of reparative therapy. I’ll add that I picked the newspaper quote from Rabbi Roth because it is a good summary & Rabbi Roth is fairly prominent, but many others made similar comments in other places such as their concurring statements at:
    I’ll also add one of the stranger things I noticed. Page 15 of the Levy Responsa selectively quotes Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s “Wrestling with God and Man”
    “…Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashuv, who lives in one of the most secluded ultra-Orthodox communities in Jerusalem…. Speaking in Hebrew, I told him what, at the time, I felt was the truth. “Master, I am attracted to both men and women. What shall I do?” He responded, “My dear one, my friend, you have twice the power of love. Use it carefully.”….
    The use this quote to encourage people who have attraction to men & women to focus on the opposite sex. They exclude the immediately following text in Rabbi Greenberg’s book where he writes about the years of pain he experienced and the women he might have hurt before he realized that he just wasn’t sexually attracted to women. In addition to the oddity of using a selective quote in the responsum, this also happens to be one of the factors that helped Dr. Spitzer realize his own study was fundamentally flawed. Many of his interviewees who truly wanted to be attracted to the opposite sex, told him they had those attractions & might have even believed it themselves. Just like with Rabbi Greenberg, their self-understanding frequently changed after Dr. Spitzer’s interviews.

  3. As a Conservative rabbi and member of the Rabbinical Assembly, I’m of the opinion that Conservative rabbis should call upon Rabbi Levy to apologize for his teshuvah as it used Dr. Spitzer’s “professional opinion” as evidence that reparative therapy can change individual’s sexual orientation.
    I don’t know if a CJLS teshuvah can be stricken from the record, but perhaps his teshuvah should be. It is embarrassing that in the 21st century there is a Conservative Movement teshuva on the books that calls for a form of reparative therapy for homosexuals.

  4. For someone who holds a position not in favor of legitimizing homosexuality, of *course* they’re going to cite something from the highest levels of scientific scholarship. What’s actually embarrassing is that in the 21st century there was an article in a peer-reviewed journal suggesting reparative therapy. I blame that much more than I blame the rabbis for citing a reputable journal, even if they cited a minority opinion.

  5. @Benjamin, Peer review isn’t a perfect system and science evolves. Peer reviewed journals regularly publish contradictory findings. Mistakes make it through peer review at all levels of journal quality. Hopefully future work identifies those errors or explains past contradictions. A single articles never defines a universal truth. The NY Times piece also explains a bit of the strange history of the Spitzer article.
    If a rabbi is using a scientific article as a basis for halachic decisions, it is absolutely that rabbi’s responsibility to understand how that article fits into the larger literature and to understand the article’s weaknesses. If the rabbi doesn’t have the skills to do this, the rabbi should work with people who have those skills.

  6. I would add Rabbi Joel Roth to the list of those who were wrong and need to say so. In a United Synagogue Review article he wrote as follows:
    “It is yet
    within my not so distant memory that the western medical world rejected such types of
    treatment as acupuncture and herbal remedies, yet these are now part of the normal arsenal of
    medical treatments. I urge halakhically committed gay Jews not to reject the possibility that the
    severity of the halakhic demand of celibacy might be somewhat or significantly mitigated by
    some modes of therapy and treatment. Since the halakhic prohibition stands irrespective of
    whether there is treatment possible or not, there is little to be lost in giving a chance to
    treatment for which claims of marked success are made and attested.”

  7. Wow. That last sentence from the quote from Rabbi Roth is chilling: “there is little to be lost in giving a chance for treatment…”
    I guess the moral to the story is, don’t be halakhically committed.

  8. Meir Eynaim writes:
    I would add Rabbi Joel Roth to the list of those who were wrong and need to say so.
    He’s already there in the subject line!

  9. Dan O.:
    I guess the moral to the story is, don’t be halakhically committed.
    Or the moral of the story is that Roth should look at your comment and see what effect he is having on attitudes toward halakhic commitment in general!

  10. @Meir,
    Rabbi Roth is definitely included in this list. That quote is jaw-dropping to me & more extreme than anything that ended up in the Levy Responsum. Levy’s text at least seemed to have an awareness of the risks of reparative therapy, while still considering it an option worthy of consideration.
    The sad part of that Roth quote is that it’s wrong on the scientific parallels too. The Western medical world never rejected acupuncture. It was a regional method with little world-wide awareness until Mao Zedong started to promote it as a Chinese response to western medicine. Despite this framing, (according to wikipedia) it was a IRS deductible expense in the US since 1973 & has seen a steady stream of modern research since then. The research findings are very very weak and I still wouldn’t call it part of the “normal arsenal of medical treatments.” On the other hand, studying herbal compounds for medicinal properties has always been & still is a key part of modern medicine. It’s sad to see someone who, I’ve been told is very knowledgable in traditional Jewish texts parade his ignorance on other topics and apply that ignorance to halachic decisions.

  11. Since Joel Roth’s halakhic view is not based on the validity of ‘Reparative Therapy’ why should he apologize?

  12. @Dan Ab –
    I agree with you, of course, about the risks of reparative ‘therapy’. But there is unlikely to be significant scientifically collected evidence about those risks for the simple reason that studies that could isolate risks of reparative ‘therapy’ from the general context of homophobia in which it is usually situated, are ethically unacceptable. That is, the ethics of conducting studies with human subjects is such that scientists are prohibited from attempting to answer the question about the risks of reparative ‘therapy’. (Also, let’s face it, researchers have much better things to do with their time than discrediting the hateful prejudices of backwards folk – that’s what advocates are for.)
    My point is that there is no such thing as applying a religious morality to independently existing scientific data. Rather, the religious morality in question clashes with scientific morality (understood as the moral consensus of the scientific community) before any scientifically collected data is available. If Rabbi Roth’s standard is that there has to be evidence of risks of reparative ‘therapy’ in order to refrain from encouraging it, Rabbi Roth can bask in the loving glow of his own ignorance indefinitely.

  13. I spoke with Rabbi Joel Roth and suggested that he ought to have disqualified himself from writing a Tshuva on the subject of homosexuality. Conservative Judaism accepts, I would say demands, that we take into account the best information we have available to us – be it archeological, historical, linguistic, scientific, sociological or medical. If virtually ALL psychological/psychiatric associations (with the exceptions being orthodox religious groups (Jewish or Christian)are clear that this therapy is at best worthless and at its worst harmful – then one who suggests it is OK to ignore the best that modern medicine and science has to say can not pass off their own work in the field as legitimate.
    Most readers of Jewschool are too young to remember Laetrile.It was a quack treatment for cancer, derived from peach pits, banned by Federal law in the States, but available in Mexico in the seventies. Tens of thousands of people, who were otherwise without hope, traveled to Mexico for this bogus treatment.
    I can’t imagine any legitimate medical journal publishing articles on cancer treatment written by a doctor pushing this treatment.
    Thus I would (and did tell him so) suggest that Rabbi Roth too should have recused himself on this issue.
    By the way, the article I quoted, which I have in full as a PDF file from the magazine in which it appeared, was in a piece titled Point/Counter Point in which Joel Roth presented his view and Elliot Dorff his. I downloaded it from the Internet about 2 months ago. Oddly, I can no longer find it on the Net (fortunately I did download it). It was published in the United Synagogue Review and the URL two months ago was:
    It appears to have been removed some time after I confronted Rabbi Roth the day I downloaded it.
    Now I am not a conspiracy theorist – so I an NOT saying there was a connection. But the timing is peculiar.

  14. @Gil, There are two distinct issues here. As Rabbi Roth says in his responum, the question regarding whether reparative therapy works has nothing to do with what homosexual behaviors between adults are halachically permissible. Despite making that statement, he voted to approve the Levy Responsum to codify reparative therapy into halacha and (as Meir notes) has spoken positively about reparative therapy in the past. I am not asking Rabbi Roth & others to change their opinions regarding homosexual behavior. Rabbi Roth and the others could have easily voted in favor of the Roth Responsum, but not the Levy Responum. In fact, if a single one of the 6 rabbis who voted for the Levy Responsum abstained, it would not be considered a halachically acceptable minority opinion. Yet, despite not being a core element of their critique of homosexuality & halacha, all 6 rabbi did decide that it is acceptable to recommend reparative therapy. This is the issue they need to personally reconsider.
    To put it bluntly, if a person comes to any of them and says, “Rabbi. I am gay and I want to be an observant Jew. What should I do?” Would any of these six rabbis still suggest reparative therapy as an option? If not, they should say so publicly.
    @Dan O, The issue isn’t that religious morality clashes with scientific morality. The issue is that these rabbi misused science to redefine an aspect of religious morality. As for the science behind the dangers of reparative therapy, the bigger issue for doing a classic scientific study is that you can’t get something through an ethics board without some evidence of efficacy and real evidence of risk. Still, the many many testimonies of individuals experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts during reparative therapy without a positive outcome is scientific evidence.
    @Meir, With the Conservative movement I alway assume disorganization rather than conspiracy. They changed web links to their entire site a few months ago. You can read Roth’s article at:
    I’m glad you talked to Rabbi Roth. I don’t think he had any obligation to disqualify himself from any task while on the CJLS. He did have the obligation to either vote “no” or abstain from votes where he hadn’t study a topic enough to make a fully informed decision.

  15. The Rabbi Roth and Rabbi Levy minority opinions are well meaning and ” attempts to help Jews. But instead it hurts them because it promotes the view that people with same sex attractions can actually be “cured” or changed into people with only opposite sex attractions. The problem with that is that this is not true. The very people that would be willing to forgo the prohibited behaviors often also would very much like to believe that they can actually “convert” not only the lifestyle but the actual attractions completely. They end up finding out years later after this approach that is not the case and are devastated. This results in some suicides and leaving the faith.
    Aside from all the mainstream psychiatric, psychological, social work, the World Health Organization and counselling groups even many experts among people that have been involved in “reparative therapy” agree on this. It does not work.
    Dr. Spitzer retracted his support of his own study on the subject exactly for this reason.
    The leader of Exodus the largest public group of people who changed from a gay to heterosexual lifestyle admits that this does not include an end of same sex attraction.
    A side issue is that the only Jewish reparative therapy organization is led by someone who is of bad character, in that he has a history of misleading people for profit.
    This executive and founder of the organization , Jonah, was disbarred and spent 18 months in jail for defrauding investors out of millions of dollars. He dropped his middle name Abba to disguise himself.It was one month after he got out of jail that he started Jonah to help himself to the money all these desperate families would give him.
    Also Jonah is using Christian evangelicals and counselors who ask patients to Touch their private parts in front of them.
    Let everyone in this matter be clear when saying that “change” is possible. Yes you can become celibate or marry (if you tell your mate) but you can’t change your attractions and desires!
    Religious therapists and rabbis can offer support in an honest and effective way to people that are willing and able to take the risks of efforts to change their lifestyles. Then those people will have a better chance of being adjusted with their adopting a straight lifestyle without having to live a complete lie.

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