Initial Religious Counseling for a Male Orthodox Adolescent Homosexual

  • by: Joel B. Wolowelsky and Bernard L. Weinstein

Reprinted from Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, published by the Rabbinical Council of America, 29:2, Winter 1995.

We present here a discussion of possible reactions by a rabbi, religious counselor or teacher to a male orthodox adolescent who seeks advice and counseling because he feels he is a homosexual.  It is not our intention to propose a full program for halakhically-valid psycholo­gical therapy for homosexuals, or even to enter into the debate on whether every homosexual can be helped to change his sexual orientation.  Indeed, the latter debate is confused by the fact that many homosexuals who appear incapable of changing their orien­tation might in fact be indivi­duals who bolted treatment when insight became too painful, who were misaligned with their particular therapist, or who would have changed had their homo­sexuality caused them sufficient psychological pain and anguish. (Moshe Halevi Spero, Handbook of Psychotherapy and Jewish Ethics (New York: Feldheim, 1986), p. 159.)

Admittedly, a rabbi or religious counselor might not be trained to complete such psychological counseling, and the proper approach might well be to refer the adolescent to a competent therapist.  However, the initial encounter with a religious authority figure may well influence any possible future counseling and therefore demands a thought­ful, responsible reaction.

It should not be necessary to belabor the point that some responses would be counterproductive.  Of course, the counselor must adhere to the halakhic position that homosexual acts are absolutely incompatible with a Torah per­spective.  Nonetheless, reiterating this position at this time is not necessarily productive.  It simply restates something already known to the adolescent, who after all, is seeking not a permissive ruling for homosexuality but aid in grappling with what he per­ceives to be an irresistible urge to act against his halakhic commitment.  Simply telling him that he may not violate halakha may frighten him into believing that there is no help available. At the very least, he deserves praise for his courage in coming forward to confront the problem.

Even when it is obvious that the teenager must be referred to another counselor, it is important in the initial encounter to invest time in a positive discussion.  If the adolescent gets the message that the rabbi/teacher is frightened or not competent to cope with the issue, he might fear that there is no solution to his problem.  Of course, an adult aware of his own incompetence to confront an issue must not attempt to deal with the adolescent himself (and must know to whom he can direct a student).  But the referral must be done in a way that is reassuring and not intimidating.

Religious counselors and professional therapists have very different yet legitimate agendas in their respective discussions with homo­sexuals.  The latter’s job is to help the individual come to terms with himself by resolving his underlying conflicts, helping him become as autonomously productive as possible.  Religious counselors, on the other hand, have an obligation to help the individual grow in his religious conviction and observance.  These objectives are not inherently contradictory, but they should be understood and sorted out.

In order to avoid the contradiction they perceive between their professional and halakhic commitments, some halakhically-committed psychodynamically-oriented therapists paradoxically refer homosexual clients to other therapists who, they believe, maintain a value-free attitude towards homosexuality.  Needless to say, we reject out of hand the notion that religious therapists are incapable of helping people with a homosexual orientation, although reconciling this perceived contradiction is beyond the scope of this paper.

A crucial task of the religious counselor in the initial con­ference is to assess any immediate danger to the student and assure a positive atmosphere and framework for future dis­cussions.  The counselor must be aware of the danger of suicidal thoughts and directly, though delicately, raise the question of how tortured the student might be by his homosexual thoughts.  The student himself might raise the question of intense pain or depression, and it is reasonable to ask if he has ever considered hurting himself.  A positive response should be met calmly but not dismissed.  The counselor should ask if any specific plan of action has been considered or if the adolescent has in any way (recently or in the past) already attempted to harm himself.  Generally speaking, the more concrete the plans are for a suicide, the more likely it is to be actualized.  It is also useful to ask if there is a family history of suicide, depression, or other severe psychiatric illness.

Suicidal thoughts need immediate attention by a trained pro­fessional, and the rabbi or counselor is usually not trained to address this very real danger to the ado­lescent.  Indeed, if suicidal ideation is present, it is probably necessary to address the depression professionally before dealing with the homosexuality. Thus, when suggesting a referral to a teenager (and, later, to him and his parents together), the point should be made that while the whole homosexuality issue may well ultimately reflect a central organizing conflict in the adolescent’s life, it might, on the other hand, represent merely one of several contributing factors to the suicidal depressive state being presented.

The religious counselor should address the sense of guilt and feelings of insanity that such a young man might often be feeling.  Guilt has already impelled the individual to seek help; at this point it can be paralyzing rather than positive.  To some extent, psychological pain and anguish is necessary to motivate a successful therapeutic experience.  But an overly tortured, frightened person can hardly address underlying con­flicts. The individual must be calmed and given enough confidence to find the strength to effectively grapple with his problems.

A forthright statement should be made that despite the fact that homosexual acts are prohibited by the Torah, homosexual thoughts do not necessarily reflect being “crazy.”  From a Torah per­spective the young man, notwithstanding his homosexual thoughts, is probably quite sane.

To better understand this last point, it might be helpful to consider that there is no specific halakhic proscription against eating feces.  This is no accident, because healthy people naturally eschew eating excrement, and we would quite naturally question the mental health of people who enjoy eating it. If normal people would not consider doing something, the Torah has no need to prohibit it.

But the Torah does prohibit eating unkosher food, and even kosher food must be avoided if it is medically harmful.  Yet neither a healthy person who eats pork nor an individual with a heart con­dition who eats cholesterol-rich food is ipso facto crazy.  With regard to the former, Sifra (Kedoshim, end  of perek 9) presents a position later adopted by Rambam (Shemone Perakim VI): “Do not say, ‘I do not want to eat meat together with milk; I do not want to wear clothes made of shatnez (a mixture of linen and wool); I do not want to enter into a prohibited sexual relationship.’ Rather, he should say ‘I do indeed want to do it, yet I will not, for my Father in Heaven has forbidden it.'”  And while we might feel that the cardiac patient who chooses to eat red meat is irresponsible, we intui­tively know the difference between stupidity and insanity.

On the other hand, overweight people who are trying desperately to address their heart condition by losing weight and yet cannot control their com­pulsion to overeat are, indeed, ill.  What Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik maintains in theory regarding man’s emotional life when confronting the death of a relative has a broader validity:

The halakha was firmly convinced that man is free and that he is master not only of his deeds but over his emotions as well.  The halakha held the view that man’s mastery over his emotional life is unqualified and that he is capable of changing thought patterns, emotional structures and experi­mental motifs…. (R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “A Eulogy for the Talner Rebbe,” in Joseph Epstein, ed., Shiurei Harav (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1994), p. 68.)

Whatever the extent to which this theoretical framework is true of a specific individual, it is nonetheless true that it is the compulsion, the absence of free will, which is the illness, not the sense that the unhealthy food would taste delicious.

With regard to heterosexual desire, we certainly regard the sex drive as normal and healthy.  We expect healthy people to be able to overcome that drive when sex is halakhically prohibited.  Indeed, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik sees the ability to overcome such desires as the hallmark of human dignity:

Bride and groom are young, physically strong and passionately in love with each other.  Both have patiently waited for this rendezvous to take place.  Just one more step and their love would have been fulfilled, a vision realized.  Suddenly the bride and groom make a movement of recoil.  He, gallantly, like a chivalrous knight, exhibits paradoxical heroism.  He takes his own defeat.  There is no glamour attached to his withdrawal.  The latter is not a spectacular gesture, since there are no witnesses to admire and laud him.  The heroic act did not take place in the presence of jubilating crowds….

This kind of divine dialectical discipline is not limited to man’s sexual life, but extends to all areas of natural drive and temptation.  The hungry person must forgo the pleasure of taking food, no matter how strong the temptation; men of property must forgo the pleasure of acquisition, if the latter is halakhically and morally wrong.  In a word, Halakha requires of man that he possess the capability of withdrawal(R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Catharsis,” Tradition, 17:2, Summer 1978).

Halakha focuses on the ability to withdraw from executing a natural impulse, not from feeling the impulse itself.  A young man who has homosexual thoughts but who can control his actions is not ill.  But a person who has an irresistible compulsion to act against his values does need psychological help irrespective of the nature of the compulsion.  Thus, even in cases where homosexual desire is long-standing and defines a deep and apparently unalterable aspect of the personality, halakha calls us to the heroic act of renunciation.

It is interesting to speculate why the Torah stresses that homosexual acts are an “abomination” (Lev. 18:22; 20:13) along with the other prohibited abominable sexual acts (Lev. 18:26-29), just as it labels unkosher food “abominations” (Deut. 14:3).  But that is neither here nor there.  The Torah forbids these because they are quite normal but ­‑‑in the Torah’s view‑‑ improper.  Sometimes we can understand the reason for a prohibition; indeed, the argument against homo­sexuality is a cogent as that in support of kashrut.  But whether or not we understand the rationale of a specific pro­hibition, we can assume that any Torah prohibition implies that it is something which is part of the common human situation that is being prohibited.

Thus we need not even argue against the psychological position that holds that many healthy people have homosexual thoughts at one time or another.  The Torah’s position is that the normal quality of any impulse is irrelevant to its ethical or halakhic character.  Homosexuality and seafood are abominations and hence forbidden because the Torah says so; the Torah does not necessarily forbid them because they are by their nature ‑‑like feces‑‑ repulsive.

This position is reassuring for the religious adolescent plagued by homosexual thoughts.  If he is crazy, there may be no hope.  If he is basically normal ‑‑struggling in this area as all people do in one area or another‑‑ then there may well be a chance for him to lead a rich, halakhically valid life.  Halakha’s opposition to the pro-homosexuality campaign being waged in our secular society does not target the claim that homosexual impulses are normal.  On the other hand, halakha’s position is that the normalcy of an impulse is not its license.  On the contrary, the ability to retreat from one’s natural impulses is at times the hallmark of mental health and halakhically ethical conduct.  Thus, halakha rejects the current proposition that sexual ful­fillment is the summum bonum of life, arguing that a halakhically ethical life often denies the heterosexual as well as the homosexual the possibility of total sexual fulfillment.

Somewhere during the counseling session, the adolescent should be asked if it is all right to put a number of straight­forward questions on the table.  It is not necessary to deal with them all at this meeting, but touching on them will help create a frame­work for future discussions, whether with the religious counselor or the therapist.  The counselor’s ability to hear all this infor­mation without responding negatively sets the tone for all future discussions.  No matter what is said, the adolescent must have continual and convincing reassurance that he still remains a person worthy of love and under­standing.  If the rabbi or counselor responds with shock, revulsion, or damnation to what he hears, the young man might lose the confidence required to confront and solve his problem—or at least lose the trust necessary to ever discuss the issue again with a re­ligious authority figure.  One need not fear that lack of repri­mand will be taken as license.  It is enough to state once at the end that specific items mentioned might be halakhically pro­hibited but the problem as a whole can be dealt with.

It is worth mentioning a few specific questions that might be explored in the initial counseling session, even before referral is made to an outside therapist.  First and foremost is the question of whether the adolescent has reached his conclusion regarding his sexual orientation on the basis of his thoughts or his actions.

Adolescents can misinterpret homosexual thoughts as signs of a permanent orientation­.  Homosexual thoughts might be motivated by the general sexual confusion common to many adolescents, an attempt to interpret public discussions about homosexuality that are unintelligible to the teenager, or “replaying” a shocking scene to which the young person had been exposed.  Such thoughts can be frightening, causing the adolescent to fixate on them.  The counselor should ask the student to relate some of their details. Even if there is a serious underlying problem that must be further addressed in therapy, showing him that these frightening thoughts can be openly discussed in a nonjudgmental manner with a reli­gious authority figure creates a healthy atmosphere for future discussions.  If the adolescent is having frequent sexual thoughts, it is pointless to say things like, “Put such thoughts out of your head.”  If he were able to, he would not be speaking to the counselor at all.

It is true that there is a prohibition of hirhur [fantasizing] about illicit sexual acts and that to some extent this may apply to relating them in a conversation.  But the religious counselor may develop an inaccurate picture of the reality being described by the adolescent if only generalities are used, making him less able to offer concrete and reassuring advice.  Moreover, the teenager might misinterpret the counselor’s reluctance to listen to his fantasies as either a suggestion that the situation is too hopeless to deal with or that he should not trust the therapist to whom he is being referred.

Sometimes a teenager assumes he is a homo­sexual simply because he is not part of the carefree and promiscuous heterosexual sexual scene popularized on television.  Too scared to discuss the issue with anyone, he never hears the reassurance that shyness and reserve is com­pletely normal.  An open, reassuring conversation that communicates that it is the promiscuous scene which is unhealthy and immoral can often relieve much of the adolescent’s anxiety.

Even actual homosexual acts themselves are not necessarily an indication of homosexuality. Though clearly prohibited by halakha, some homosexual experimentation may emerge at camp or in a yeshiva dorm. The widespread campaign to accept the unalterability of a homosexual orientation compounds the teenager’s normal difficulty to see the many possibilities available in any situation.  Unable to discuss these activities with an adult, he may well have convinced himself that he is a homosexual.  A calm, non­judgmental, open discussion with a religious authority can give the young man an opportunity to come to terms with these past actions and move on to a healthy, productive life.

It was not our intention to present here the details of a halakhically-valid therapeutic strategy for dealing with students troubled by homo­sexual thoughts.  It is not the duty of the religious counselor to have worked out a thorough therapeutic approach to properly address a student who approaches him for guidance in this issue.  Rather, he must be prepared to calm the student, offer him reassurance and make a proper referral to a halakhically-sensitive fully-trained therapist.

****************

The following letter to the editor was published in Tradition, 29:4, Summer 1995:

The omission of three items of general rabbinic counseling from our “Initial religious Counseling for Male Orthodox Adolescent Homosexuals” might have created the mistaken impression that they do not apply in the emotionally-charged context.  We would therefore take this opportunity to briefly clarify these points.

While the rabbi or counselor has an obligation to protect the student’s religious well-being, there is clearly a similar obligation to protect his physical health.  A person who has already engage in certain types of homosexual behavior should be considered at serious life-threatening risk for AIDS and needs immediate health counseling.  While it may be necessary to say outright that some specific behavior is anti-halakhic, it is also necessary to make clear that counseling is a process that takes time.  It is important for the students to be kept safe while the process continues and, although desirable, it is unrealistic simply to demand or expect that non-halakhic behavior cease immediately.  The rabbi or counselor has to make this clear, and providing proper health information, including how to protect oneself from disease, is part of this obligation.  Similar considerations apply when counseling a promiscuous heterosexual student.

All good religious counseling demands a consideration of compromise during the counseling process, and it makes no difference if the issue is homosexual behavior, masturbation, or hillul Shabbat.  In our case, presenting total celibacy as the only option might frighten the student into thinking that there is no hope.  Therefore, there should be a discussion of compromise, of homosexual behavior that stops short of mishkav zakhar.  But the chiseling has an obligation to keep the compromising to a minimum, to avoid turning a bediavad into a lehat’hila. That is why discussions, while sometimes crucial, should not necessarily be undertaken in the initial session.

Whatever the area of religious conflict, there is a need to focus on the possibility of observing all the mitzvot that are in own’s power to fulfill.  Indeed, one of the hardest messages to get through to a teenager is that the Torah does not require us to be perfect, but to yearn and strive for perfection.  Whatever the outcome of one’s sexual struggle, everyone is more than his or her sexuality.  However anyone might fail, in the end all people will submit themselves not only to God’s judgment but also His love.

Bernard L. Weinstein

Joel B. Wolowelsky

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