Rabbi Hillel Athias-Robles writes a very moving story in the Guardian, a UK newspaper. It references a recent decision by the US American Psychological Association to recommend to psychotherapists not to tell clients that they can change their sexual orientation. The APA did also recommend that for some clients, religion was more important than sexuality, and for these folks, celibacy is a valid option.
Last week the American Psychological Association adopted a resolution stating that mental health professionals should avoid telling clients that they can change their sexual orientation through therapy. It recognised that many of the clients wanting such a change were those whose religious beliefs conflicted with their sexual orientation. Among its suggestions, it proposed that therapists discuss with their religious gay and lesbian clients the possibility of joining gay-friendly congregations.
Reading this evoked memories of my journey from religious repression to religious liberation, from ultra-Orthodox Judaism, which condemns homosexuality, to its Liberal counterpart, which celebrates it.
As a young teen, I began practising – along with my family – ultra-Orthodox Judaism, which was teeming with laws. Cardinal among the prohibitions was one from Leviticus 18:22: "Thou shalt not lie with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination." This made my life untenable. As much as I tried to abide by every commandment, my efforts were insufficient. I knew that I was gay and that made me an abomination.
At 17 I moved to Jerusalem to study in a yeshiva, a seminary devoted to the study of the Torah. I naively hoped that by cloistering myself with sacred texts I would be miraculously purged of my deviation. Reality crushed my buoyancy – my attraction towards men intensified.
I tried to exhaust all possible means for my rehabilitation – crying, praying, fasting. When all this failed, I heard of a support group for Orthodox men struggling with homosexuality.
At the group, we were told that homosexuality was a pathology called SSA – Same-Sex Attraction. We were sick. In our meetings, and also during my private sessions with the therapist, it was said that we could only find fulfilment by marrying a woman. We needed to convert to heterosexuality, and could achieve this by adopting masculine traits and gender-appropriate attitudes, like engaging in team sports or hanging out with the "lads".
With time, I began to feel increasingly pressured to wed, to be fruitful and multiply. This way I would channel my sexual energies and be "cured". At 21, I went through an arranged marriage. I was engaged within less than a week of meeting my bride-to-be, and we moved to Amsterdam and then to London.
Naturally, all those promises were in vain – and at the expense of an innocent girl. Over the years, my secret began riving at me from my entrails. I was sick of deceiving my wife and myself. I told her the truth. Shortly thereafter she left me, taking our three daughters to Argentina. The pain I put all of them through is an albatross I will carry on my shoulders for ever.
After my ordeal, I burst out of the closet and considered renouncing my faith. I nonetheless came to realise I needed spirituality. Just as I couldn't repress my sexuality, I couldn't repress my spiritual self either. I needed an alternate source of meaning.
With trepidation I approached the headquarters of Liberal Judaism in London, a movement founded on the principles of egalitarianism and inclusivity, which conducts same-sex commitment ceremonies. The movement extended to me its unconditional support.Having been ordained as a rabbi, I joined Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue and it felt like coming home. I now have a partner and have reached a level of happiness I never dreamed possible.
There are many other movements across the faith spectrum which fully embrace their LGBT members. Transitioning from a conservative religion to an inclusive one is not easy. Yet the bliss felt by being at peace with oneself and being welcomed into an accepting community outweighs the cost. If you take the leap, there will be many to catch you. Trust me, I was there.
Hillel Athias-Robles is assistant rabbi of the Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue