Rabbi Willig and Reparative Therapy

Recently, Rabbi Mordechai Willig a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University (YU) spoke about gay people and publicly endorsed reparative therapy as a way to “cure” homosexuality.  Very sadly, I did not hear his words directly.  Not for lack of trying though.  The web address on the site which housed this speech is a dead link (try for yourself http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/821032/Rabbi_Mordechai_I_Willig/YTS_Q_&_A_5775).  I’ve looked around for the actual speech because as much as I knew it would be painful to hear, I wouldn’t feel right writing about it, having heard the remarks only secondhand.  I can’t find it anywhere so now I don’t feel quite as bad.  I do wish the speech was still around to hear and/or read.  I can’t decide whether YU pulled it in a moment of self awareness (“hey, maybe we need to rethink our Rabbis making such antiquated and problematic remarks”) or fear. The good news is, if I get things wrong here and someone close to Rabbi Willig wants to correct me, the only way for them to do that will be to get me the speech so it’s really a win-win for me as far as I’m concerned.

Whatever the case is, I’ve read several recounts of this speech online over the past week and here are some of the more problematic aspects:

  • R’ Willig attributed the efficacy of reparative therapy (and i guess his remarks) to several rabbis and a “world-renowned” physician (from an unaccredited school).  Apparently he has straight out refused to speak to any actual gay people.
  • Apparently R’ Willig attributes the opposition to reparative therapy to a proverbial path of least resistance by gay people. That it’s easier to say that people can’t change their sexual orientation. He said the following “It’s much more convenient to hold [that gay people can’t change]. You don’t have to feel guilty. Do I have any guilt I don’t have blue eyes? I have no guilt! I was born with brown eyes.” (Thoughts on the eye color to sexual orientation comparison later.  Or maybe I don’t even need to address that ridiculousness, I haven’t decided yet).
  • Based on everything i have read it seems that Rabbi Willig endorses reparative therapy as a way to TURN PEOPLE STRAIGHT.

I’m not going to lie. It pains me to talk about R’ Willig and YU in this post.  I personally didn’t attend any YU institutions but many close family members in previous and current generations did and do.  I have had and still have family members who were/are on the faculty and staff of YU.  So I don’t take speaking about one of the Rabbis from this institution lightly.  But I’m sorry.  It is 2015 (it was almost 2015 when these remarks were said).  YU’s slogan is Torah Umadda  which loosely translates to “Torah and Secular Knowledge” and in essence  attempts (to the extent possible) to synthesizes the two.

This is why it is extremely difficult to hear that someone so high up in the Yeshiva speak about something like this with such misplaced authority.  At best, it sounds like Rabbi Willig was relying on several dubious sources to back up his argument that reparative therapy is something that is currently recommended for young gay and lesbian people.  Over the past couple of years alone, the horrors of reparative therapy have been brought to light and specifically religious reparative therapy (from the likes of JONAH etc.) and specifically in the New York and New Jersey area.  This is a long winded way of saying that either Rabbi Willig is someone who at best isn’t in touch with current events and news in both his own religious and geographic location (yet feels the need to speak about them with authority) or at worst is aware of all of these recent stories and has chosen to ignore them in favor of whatever compels him to make these public anti-gay statements.

But let’s look at this from a real and practical perspective for a minute.  Let’s say there is a young YU student who just came back from studying in Israel for a year or two.  This boy is in Rabbi Willig’s shiur in YU.  He desperately wants to remain an Orthodox Jew.  He has never known any differently nor does he consider having a different life.  He loves Torah.  But he realizes that he is gay.  He does what many young men do in this situation. He goes to Rabbi Willig and asks his advice.  And Rabbi Willig tells him  that the only answer is to go for reparative therapy. What happens next?  You see where this is going.  These are real people we are dealing with. Not just “what if” scenarios.   Let’s not even think about this boy and how things will turn out for him (spoiler alert: very badly) for a minute.   Do you want your daughter marrying him?  This isn’t hyperbole.  This is very real.  And very problematic.

Forget about the fact that it’s 2015 and we are living in modern times and need to figure out a modern solution for the issue of LGBT people in the Orthodox Jewish world that is NOT reparative therapy.   It’s 2015 and it’s ridiculous that a Rabbi would say such a crazy thing and not expect that it would be recorded and on the internet within an hour for all to hear and for the world to discuss. It’s only MORE crazy that I can’t currently find this speech anymore with today’s modern technology.

To be honest though, I’m having a hard time bringing heart to this story.  I think most probably because the thought of sending my son into a situation where he would hear words like the ones spoken about above is painful to think about.  However, Justin Spiro, a social worker who works with teens at JQY did a phenomenal job talking about the real ramifications of this speech.  He wrote the following open letter to Rabbi Willig:

Dear Rabbi Willig,

I’ve been waiting for your call. Before confidently claiming that reparative therapy is the best approach for gay Jews, I was certain you would reach out to gay Jews to discuss their life experiences, or at least to expert clinical psychologists and psychiatrists working with the LGBT Jewish population. It seems you have done neither, save for a “world-renowned physician” from an unaccredited university.

But that’s not even my biggest problem. I’ve been waiting for your call, yes, but so have dozens of LGBT Jewish teenagers with whom I work at Jewish Queer Youth. They’ve been waiting for you – or more generally for Orthodox Judaism – to reach out with a message of hope and love. Needless to say, this doesn’t qualify: “It’s much more convenient to hold [that gay people can’t change]. You don’t have to feel guilty. Do I have any guilt I don’t have blue eyes? I have no guilt! I was born with brown eyes.”

While there are many supportive voices in the Orthodox rabbinate, voices like yours are more salient in the hearts and minds of my teens. Orthodox day schools, camps, and shuls remain unsafe places for them unless emphatically and lovingly proven otherwise. Many teens ask me how they can possibly be observant Jews amidst such a landscape. Your comments make that question more difficult to answer.

LGBT teens have been waiting for your call. But they won’t wait forever. I pray that you can move past hashkafically convenient posturing and pick up the phone.

I wish it didn’t have to be written, but well said, Justin. I hope one day someone calls.

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