Puberty and young adulthood are difficult times for many of us. We go through
swift mental, physical and sexual development. As our bodies, mental capacities
and psyches mature we formulate a unique identity. But this process can be
challenging and even painful, particularly when our sense of identity clashes
with societal norms.
We can feel rejected, unloved and lonely. And when
our social surroundings are particularly intolerant to our newly formed identity
the pain can be unbearable.
It should come as no surprise, therefore,
that suicides and attempted suicides are significantly more common among
Orthodox homosexual Israelis aged 24 or less compared to their heterosexual
About 20 percent of gay and lesbian youths who participated in a
survey conducted by Hannah Bar-Yosef, a member of the Interministerial Committee
for the Prevention of Suicide, said they had tried to commit suicide, compared
to just 3.5% in the general population aged 24 or less. And though she did not
provide numbers, Bar-Yosef was quoted last week in the local media as saying
that suicide rates among Orthodox gays and lesbians were even higher than among
non- Orthodox homosexual youths.
Studies have found that suicide rates
among homosexual youths tend to be significantly higher when they grow up in an
intolerant, unsupportive social environment. For instance, a study by Mark L.
Hatzenbuehler that appeared in the May 2011 edition of the medical journal
showed the correlation between a hostile social environment and
attempted suicides. In a survey of 31,852 11th-graders in Oregon, Hatzenbuehler
found that lesbian, gay and bisexual youths were more likely to commit suicide
than heterosexuals (21.5% vs 4.2%). The risk of attempting suicide was 20%
greater in unsupportive environments; supportive environments significantly
lowered the risk.
“Supportive environments” were defined as societies in
which there was a higher proportion of same-sex couples, a higher proportion of
left-leaning voters (registered Democrats), the presence of gay-straight
alliances in schools and nondiscrimination or anti-bullying policies in schools
that protected lesbian, gay and bisexual students.
Significant steps have
been made in the modern- Orthodox communities of Israel and North America in
recent years to foster more tolerance of homosexuality without necessarily
condoning actions explicitly prohibited by Jewish law.
For instance, in
July 2010, about 200 modern-Orthodox rabbis, educators and community leaders –
mostly from North America but also from Israel – issued a “statement of
principles” that essentially accepted gay and lesbian Jews into the Orthodox
community (the question of openly practicing homosexuals was left up to
individual synagogues and communities to decide, much as attitudes vary from
community to community regarding whether or not to accept members who drive to
shul or are married to a non-Jew).
Too many Orthodox rabbis continue to
view homosexuality as a “curable affliction” and to obligate gays and lesbians
to undergo therapy. They hold this opinion despite the fact that so-called
“conversion therapy” has been rejected by nearly every reputable psychiatric
authority. The latest blow to conversion therapy was the public recantation and
apology to the homosexual community by Dr. Richard Spitzer, a prominent
psychiatrist. In April of this year, Spitzer essentially acknowledged that his
2001 study – the only credible study “proving” reparative therapy helped to
“cure” homosexuality among highly motivated individuals – was fundamentally
Indeed, attempts to “cure” homosexuality inevitably do infinitely
more harm – sometimes irreparable and quite lethal– than good. A World Health
Organization report released in April called reparative therapy “a serious
threat to the health and well-being – even the lives – of affected
The more conservative elements within Orthodoxy must understand
that tolerance and acceptance of the other is not just a luxury better left to
more liberal elements in society.
It can be a matter of life and death.