Editor’s note: The thoughts expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the experience of others who practice Judaism in light of their homosexual inclinations.
See also: Straight Path: David Responds where the author addresses some of the many comments regarding this article.
Judaism stresses the importance of teshuva, return, to work on faulty character traits and habits that have obscured our true selves.
But what if you have no healthy sense of self to return to?
What if the sense of being at fault, inadequate, is not the aberration but the norm? Not a localized effect relating to one bad act or trait, but the way you view yourself ― and the way you suspect that others see you.
What if the people who were supposed to build your strong, healthy sense of self ― to complete their creation of you ― do the opposite? What if they cut you down, shame you, train you to feel weak and dependent to bolster themselves?
What do you return to then?
I grew up in what psychologists call a "triadic family" ― it is so common in the backgrounds of men who struggle with homosexuality that it has a name. A distant or belittling father, an emotionally smothering or needy mother, and in the center a boy with nobody to guide him on the path to manhood. A boy for whom manhood has become dangerous, threatening, distant. A boy who grows up feeling different from other boys and men, yet yearns to connect with them, with his own masculinity.
When I was five or six years old, my cousin brought her boyfriend ― a strapping muscleman ― to a family party. I threw myself at him, climbing into his lap and onto his shoulders. He threw me in the air, wrestled me, and played with me as my father never did. I couldn't get enough. The adults were vaguely embarrassed at the intensity with which I pursued him; eventually they pulled me away to go to bed.
Consuming another man's masculinity only temporarily substitutes for an honest male self-image.
When I passed through the gay world years later as a young man, I found many in the gay community like me: boys still desperately seeking to crack the code of real manliness. But consuming another man's masculinity can only temporarily substitute for an honest male self-image. So the search, for many gay men, becomes a series of compulsive, yet fruitless encounters.
Older men, never having found the dream lover that would quiet their inner hunger, and finding their charms fading, would seek out boyish younger men for affairs that parodied real father-son relationships. This arrangement exploited my emotional neediness, and I gloried in being celebrated for my youth and vigor.
The rush of sexual and emotional release created powerful experiences. I finally felt loved and accepted by men. I had grown up with a distorted sense of myself as less than a man. Now a new ― equally distorted ― set of beliefs was offered as an explanation, a "solution" to that earlier hurt. Given the home I came from, it was easy to feel that coming out would mean "coming home" to something better. Wasn't this what teshuva means ― returning to your "true" self?
Facing the Truth
To solve a problem you must admit it exists.
You can deny it ― but then you must keep on denying, as reality mounts around you. From the first kink of self-serving untruth, you can, like a snail, build a crooked little world of your own.
In our narcissistic generation, talk of "returning to one's true self" can feed unhealthy self-absorption, empty self-esteem, or be used to cover a sense of inferiority ― without leading to honest self-examination. It can be used to spin a cocoon of excuses instead of leading outwards, inspiring the effort to see ― and live up to ― the truth.
Kabbalists call this capacity for self-deception "klipah" ― from the Hebrew word for a fruit's peel or rind. Enmeshed in this physical world, our souls blinkered by limited horizons, we are susceptible to falsehood.
In our generation those who struggle with homosexuality have the option of wrapping themselves in the gay liberation narrative. The mantle of chic victimhood quiets a lot of the inner distress ― for a while. The haunting sense of otherness folds in on itself to become a virtue. It feels wonderful to finally renounce that sense of being less than a normal man by declaring you are something else entirely.
But it's a false identity. As I saw up close, brave statements do not end the compulsive search for masculinity. There is no resolution, no revelation of true self.
So the first step in teshuva is to see clearly that an error has been made. The Torah demands that one verbally admit the transgression, to say it out loud. This is not a confession to anyone else but ourselves. God already knows.
It sounds simple, but we all justify our errors. It's even more difficult to pierce false fronts that we ourselves have constructed to cover deep wells of fear and shame.
My first struggle was for the truth of my own perceptions. I did not see the promised happiness and fulfillment in the gay community ― despite what "everybody" knew and told me. Despite what "everybody" knew about those backward observant Jews, I saw ― and received ― more real connection, trust, love, and joy in Jewish families and communities. However uncertain I felt about my worth, I didn't feel that I had been created differently from the Jews who were living that life of family and community.
I started digging for real facts.
I learned that homes like mine are common among men with homosexual urges.
I discovered that there is insufficient evidence for the claim that homosexuality is genetically or biologically predetermined. Instead I learned that homes like mine are common among men with homosexual urges. I found out that the great founders of psychology – from Freud and Jung up to the 1960s ― had described how the problems in those homes lead to homosexual attraction. I learned that their studies had never been disproved, merely shouted down. Just like people whose fantasy defenses were threatened by my own observations were shouting me down, telling me to disbelieve my own senses and feelings.
I found out that "out and proud" homosexuals still suffered depression, suicide, and substance abuse at rates several times higher than the general population. And that many gay men settle for a lifetime of brief, compulsive, and often anonymous sexual couplings, marked by elevated rates of physical abuse.
My foothold in Jewish communities and attachment to the Torah ― to an external measure of moral values which has stood the test of time ― kept my perspective rooted in reality. Exploitation by mutual agreement was not love. The relationships I'd had with older men were not healthy mentoring. I could no longer deceive myself by making up my own, self-serving definitions.
I had to struggle to discover and admit truths, painful truths that would wind up leading me on a longer, more lonely way than the one offered by the "experts."
I had to accept that my pain was caused by internal trauma, rather than external prejudice.
I had to accept that healing would require hard work to change my habits and mindset ― and on the way I would have to unearth and relive deeply painful episodes. To restore myself to the community of real men, I would have to relinquish the narcissistic comfort of being "special," overcome paralyzing fears, and risk rejection. I would also have to relinquish and mourn relationships that never would heal, and find others to love and trust.
As I took counsel with friends in both the gay and Torah worlds, a paradox emerged: those who called themselves liberal-minded humanists asserted that I was like an animal, my essential nature fixed ― and that there was no higher dimension to "fulfilling myself" beyond sexual abandon. And Torah Judaism ― dismissed by them as primitive ― asserted that I was free to define myself and bond deeply with others through the uniquely human qualities of free will, insight and choice.
Return Vs. Change
After the struggle to see the truth, comes the struggle to act on that truth.
People ask, "How did you change your sexual orientation?" But the language of the question betrays incorrect notions about homosexuality.
I didn't have to "change" anything since the sexual attraction I felt to other men was not my true nature.
I didn't have to "change" anything. The definition of teshuva is returning to one's true self, one's soul. The sexual attraction I felt to other men was not my true nature; it was an attempt driven by my yetzer hara, my baser self, to satisfy unmet needs, a symptom of missed developmental opportunities and distorted perceptions.
The healing path for men struggling with these attractions focuses on the underlying causes. We build trusting relationships that satisfy our healthy need for male bonding in a non-sexual way.
The Torah doesn't prohibit sincere, healthy needs. It warns us that these needs can draw us down emotional dead-ends, and guides us towards healthy ways to fulfill them ― and grow through them.
When these needs are met – when men are no longer mysterious, other, unattainable ― the sexual attraction to men decreases. As I found my own masculine power within me, the need to seek and consume another man's masculinity weakened. And in a pattern typical of this healing path, I found that feeling better about myself as a man led to healthy, normal heterosexual attractions.
Jewish communal life provides many opportunities for male friendship and camaraderie to grow. I have found many fathers and brothers, and this has been a primary healing experience for me.
One communal organization devoted to helping Jews struggle with homosexual urges provided targeted support with a Jewish orientation that I could not have received elsewhere. They allowed me to express my deepest feelings for the first time in a loving, accepting circle of men, and referred me to counseling professionals who were knowledgeable about homosexuality and Judaism, and shared my therapeutic goals.
The Jewish Struggler
There are several distinct advantages unique to the Jewish struggler with homosexuality:
Judaism views people as basically good. There is no concept of original sin, which makes it easier to forge a healthy, positive view of oneself and the world.
I found a positive male ideal within Judaism that sees manliness in wisdom and loyalty.
I discovered that return and repair are not just possible, they are what I am here to do. This is the essence of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. This attitude helped free me from a downward spiral of passivity, fear of failure, and inaction, and continues to help me deal with inevitable ups and downs.
I found a positive, well-rounded male ideal within Judaism that sees manliness not just in sexual conquest or sports prowess, but in wisdom, loyalty and other virtues. Judaism gives men opportunities to fulfill themselves as scholars, husbands, fathers, brothers, and neighbors.
The pathways of healing are generally not straight, but circular or zigzag. When I successfully maintained new ways of acting, learned a new skill, or built a new friendship, it gave me the support I needed to deal with feelings that were once too painful to unearth. Introspection and resolving those feelings then led to further changes in behavior and improved relationships. Similarly, intense work with counselors to gain understanding was followed by work to translate those new insights into habits of living. And from that new position, new insights could be seen.
What about God?
Our relationship with God is in many ways built upon our relationships with our parents. My relationship with God certainly contains elements of a father-son relationship that I have long craved. But it also brings up old fears and angers. I still fear being rejected, shown up, or shamed by God. I fear His power over me ― because my father misused his power over me.
So my approach to God is sometimes oblique ― through the Torah, through teachers and other personalities with whom I have built warm, trusting relationships. God is there – as the Psalmist says, "peering out from the cracks." My focus is on correcting the distorted view I was raised with, and seeing the truth clearly. That effort is gradually revealing a truer view of God as well.
I have found real models of masculinity ― and heroism ― in the pages of the Torah and Talmud, and in every Jewish community in which I've lived. The warmth, commitment, and strength of my teachers and neighbors put me on solid ground. Within the Jewish community, I have married, raised a family, and become, I hope, a good father. We recently celebrated our oldest son's Bar Mitzvah.
I have returned ― to a healthy, balanced sense of self.
See also: Straight Path: David Responds where the author addresses some of the many comments regarding this article.