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At JONAH Trial, Where Does the Torah End and Science Begin?

The gay conversation therapy organization straddles the line between religion and psychology

Jesse Lempel
June 16, 2015
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Gay pride parade in Thessaloniki, Greece (June 15, 2013)blackboard1965 /
blackboard1965 /
Gay pride parade in Thessaloniki, Greece (June 15, 2013)blackboard1965 /

The Torah, or Arthur Goldberg’s reading of it, was on the stand in a New Jersey court last week as Goldberg tried to fend off a lawsuit for his efforts to “heal” gay men of their desires. He was asked if he tells potential clients that homosexuality is a disorder.

“A spiritual disorder, yes,” he testified. “It basically comes out of the Torah.”

Goldberg is not a rabbi—his formal Jewish education ended with grammar school. He is also not a doctor, though he has occasionally added “Dr.” to his signature on emails (“I’m a juris doctor,” he explained in court). Nor is he a licensed therapist or counselor of any kind. But after serving a term in prison for an elaborate financial fraud more than 25 years ago and then learning that his son was gay, he found a new calling and co-founded JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing—the ‘H’ used to stand for homosexuality), a group that has funneled hundreds of religious gay men and boys to counselors who practice reparative therapy, or gay conversion therapy. (His son is still gay but Goldberg says the two remain “very close.”)

JONAH and Goldberg are now being sued for consumer fraud in a momentous case, which I’ve been attending, that could cripple the nationwide business of gay conversion therapy. Three former clients, two of whom were raised as Orthodox Jews and the other as Mormon, claim that they were falsely told that being gay is a mental disorder and that JONAH could make them straight.

The case has grabbed headlines with the backdrop of the national debate over gay marriage, and the practice of conversion therapy itself, which is banned on minors in California, Oregon, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.; furthermore, 18 states have introduced legislation aimed at prohibiting gay conversion therapy for youths.

Eyebrow-raising “therapy” tactics were detailed in court: young men being asked to strip naked alone with their counselors, who generally claim to have “resolved” their own homosexual attractions; all-male weekend retreats that include group nudity and clothed cuddling, called “healthy touch”; the use of blindfolds, handcuffs, baby powder, and duct tape to bind two men together for symbolic purposes. One plaintiff, Benjamin Unger, choked up on the stand as he related how his “life coach,” Alan Downing, led him to blame his mother for turning him gay, going so far as to prop up a pillow to represent her and having Unger thrash it with a tennis racket while shouting “Mom!”

Whatever one thinks of these methods, though, the verdict, which is due in about two weeks, will partly hinge on a technical question of fact: Did JONAH and its counselors portray homosexuality as a mental disorder or, as Goldberg testified, a spiritual one?

If they presented it as a mental problem, then they will likely be found guilty of fraud, since the judge already decided back in February that “the theory that homosexuality is a disorder is not novel but—like the notion that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it—instead is outdated and refuted.” In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association delisted homosexuality as a “mental disorder.” If JONAH framed homosexuality as a religious or spiritual disorder, however, that cannot be considered consumer fraud; it’s a precise statement of faith.

Yet this distinction, clear on its surface, covers some very murky waters. That’s because JONAH’s approach to homosexuality straddles the fence between religion and psychology, freely hopping back and forth between the two.

On the one hand, the organization dismisses the “pray away the gay” philosophy that has found traction in some Christian circles. As Elaine Berk, JONAH’s other co-founder who is also being sued, put it in an email she read in court: “JONAH has nothing to do with faith healing—forgeddaboutit!” Instead they embrace a robust program of psychotherapy supported by a clinical lexicon, with terms like SSAD (Same-Sex Attraction Disorder), Gender Affirmation Process, and Bioenergetics.

On the other hand, JONAH also insists that all its work is infused with faith. In his testimony, Goldberg characterized the organization’s approach as “the synthesis of the psychological and the religious,” saying that the Torah is “an underlying assumption of everything we do.” Berk, too, traced her beliefs back to scripture, testifying that “the Torah does not believe anyone is born gay.”

These interpretations of Judaism are backed up by a document called the Torah Declaration, signed by over two hundred Orthodox rabbis and communal leaders, which endorses the ideology and practice of JONAH’s reparative therapy. “The concept that G-d created a human being who is unable to find happiness in a loving relationship unless he violates a biblical prohibition is neither plausible nor acceptable,” it states.

“God can do whatever He wants,” countered Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, describing the Torah Declaration’s theological derivation as “a logical jump.” Helfgot had previously authored the more progressive Statement of Principles, also signed by hundreds of Orthodox rabbis and communal leaders, who eye reparative therapy with skepticism and welcome homosexuals as “full members” of the community.

Susan Rosenbluth, spokeswoman for the Torah Declaration’s anonymous drafting committee, likened reparative therapy for homosexuals to Alcoholics Anonymous, echoing a comparison that Goldberg and Berk offered in court. “Goodness knows they use whatever highest spiritual power they can,” Rosenbluth explained. “Is it science? Is it a higher power? I don’t know. But the Torah says you can control behavior.”

When the jury combs through thousands of pages of testimony and backlogged emails, it will have to parse the meaning of faith and its limits—even more confounding in this case, where both therapist and client initially shared a profoundly spiritual outlook. Did Goldberg and co. present their diagnosis and treatment as science or as religion? And when it comes to JONAH’s hybrid creature, is there even a meaningful difference?

After hearing the testimony of Alan Downing, the plaintiffs’ life coach who is also a defendant in the case, I had coffee with another of Downing’s former clients. This man, a student who asked to remain anonymous, looks back fondly on his four years of counseling with JONAH and Downing, even though he has since embraced being gay.

“JONAH got me to a place where I could come out,” he said, smiling at the paradox. Downing’s sessions helped him get past his shame, he explained, even if they didn’t turn him straight.

“I think Alan would consider me a success story,” he mused. “Arthur [Goldberg] probably wouldn’t—but I think Alan would.”

Given Downing’s deep professional and religious commitments against homosexuality, I wondered, how could he possibly count a gay man as a win?

“I guess he’s a bit of a heretic,” the student replied.

The case may turn, in part, on whether the jury detects a whiff of that heresy, that reliance on something beyond scripture, or if it decides instead that JONAH is faithful through and through.

Jesse Lempel is a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University’s Theological Seminary.