Monday, 30 September 2013

Dr R

My mum is concerned at my dysfunctional lifestyle. I have been reclusive and have been sleeping during all hours of the day. I have consulted the Wikipedia article on depression; it lists symptoms that seem worryingly applicable. She has scheduled a meeting for me with a psychiatrist who she says comes highly recommended. He is an Orthodox Jew.

I meet him at his office. He flashes a smile, offers a handshake, and gestures to a chair.

"Name?" I answer him.
"Where have you been studying? And for how long? Are you depressed?"

The questions come thick and fast. He iterates my mum's concerns, inquires about my symptoms and then throws out a cluster of possible causes.

"You do drugs?"
"No."
"Gamble?"
"No."
"Even occasionally? I know that some Yeshiva students visit the casino?
"No."
"Are you gay?"

The question takes me unawares. He is looking at me, waiting for an answer.

"Uh. Yes."

My voice is shaky.

He straightens up. He's pleased at the speed at which he has identified what's been troubling me.

This is the first time I've disclosed my sexuality. I am feeling light-headed. My fingers are trembling. I'm nervously awaiting his response. It takes ages to arrive.

"For how long have you felt this way?"

I am taken aback. I was expecting a more empathetic response; one that acknowledged the hardship I have endured. Even a trite but sympathetic "I'm glad you shared that" would do. Instead, he is smoothly proceeding with his mental checklist, waiting to tick his next box - I am ticked off.

A few more questions and he is ready to discuss my personal situation. He tells me about another Orthodox patient - he corrects himself, another client - that is married, who he helps balance his sexuality with his religious lifestyle. It is evident that his advice will entail a stabilising act: I am to become a trained sea lion balancing my wobbly sexuality on the tip of my nose. My desires are to be managed or repressed; not realised or sated. He is not prepared to operate outside the confines of his religious boundaries. I too am to be fenced-in. 

"Is this guy happy?"
"He is married with kids. He is no longer preoccupied with his same-sex feelings."

This is the second time he has described homosexuality as "feelings". Ethereal and transient feelings. Not something substantial like an "instinct" or a "drive". Definitely not part of a genetic make-up.

"Do you still regularly see him?"
"Yes."

He reaches behind him and proffers me a leaflet. It advertises the services of JONAH: Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing. It shows a smiling man on the front. It claims to "heal" people through reparative therapy. I have heard of this organisation before. Two Jewish men that went through its program allege they were instructed to strip by one of its therapists while he observed them. One says he was told to fondle himself.

I scrunch up the leaflet and throw it in the bin. OK, I don't, but it's what I want to do. After all, he has just scrunched up a primal part of my identity and callously discarded it.

"No thanks. Not for me. Not what I'm looking for."

He asks me if I'm certain. I reassure him that I am. The session comes to an end and I prepare to leave. As I begin to walk out, he tells me to go to his receptionist and book a series of sessions. That way, I'll be eligible for discounted rates.

I decline his offer. I won't be coming back.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Masechet Makkot

We have been studying tractate Makkot for a while. It discusses the array of punishments that a Beth Din - a Jewish court - can mete out. Makkot literally means "lashes". Sitting around me are students of all ages - from the smooth-cheeked Hasidic kid that's just turned Bar Mitzvah to the lugubrious senior student that is part of the Yeshiva kollel, married with an ever-expanding family.

One punishment that Beth Din can administer is serefah which involves pouring molten lead down the throat of the condemned. Another is sekila in which the condemned is hurled off a building and then stoned. The texts are occasionally gory and graphic.

I am struck by the dichotomy between Orthodox and non-Orthodox principles. In non-religious circles, violence and sex are both regarded as adult topics. The BBFC's rating on the back of DVDs which determines the suitability of a film for various age groups is based primarily on these factors. Either graphic violence or explicit sexual activity will earn an adult rating.

However, in Yeshiva and in the orthodox community, censoring is primarily about sex. 

The cereal packages have gaping holes where once were the pictures of young, smiling women. Frumpy middle-aged women obediently cover their hair with hats or wigs - occasionally both - so as to appear "modest". Girls are instructed about the appropriate length of a neckline and the hem of a skirt. Boys wearing shorts while jogging in the streets is a risqué business; girls wearing trousers is inexcusable sluttishness.

But this censorship isn't extended to violence. From a young age, children are taught the episodes of the Old Testament: the killing of the Egyptian firstborns, the commanded annihilation of the Amalekite people, and the stoning of a man that gathered sticks on Sabbath, many of which evidence the wrath of a vengeful God. Children become inured to these violent punishments and eventually respond with indifference where they might have otherwise recoiled in horror.

The tragic consequence of this is that depravities will be committed by God-fearing, decent people in the name of their faith.

A pair of students are blithely discussing whether the punishment of makkot entails 39 or 40 lashes. The discussion revolves around its technicalities; not its suitability or purpose. The morality of capital or corporal punishment is not explored for when all morals are derived from God, attempting to understand them is a needless distraction. I am friendly with one of the students. He is enthusiastically reasoning with his study partner. I reflect on whether he'd nonchalantly kill me on account of my sexuality if Beth Din was in operation.

I'm not sure.

I close my gemara and leave.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Meeting with the Mashgiach

I have a meeting with the mashgiach  - the religious commissar. Life is meaningless, I feel no attachment to God and I want to fix this. I know how the meeting will proceed. He will ask me what's wrong and depending on my response, will select a sefer from one of his shelves that deals with my concern. So if my issue is prayer, we will study a little Nesivat Shalom and finish off with some Praying with Fire. If my query relates to the role of the Jew, he will no doubt prescribe a healthy dose of Mesillat Yeshorim and recommend I listen to a recording of his weekly shiur. In his mind, the cures to all problems lie between the pages of the tomes that fill his bookshelf.
But I wonder how he will respond if I actually reveal what has been bothering me for several years. 

I am gay. I like guys. 

Which sefer will he turn to? If no sefer discusses homosexuality, does that mean he'll conclude my condition does not exist? It's a bizarre situation: I am considering baring my soul before the spiritual councellor of the yeshiva; the person charged with disseminating those cold and rigid views that are responsible for the hostility and and intolerance I sense everyday.

I do not know if I have the resolve to plead before my tormentor to accept me for the way I am. I don't know if I should. Is the victim supposed to try and endear himself with the one responsible for his misery? These questions have no answers; I might as well not exist. My impression is that frum Jews would rather that was the case too. 

I stumble back to my gemara pondering how Tosafot would tackle this philosophical conundrum: what sound does a crying bochur make if nobody is there to hear him cry?