November 17, 2005

Openly Gay Rabbi Speaks

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Leviticus 20 reads, “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination.” For 10 years, on Yom Kippur, as Orthodox Rabbi Steven Greenberg heard these words beam from the podium, he wept. The rabbi, who had discovered his homosexuality at age 20 in rabbinical school, knew these words were directed at him, and he felt powerless in their presence.

Then, on his 11th Yom Kippur as a gay rabbi, Steven Greenberg decided to confront the words head-on. The rabbi opted to stand alone on the podium and read the words out loud. As he did, an “immense sense of calm” came over him. In this moment, Rabbi Steven Greenberg said that if he, whom these words directly affected stood silent, then the words would forever stand as an unchallenged tyrant.

“People that bear the weight of this verse – have been crushed by this verse – if they aren’t present to discuss what it means and how it applies, nobody knows what it means,” Greenberg said.

Thus, it became Greenberg’s mission to discuss his sexuality openly and help himself and others like him understand their place in the Jewish religion. Greenberg discussed what it means to be “Orthodox, Outspoken and Out of the Closet” last night in Rockefeller.

His journey to the podium on that Yom Kippur was a long one, which started at age 15 in Columbus, Ohio. As a young boy, Greenberg was first entranced by the mysticism and “other-worldliness” that orthodoxy offered him in contrast to “boring, flat dull 1973 Columbus, Ohio.”

He first realized the extent of his belonging in the Orthodox community at age 16. An elderly woman in his community had passed away, and because Jewish law forbids a dead body to be left alone, Greenberg’s rabbi asked him to sit with the deceased lady for three hours, and read psalms to her.

As Greenberg described, “on that dreary winter day, to walk alone to a funeral home and read psalms for three hours to a woman I’ve never met, [I gained] an overwhelming sense of belonging and purpose.”

This sense of belonging and purpose stayed with Greenberg, and he eventually found himself in what he describes as “the Harvard of rabbinical schools.”

It was at rabbinical school that Greenberg realized he belonged to another community in addition to the orthodox one. Greenberg became conscious of the fact that he awoke eagerly every morning in hopes of seeing one of his fellow male peers in the shower. At this time, Greenberg first recognized his sexuality.

Troubled by this revelation, Greenberg, as he later described, “felt like [he] was standing on a cliff with no future in sight.”

In search of solace, or at least an understanding, Greenberg traveled to see one of the country’s most conservative rabbis. Greenberg explained to the rabbi that he was attracted to both “men and women” for as, Greenberg explains, most homosexuals start initially believe they are attracted to both sexes. The rabbi responded with words that still today clearly resonate in Greenberg’s heart.

“My dear one, my friend you have twice the power of love, use it carefully,” he said.

Although the words offered Greenberg a poetic take on his life, they were unable to provide him with a clear path of how to balance his homosexuality and his Judaism. This path became clear to Greenberg on the aforementioned Yom Kippur, when Greenberg realized that his duty was to present to the Jewish community the gay view on the words that had been interpreted to alienate him.

“I realized a willingness to be naked to the tet obligated the text to be naked to me,” Greenberg said.

After his epiphany, Greenberg began to write anonymous articles about Judaism from the perspective of an Orthodox gay rabbi.

Greenberg was still reluctant, however, to reveal his identity. It was not until he sat on the plane next to the feature article writer of the Israeli paper Maariv that Greenberg released himself from his cloak. Greenberg said, “If I wasn’t willing to make the appointment [to publicly come out] then someone else was.”

Once public, Greenberg continued to write and speak publicly about the nature of homosexuality within the context of Orthodox Judaism. His new book, Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition deals with many of the issues.

In the book, Greenberg discusses four main reasons why Judaism forbids homosexuality. The first is that it stands in the way of reproduction, the second is that it provides temptation for a man to cheat on his wife, the third is that it confuses clarity of gender and the fourth is that it is “fundamentally and structurally violent,” Greenberg said.

This fourth reason is the one that Greenberg detailed the most in his lecture. According to Greenberg, due to the patriarchal nature of society and thus religion, many see sex as an act in which a man subjugates a woman. Such is the case, because both society and religion see men as more powerful than women.

Thus, when two men have intercourse, Greenberg explained, religion and society both view the act as “an act of humiliation.” When two men have sex, one, by definition, is seen as being feminized as “to treat a man like a woman is utterly humiliating.”

This interpretation has two implications. First, Greenberg said, it implies that anti-gay attitudes are, in truth, products of a misogynistic culture. If people did not view sex as an act of oppression, but rather of equal input, people would not see gay sex as an act of degradation, he argued.

Second, he said, this interpretation allows gays to find some degree of acceptance in the Jewish faith. For if in condemning homosexuality the Torah is really saying, “do not use sex to humiliate, demean or undermine a person,” then gays do not need to feel like such outcasts, according to Greenberg.

Although Greenberg offered new interpretations in which gays can find their place in the Jewish religion, he did not profess a desire to radically alter the standing of Orthodox Judaism.

As Greenberg explained, his goal is not for gays and the orthodox establishment to interpret the text in the exact same way, for that will never happen. Rather, Greenberg hopes that both sides can arrive at the same place, which is acceptance of gays and lesbians into the Orthodox Jewish community, whether or not their reasoning is the same.

“There must be a way to read the text to mean what it has meant for thousands of years and still welcome gays and lesbians,” explained Greenberg.

This idea of working with, and not against tradition, is one that apparently not only applies to Judaism. John Phan grad, a Catholic who attended the lecture, found Greenberg’s arguments applicable to his religion as well.

“I think the Catholic situation and the Jewish situation are very parallel, in that both rely on tradition as law,” he said.

Hadas Ritz grad was struck by a different component of the lecture. To her, the most significant topic was the parallel Greenberg drew between misogyny and homophobia, one which Ritz said was the “first time” she had heard described, and one which she was “happily surprised” to learn about.

Archived article by Lauren Hirsch
Sun Staff Writer