Gay Orthodox Rabbi Peels Back His Life

“Like peeling an onion,” Rabbi Steven Greenberg said, about the process of coming out. The first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, he initially wrote about his sexuality under a pseudonym, Rabbi Yaakov Levado (meaning Jacob Alone), for Tikkun magazine in 1993 and then in 1999 came out publicly in an interview in the Israeli newspaper, Ma’ariv.

Greenberg, who appears prominently in the award-winning film, “Trembling Before G-d,” now tells the story of his own journey and also offers new readings of traditional Jewish texts related to homosexuality, and argues for gay and lesbian inclusion in the Orthodox community in his first book. “Wrestling With God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition” (University of Wisconsin), he said, is the peeling back of another layer.

“We all have internal pieces that are not so clear to us; in our recognition and articulation of them, we come out,” Greenberg, a senior teaching fellow at CLAL who has been there for almost 20 years, said in an interview in his New York apartment on the Upper West Side. “It’s a metaphor of growth and self-actualization.”

As wrestling is a more assured verb than trembling, his own stance in the book is confident, presenting a Judaism that is both loving and accepting, where the act of engaging tough questions is essential.

The author, 47, grew up in a Conservative family in Columbus, Ohio. As a teenager, he was drawn to the teachings of an Orthodox rabbi; they studied together, and Greenberg, who was warmly welcomed into the rabbi’s home and community, took on traditional observance.

While he remembers the origins of his religious identity in detail, the origins of his homosexuality are not as clear, although he had a sense of being different from the age of 10. After high school, he attended Yeshiva University and then Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, enjoying “the male camaraderie and physical affection, the spiritual passion and intellectual head-butting.”

Aware of his attraction to a fellow student, he visited a Jerusalem sage, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashuv, and spoke candidly of what he then thought was the truth, that he was attracted to men and women. The sage responded, “My dear one, you have twice the power of love. Use it carefully.” The rabbi’s words calmed him and buoyed him above his fears. He felt that he could still marry and have a family.

In his years in rabbinical school back in New York — he received his ordination in 1983 — he dated women regularly, even “fell in love” but had no sexual interest in them. Once, over dinner, a new male friend asked him if he ever felt desire for a man, and their conversation jolted him.

Later that evening, he replaced his kippah with a baseball cap and wandered toward Christoper Street in Greenwich Village for the first time. Soon after, he began his first gay relationship with the same new friend.

Not giving up on the idea of marriage and family, he became engaged but realized he couldn’t marry the woman. He began to fully acknowledge to himself that he was gay, although he treasured his life of observance and his work as a teacher of Torah, and couldn’t imagine giving that up. Then he began writing about his dilemma, published the pseudonymous article and received much supportive mail, which expanded his world.

He moved back to Israel in 1996, began a gay men’s study group and helped raise money for a gay community center. He tied his official “outing” to the opening of the center, and the article about him in Ma’ariv was headlined, “In the Name of Partnership.”

Other gay Orthodox Jews have been counseled by rabbis to try to change through reparative therapy — Greenberg believes there is no demonstrably effective therapy, and that some of what is proposed can harm the patient — or to marry and ignore what they know about themselves or to remain celibate. Many are shamed; many end up leaving the community, but for Greenberg, that was not an option he considered.

Understanding the author’s trajectory is useful for the reader, for Greenberg’s experience informs his original readings of sacred texts. He is also inspired by generations of rabbis who preceded him, who also offered their own interpretations.

“I wanted to demonstrate the breadth of the tradition, the audaciousness of the rabbis,” he said. “Many are not aware of how shockingly bold rabbinic thought can be.”

A project of almost a decade, the book is well-written. Greenberg’s readings don’t lend themselves to quick summaries. He looks deeply into the meaning of words and looks with compassion at their impact.

“I begin with assumptions not about God’s control but about God’s love,” he explained, moving from the opening stories of Genesis, with their depiction of human loneliness, to the two verses in Leviticus that condemn sex between men as an abominable act punishable by death to references in the Talmud to sex between women. He also writes of stories of same-sex love in the Bible, like Jonathan’s love of David.

Greenberg also explores four rationales for the prohibitions in Leviticus, relating to reproduction, social disruption, category confusion and humiliation and violence. It’s the latter, he explained, that is his own most audacious reading in the book.

He suggests that sex between men was prohibited, because it was seen as an act of degradation and aggression in the way that women might have been abused. He asserts that the verses can be interpreted as a critique of the male-dominated social hierarchy, that it’s possible to read the verses as prohibiting the kind of sex that is demeaning, that such emotional violence is abominable even between men and women.

He said that such a reading can be healing for women, as well as for gay men, promoting a sexuality that is not about control.

In conversation, he commented, “The text doesn’t silence me. It calls me to speak my testimony.”

He realizes that some readers will trash his ideas, but he hopes that they will still hear his “as a religious voice that they can’t help responding to.” And he hopes they’ll understand that he is not attempting to corrupt or manipulate the system but to “truly respond to the human condition as I see it.”

Greenberg’s speaking style is warm and rabbinic, frequently quoting verses of text, then translating, always teaching. His face is expressive, showing signs of pain, empathy, freedom and joy, and he gestures with his arms, punctuating his words.

The light-filled brownstone apartment he shares with his partner of four years, actor and musician Steven Goldstein, is filled with books, as well as Judaica items, musical instruments and items from their travels. The apartment opens onto a rare Manhattan commodity, a backyard, where they build their sukkah.

He is comfortable with the role increasingly expected of him, as a spokesman for gay issues in the Jewish community. About gay marriage, he’s careful to separate civil and religious marriage, and as to the former, he’s in favor and sees it as a civil rights issue — where all citizens in committed, long-term relationships should be entitled to the same benefits. The subject of same-sex religious marriage is something he’s thinking about and studying.

In the book’s final section, he constructs the parameters of a respectful conversation between a gay Jew and an Orthodox rabbi, suggesting ways they might hear each other and continue their conversation, although the gap between them might be huge. He presents a working solution to the halachic and communal dilemmas, in which gay and lesbian Jews might be welcomed into synagogues: That rabbis agree not to humiliate or intimidate them from the pulpit, that gay and lesbian congregants not engage in public advocacy, that there be no lying in the community — that gays and lesbians tell the truth about their lives.

Admittedly not perfect, the plan is in fact rather modest, but as Greenberg explained, he believes in incremental change.

He writes that he and his partner were “actively encouraged” to join the Orthodox synagogue where they are now members, after they met the rabbi at a screening of “Trembling Before G-d.” The rabbi, who called the following day to reaffirm his invitation, is Rabbi Steve Friedman of Ramat Orah on the Upper West Side.

“For me,” he explained, “I want to belong not to a gay synagogue, but to a synagogue with gays and straight people, old and young. It’s a wider engagement with the Jewish community that’s most appealing to me.”

If the aims in terms of community acceptance seem modest, what are Greenberg’s dreams?

“I want a 16-year-old in an Orthodox day school who discovers that he or she is gay to know there’s a decent life inside the community that he or she can plan for,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. I want it to be possible for the Jewish community to be a place where everyone can fantasize a Jewish future of personal development, love and companionship, service to the Jewish people, to the larger world and to God.”

Rabbi Steve Greenberg will participate in a panel discussion, “Gay Marriage: The Jewish Perspective,” with Dennis Prager, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Rabbi Josef Kanefsky and professor Marcy Straus, moderated by Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman, on May 12, 7:30 p.m. at the University of Judaism. For reservations, call (310) 440-1246.

Condemning the Vote

It’s bad for Jewish unity, but not as bad as the decision to recognize the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jews.

That’s how Orthodox and Conservative rabbis are viewing the Reform movement’s recent decision last week to affirm the right of its rabbis to officiate at gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies.

But even though the leaders of Judaism’s more traditional movements say the Reform rabbis’ decision is less divisive than the 1984 move on patrilineal descent, Orthodox leaders are harshly condemning the vote.

The criticism of Conservative leaders is more subdued.

Also, those active in promoting Reform Judaism in Israel insist that because the resolution recognizes the diversity of views on same-sex unions and does not use the words “marriage” or “wedding,” it will not pose a serious obstacle to attracting Israelis to the movement. The Israeli Reform movement has generally taken a more cautious approach to controversial issues because it does not want to give the Orthodox establishment ammunition.

Not surprisingly, leaders in the Reconstructionist movement — which recognizes patrilineal descent and in 1993 supported same-sex commitment ceremonies — backed the Reform decision.

Other movements, though, predict it will undermine Jewish unity.

While the Reform resolution means the movement will now develop and circulate ketubot — or Jewish marriage contracts — and liturgy for same-sex ceremonies to its 1,700 rabbis, the resolution does not require rabbis to officiate at same-sex unions. Many Reform rabbis had officiated at same-sex ceremonies even before the resolution was passed.

Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive director of the 200-member Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, speculated that the resolution’s passage will encourage Reform rabbis who do not yet officiate at same-sex unions to consider doing so. He said his movement’s 1993 resolution “started what became a significant shift in Reconstructionist rabbis.”

Public discussion of the issue “made it less possible for individual rabbis to avoid the issue,” said Hirsh, who began officiating at gay and lesbian ceremonies after 1993.

“Having support of the rabbinic group makes it easier for you to make a stand in your own congregation,” he said.

The executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents 1,500 Conservative rabbis, said that while his movement supports civil rights for gays, it does not approve of its rabbis officiating at same-sex ceremonies.

Rabbi Joel Meyers acknowledged that despite this position, some Conservative rabbis officiate at same-sex ceremonies and — unlike Conservative rabbis who officiate at intermarriages — they are allowed to remain in the Rabbinical Assembly.

Meyers does not expect Reform’s move to strain Conservative-Reform relations, and he predicted it would have less of an impact than the patrilineal descent issue, which he said “goes to the heart of defining who’s Jewish and who’s not and that’s a more serious question.”

The Rabbinical Council of America, the organization representing 1,100 Orthodox rabbis, issued a statement that said, “Conferring legitimacy upon relationships which our Torah and tradition specifically prohibit is beyond the pale of acceptable Jewish teaching and practice.”

“It’s another step of fragmentation and disunification of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Steven Dworken, the RCA’s executive vice president. “First they did it with patrilineal descent, and now this.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, was even more outspoken in his criticism, saying it should “convince all Jews that anything goes in Reform leadership.

“Even the prohibition against incest could go,” he said.

But Shafran did say that unlike the patrilineal descent issue, the new resolution would not “split the Jewish people in two.”

Meanwhile, Reform and Conservative leaders say they will continue to work together, despite their differences on the same-sex issue.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, said he supported the resolution and was particularly happy about its compromise language.

“I imagine there’ll be some attacks from various quarters, mostly Orthodox, and I think it will be used from time to time by those who have an ax to grind against us,” he said.

However, he noted that he “could care less what the ultra-Orthodox say about us,” and is far more concerned about Reform’s image among its “target audience — all those people between Orthodox and nothing.”

The leader of Israel’s Conservative counterpart, Rabbi Ehud Bandel, said he does not agree with the resolution, which he thinks will undermine both movements’ efforts in Israel, but said it will not affect his willingness to work with the Reform movement in efforts to gain recognition for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

“It will make our position hard — we’re always associated with Reform, and Israelis don’t always differentiate between Masorti and Reform. But I think it will create more understanding to the fact that these are distinct movements.”

Yolanda Potasinski, left, and her partner under the chuppah. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum officiated at the 1997 commitment ceremony.

A Step Forward

Gay Jews say Reform vote is

a step toward acceptance.

By Julie Wiener, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Steven Fruh, 56, grew up thinking homosexuality and religion were incompatible.

So, when he realized he was gay, he abandoned Judaism. But 11 years ago when he discovered Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, it was a “revelation” to him that one could be “observant and gay.”

The feeling of acceptance Fruh found upon discovering the world’s oldest and largest gay synagogue was experienced by other gay Jews last week when Reform rabbis overwhelmingly approved a resolution affirming that “the relationship of a Jewish, same gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.”

In Los Angeles, the only city in the world with two synagogues serving primarily gay, lesbian, and bisexual Jews, Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) lauded the Reform movement for “taking a leading role” in the inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews. Some date Reform’s historic path toward the recent vote to 1972, when it formally accepted BCC as a member in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood credited the Women’s Reform Network, the national organization of Reform women rabbis, with pushing the issue of gay marriage before the plenum. “We feel the vote of the Reform rabbis is in keeping with the views of the liberal Jews of California,” she said.

Back at Manhattan’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah — where the rabbis already officiate at gay and lesbian weddings — the bimah features two rainbow-colored gay liberation flags alongside the United States and Israeli flags. During a recent Hebrew class, Fruh and his classmates said the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ resolution was an important step toward greater acceptance for gays and lesbians.

“It’s important from a symbolic point of view,” said Fruh, who was seated next to his partner, Paul Marsolini. “The largest Jewish organization has said our relationships have just as much validity” as the relationships of heterosexual couples, he said.

The resolution, which does not use the words “marriage” or “wedding” and which was modified shortly before the vote to emphasize that not all Reform rabbis agree on same-sex unions, does not make as strong a statement as the Beth Simchat Torah students would have liked. Rachel Gartner, a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, who was teaching the Hebrew class that night. “I would’ve liked to see kiddushin,” she said, referring to the Hebrew word for marriage. “But as a general broad statement, it’s thrilling.”

Modifications or not, Marsolini said the resolution is still a “tremendous step forward.”

Another st
udent, Marsha Cohen, who introduced herself as the “straight mother of a gay son,” said she was excited about the resolution, which she called “a step.”

“It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good, and the more people get used to it, the better,” she said.

“Why shouldn’t my one son have the same rights and privileges as the other son?” Cohen added.

Class members said they hope the resolution would influence other religious movements.

“May the Conservative movement be next!” Fruh exclaimed.

Saturday, November 25

Rabbi Steven Greenberg usually kept quiet through the gay jokes. After all, he had been in the closet in the Orthodox community for 20 years, so he was used to smiling through the ridicule, through tirades about same-sex marriage.

But not that day last year around the Shavuot table. His friend and teacher, also an Orthodox rabbi, held up a ketubah with an illustration of two men at the top and launched into a comedy routine about what the “reformers” were doing to sacred tradition.

Greenberg stood and ordered his teacher to sit down. “Those two people who are just cartoon figures to you actually in real life are human beings,” he said, “and they probably looked long and hard and suffered a great deal to find love in their lives. And now the finding of that love is so precious, you can’t imagine how precious it is. You don’t understand how difficult it is to fight against a cultural weight of self-hatred. And likely you can’t grasp this because no one has ever said to you, ‘rabbi, I’m gay.’ So let me be the first. Rabbi, I am gay.”

Sitting in his brother’s Long Beach backyard one gray morning last week, Greenberg imitates the faces at that Shavuot table, dropping his strong, clean-shaven jaw, furrowing his heavy gray brows, opening his bright brown eyes wide.

Then, as if uttering a punch line, he delivers the rabbi’s response: “Stevie, have you gotten help?”

Now that Greenberg, 42, has made a very public point of being the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, this kind of story is a little less painful than it used to be. And it illustrates what he thinks needs to happen in the Orthodox community: He is convinced that if traditional Jews open their ears, and their hearts, to homosexuals, if they listen to the pain, loneliness, confusion and self-hatred that often comes along with being gay in the Orthodox community, they will be forced to rethink the rejection they have thus far offered up to the homosexuals among them.

Greenberg, a teaching fellow at the New York-based CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, is an intellectual, articulate and thorough in presenting his thinking.

He’s been around long enough to know that he will not be considered Orthodox by most people who are. And he is not naive enough to believe that, in one decisive moment, he can convince the world that male homosexual sex is within the confines of halachic Judaism.

But he does believe he can open the door just wide enough so that homosexuality can become a legitimate topic for discussion. He believes his coming out will give others the strength to do the same. And once the personal testimony of their sons and nieces, brothers and best friends is heard, Greenberg says, the authorities who interpret halacha may be moved to creatively rethink the prohibitions that appear to be black and white.

Though to many this might appear to be a losing battle, Greenberg has a powerful weapon in his arsenal: his personal story, a compelling tale of fighting his own identity until he could no longer deny that being gay was an essential part of his soul, that it was the only way to bring love into his life.

‘A Richness of ‘Spirit’

Greenberg, who was in town as a scholar-in-residence at Beth Chaim Chadashim, a Westside synagogue for lesbians, gays and bisexuals, has no doubts about whether homosexuality is inborn or a chosen lifestyle.

“There’s hardly a person in the West who would want to be gay if they were asked, because it’s so not normative, so othering,” he says. “The only reason you fight to accept yourself and challenge the norm is because you don’t have many choices.”

Though Greenberg can’t pinpoint when he knew he was gay, he remembers his childhood and teenage years being spotted with confusing emotions and sensations. He detailed some of his journey in an article in Tikkun magazine in 1993, written under the pseudonym of Rabbi Yaakov Levado (Hebrew for “alone”).

When he was about 15, Greenberg, whose family is Conservative, began studying with an Orthodox rabbi and found himself enthralled by the rich texts and traditions.

He attended Yeshiva University as an undergraduate and then as a rabbinical student. When he was 20, he studied at the prestigious Yeshiva Har Etzion outside of Jerusalem, where he was attracted to a fellow student. Concluding he was bisexual, Greenberg decided to approach Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashuv, a respected rav in Jerusalem.

“Rabbi,” he told the elderly man, “I am attracted to both men and women.”

To Greenberg’s amazement, the rabbi responded, “You have twice the power of love. Use it carefully.”

While Eliashuv’s students recently responded to this story saying the rabbi never said such a thing, Greenberg says those students issued that response without asking the rabbi. And, he says, the words are deeply etched into his memory.

“A weight was lifted off me, to think that whatever this was, it was a richness of spirit,” Greenberg says. “He wasn’t permitting me to have sex with men, he was telling me that my desire was not ugly in and of itself.”

Greenberg, who was ordained in 1983, did not admit he was gay until he was 28, and still he continued to date women for another seven years.

“I was still trying to make it work. I was so motivated for a family and children and a life — for being part of the flow of humanity, which is so appealing,” Greenberg says. “It’s a center of real hurt in my life that it didn’t work out that way. But that hurt doesn’t justify a life of deep, deep self-deception and deception of others.”

‘If You’re Gay, Get Out’

While living in Israel the past two years, Greenberg decided to come out publicly in the national daily newspaper, Ma’ariv. He timed the article to coincide with the early March opening of the Jerusalem Open House, the first community center for gays and lesbians in Jerusalem, which he helped found.

The center includes a clandestine support group for haredi youth, and a group calling itself the Orthodykes. In New York, the Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva Day School Alumni Association meets monthly.

Greenberg says many Orthodox youth who think they are gay are encouraged to marry anyway, at least to start a family, even if it ends in divorce. “The cruelty in that is unthinkable to me,” Greenberg says incredulously.

Others are encouraged to hide their gayness or remain celibate, condemning them to a life of lovelessness, he laments. In some cases, gay youths are simply told to leave the family, for their presence in the community is just too jarring.

“The subliminal message is if you’re gay, get out, for our benefit and for yours,” Greenberg says.

But often families unwilling to abandon their children are willing to accept a compromised level of halachic observance, just as they sometimes are in other areas of halacha.

Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, says he, like most other rabbis, has counseled gay congregants and their families. He says he has listened with compassion, but makes clear that the halacha forbids homosexual sex. “They have to come to terms with the fact that not everything we want and desire is permitted,” Muskin says.

Using an argument often heard in Orthodox circles, Muskin says he treats homosexuals as he would treat anyone who is violating a mitzvah. Muskin would certainly not expect an observant Jew to proudly proclaim that she cheats on her tax returns or regularly eats cheeseburgers.

But Greenberg says the cheeseburger analogy just doesn’t work. “People can live deep, emotional, committed, loving, wonderful lives and not eat cheeseburgers,”he says, apparently having heard the argument one too many times. “But to tell a person that to be a member of this group you have to live a life without self-expression and love and commitment and intimacy and daily touching and caring and holding… that would be an unbearable burden for most people.”

Torah’s Puzzling Attitude

Greenberg is a few months away from completing a book that, along with telling his personal story, explores what he believes is the Torah’s puzzling attitude towardhomosexuality. Greenberg asserts that there is more to the discussion than the surface meaning of the verse in Leviticus 18: “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.”

While Greenberg is reluctant to lay out the specifics of his arguments without the benefit of several hours of background building up to his conclusions, he says that he is “attempting to demonstrate this verse is more interesting and ambiguous than a simple, superficial reading would suggest. This is what rabbis do when they confront a verse: find anomalies in order to enrich its meaning.”

But, he says, rabbis will only be motivated to reinterpret the verse if the issues become personal, rather than abstract and foreign. “In this area I believe halacha is wrong, because its refusal to talk to people makes it fail to be authoritative. True halacha has to be open to listening to people,” he says. And he is willing to be the first to talk.

“The story of a gay rabbi is the story of a person who had incredible, powerful motivation, personal and religious, to fight his sexual identity to the end. And the story of a 20-year struggle against my heart and my final decision that it is futile, helps portray how difficult it is for gay and lesbian people and makes clear why this is truly a humanitarian, and I would even say a Jewish, imperative.”

For more information on Jerusalem Open House, go to or call Hagai El-Ad at (617) 247-8420.