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.