The queerness of love: A Jewish case for same-sex marriage

Last year, I officiated at the first same-sex wedding in the 145-year history of my synagogue.  For a Conservative congregation, this was quite a break with tradition.  Nevertheless,  I was proud to stand beneath the wedding canopy with this couple, who affirmed the sacredness of their union “in accordance with the laws of Moses and the people of Israel.”  Before I chose to officiate, I studied the texts, teachings, and arguments in my tradition.  I didn’t make this decision lightly.  Today, I am unfazed by the apparent biblical injunction against homosexuality as an “abomination.”  I am confident in my stand, despite a 3,000-year-old tradition that has no precedent for such a marriage.  In fact, it is from a place of humility and awe before my tradition and God that I have chosen take this stand.

The Hebrew word for wedding is “Kiddushin,” which means ‘Sanctification,’ or ‘Holiness.’  A wedding is the formal declaration of the holiness of love.  All the blessings and rituals and formulae under the wedding canopy affirm one idea:  when two human beings find each other and love each other, it is Godly:   a taste of the World to Come, a world of perfected justice and joy.   It is in our capacity to love that we are holy, and most fully in the image of God.  If there’s anything that 3,000 years of Jewish history has shown us—3,000 years of so much exile and persecution—it’s that the only hope for humankind is to strive toward ever-more loving and just societies. 

We Jews are a people who have never quite fit into the same categories of peoplehood or religion that other nations do.  We are a distinct people, even as we bear a message of God’s universality.  We affirm that we are different from other peoples, even as we know that we are no different than any other human being.  Our presence in the world has often been a source of anxiety for other nations, religions, and people.  In this way, we Jews have always been a queer people .  And yes, I use the term ‘queer’ deliberately.  To be queer is to be troubling, unsettling, not meeting expectations of the way others might want things to be.

It is, in fact, the Jews’ queerness in the world that captures our particular Divine message to all humanity.  As Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, creator of Queer Spiritual Counseling teaches, the existence of God is the queerest thing about the universe.  God, too, cannot be categorized or boxed in. The inexplicable mystery of God is a source of unspeakable anxiety to so many of us who long to reduce God to our simplistic categories.  Finally, we declare the love of a wedded couple to be holy because love, too, defies all classifications and can never be bounded–it’s a feeling, but not just a feeling; it’s a state of being that “have,” that we “are,” but it is larger than any one individual or relationship.  Love is queer, and in recognizing this, we find its holiness, its Godliness.

It is no accident that the famous Levitical injunction concerning homosexuality appears in a section of the Torah called “Kedoshim,” meaning “Holy.”  When seen in context, the homosexual act described comes amidst a series of many kinds of human couplings—all of which are abusive because they are not loving acts.  When one man rapes another man simply because he does not have access to a woman, such an act is indeed an abomination, a desecration of God’s holiness, a desecration of love.  Such an act is the farthest thing from the love of two human beings—of whatever gender—that we can and must sanctify whenever it arises in our human condition. 

I reject the idea that the Bible declares that the only sacred love that can exist is the love between a man and a woman.  Love is queer — it can never be limited to our categorizations of roles and gender.  Love is commitment, presence, and kindness so awesome and mysterious that nothing in our power can contain it.  We must, in our very imperfect world, celebrate, sanctify, and lift up love wherever we find it; because our loving relationships are the only way that we will bring Godliness to this world.  For these reasons, I proudly stand for the evolution of Judaism,  in awe of the wisdom of my Jewish people and tradition, the of holiness God and the queerness of  love.

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

Olmert to meet Mubarak; Israel Gets Secular Rabbis

Olmert, Mubarak to Meet

Aides of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he is scheduled to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak next week at the Red Sea port of Sharm el-Sheik. Mubarak has played a key mediating role in efforts to retrieve Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held hostage in the Gaza Strip. Olmert recently held his first formal peace summit with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and visited Amman for talks with Jordanian King Abdullah II, spurring speculation that a new peace initiative is in the works.

Livni: We Seek Peace With Syria

Tzipi Livni said Israel considers peace with Syria a strategic goal. The Israeli foreign minister said Tuesday that Jerusalem must heed recent peace overtures from Damascus, but only after ascertaining that they’re sincere.

“Israel’s strategic objective is peace with Syria, but the discussion is purely tactical at the moment,” Livni told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. “We must assess whether the Syrians want to get into negotiations just for the sake of negotiations, or whether they are interested in achieving peace.”

Israel’s Mossad spy service has warned that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s offers to open new talks with Jerusalem are a bid to distract from Western scrutiny Syria’s support for Arab terrorist groups. Israel’s military intelligence, however, has said Assad could be sincere, and that Syria would enter peace talks if this helps it recover the Golan Heights.

Israel Gets Secular Rabbis

The Tmura Institute, a group lobbying for religious pluralism in the Jewish state, this month certified seven men and two women to conduct weddings, and bar and bat mitzvahs for Israelis who reject Orthodox practice. The nine underwent three years of training in Judaism but profess no spiritual convictions. Since they will not require couples they marry to prove that they are Jewish, the weddings will not be recognized by the state. But Tmura said its achievement was more a matter of symbolism.

“We simply want to serve the majority of the Jewish people, which is not religious. We are not committed to religious principles, we are committed to pluralism,” professor Yaacov Malkin, one of the program’s leaders, told Ma’ariv.

Israel Plans New Settlement

Israel is building a new West Bank settlement to house former Gaza Strip settlers. The Defense Ministry announced Tuesday that it was converting Makiot, a former military base in the northern Jordan Valley, into a settlement with homes for 30 families who were evacuated from Gaza last year. Former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had initiated the project. Construction is to begin next month. Most of the 8,000 former Gaza settlers have chosen to live in Israel, rather than in the West Bank.

Israel’s Economy on the Rise

Based on a survey by The Economist, Globes reported that Israel rose 12 places to become the world’s 36th largest economy.

The survey graded nations’ economies in 2001-05, as compared with 1980-84, and ranked economies on the basis of their five-year average GDP in current dollars.

Some of the biggest climbers were in Asia: Singapore rose 20 places to No. 39, Taiwan rose 14 places to No. 18 and both South Korea and Hong Kong rose 12 places to Nos. 11 and 30, respectively. Iran fell 16 places to 33, and Saudi Arabia dropped from 15th place to 22nd.

Federation Bookkeeper Admits Embezzlement

A former bookkeeper for the Jewish Federation of Ventura County pleaded guilty to embezzlement. Susan Abrams said this week that she had stolen about $30,000 from the federation from 1998-2001. She faces sentencing Feb. 1, when she also is expected to pay restitution. She faces up to a year in prison.

New ADL Regional Leader Breaks Ground

Kevin O’Grady, a national expert in gay and lesbian issues and a longtime educator, has been named interim director at the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Orange County/Long Beach regional office.

O’Grady, formerly the ADL’s associate director, replaces Rick Shapiro, who resigned after only five weeks on the job for undisclosed reasons. O’Grady’s position is expected to become permanent in the near future.

“I think the work we do is incredibly important, and to have the opportunity to lead that mission is an honor,” said O’Grady, who is believed to be the first gay person to head an ADL regional office.O’Grady, 40, said he plans to work closely with law enforcement agencies to combat hate crimes, anti-Semitism and extremist groups and to expand the ADL’s presence in Long Beach. He came to the ADL three years ago after a 15-year career in education in Hawaii and California, where he received a Ph.D. in education from USC. He is a native of Brighton, England.

— Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Similar Goals Unite Faith-Based Agencies

At a conference held last week at Loyola Marymount University, Christian, Muslim and Jewish faith-based social service agencies were urged to better coordinate their services and to work more closely with government agencies. Titled “Government and Faith-Based Communities: Working Together to Build a Civil Society,” the event was co-sponsored by Loyola Marymount University, Claremont Graduate University and the Aga Khan Shia Imami Ismaili Council for the Western United States.

Dr. Amy Gross of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles and Jewish Family of the Conejo, Simi and West Valley columnist, Yasser Aman of the UMMA Community Clinic and Rita Chavez of the Dolores Mission described the services their organizations provide in their own communities. Citing the impressive response of faith-based organizations to major crises such as Hurricane Katrina, the Rev. Leonard Jackson, senior adviser to the mayor of Los Angeles, asked “why does it take a disaster to pull us together?”

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism, gave a lucid explanation of tikkun olam and the Jewish tradition that requires Jews care for all.

“Judaism is a put up or shut up religion” he said. “We are required to act, not just to pay lip service.”

New JTS Head Faces Trouble, Opportunity

Arnold Eisen doesn’t need to be reminded that he’s not a rabbi. It’s certainly not news to him.

The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) announced this month that Eisen, 54, the chair of Stanford University’s religious studies program, would become just the second nonrabbi to serve as the New York City seminary’s chancellor and the first since 1940. He succeeds Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who held the post for two decades.

“I would have preferred a rabbi in this position, too,” said Eisen with a laugh. “I’ve been writing and thinking for 25 years about changes I’d like to see made, and now I have a chance to help make them.”

Eisen ascends to the helm of a Conservative movement that is hemorrhaging memberships on a congregational level and cannot, at present, reach consensus about whether to ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis. Perhaps more than any other branch of American Judaism, the Conservatives must walk a difficult line in maintaining a coherent identity as halachic Jews in the modern world. Eisen is well aware of these quandaries and has spent a lifetime considering various solutions.

Take the pressing question of what to do about openly homosexual rabbis. Eisen offered a three-part answer.

“No. 1, this is a halachic movement, period. I want honesty and integrity in the halachic process carried through, and I would be upset if it were not. And No. 2, it’s a faculty matter. The faculty has to teach the people who are going to be ordained. So there will be a halachic decision by rabbis and there will be faculty discussion as well. Then, I voice my personal opinion about how I’d like things to turn out, and you know what that is.”

Eisen personally favors the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis, while also insisting, “I’m not qualified to decide on matters of rabbinic law. That’s one of the things that changes” with a nonrabbi at the reins of the seminary. The halachic decisions of the JTS will now fall to a yet-to-be determined rabbi or perhaps even a number of rabbis. They simply haven’t figured it out yet.

Bay Area Jewish community leaders, while intrigued by the novelty of having a nonrabbi lead a rabbinical seminary, were far more preoccupied with praising Eisen’s record over two decades as one of the nation’s foremost scholars in the field of modern Jewish thought.

Because the JTS selection committee chose to look outside the rabbinate, the Conservative seminary now has a leader who was never mired in political infighting, said professor Lee Shulman, the president of Stanford’s Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching and a longtime colleague of Eisen.

Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley’s Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom said that Eisen’s academic record indicates “that the seminary, which has consistently stood for academic excellence, will continue to do so.”

“Arnie didn’t live in [a] cloister,” added Rabbi Brian Lurie, former director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation. “He mixed with students and donors and is a person who understands what’s going on on the street. His research at school really gave him a very unique and strong vantage point on the American Jewish community. They didn’t give this job to some ivory tower isolated person.”

A colleague praised Eisen as a scholar with his feet firmly planted on the ground and one who has long devoted thoughtful consideration to issues of the Jewish community.

“The questions that have engaged him most as a scholar are arguably the central questions that engage Jews today,” said Steven Zipperstein, Eisen’s Stanford colleague.

Eisen’s dissertation explored the ramifications of being both Jewish and American. A subsequent book, “Galut: Modern Jewish Reflection on Homelessness and Homecoming” (Indiana University Press, 1986) explored Jewish feelings of being at home and homeless in the Diaspora.

“His concerns begin with the preoccupations of everyday Jews,” Zipperstein said.

And, as far as Eisen is concerned, too few everyday Jews are preoccupied with Torah.

“There are literally a couple of million Jews in this country who have never had Torah taught to them in a live and exciting way. They just don’t get it. They don’t get how much Jewish tradition could mean to them. So they’re turned off and disconnected, and we’ve got to reach them better,” he said. “I now have a chance to help train a lot of the people who are going to be serving them for the next generation.”

Eisen, an active congregant at Palo Alto’s Kol Emeth, can’t deny the declining synagogue rolls in the Conservative movement but insists that “the numbers for all [affiliated] Jews are down…. It’s a very strong movement, and I don’t understand the sense of malaise some people feel.”

Rather than obsess solely on wooing new members (or disenchanted old ones), Eisen said that the movement must provide more for its existing membership: “We need a better prayer experience, better schools, better adult learning and better communities. If we can do any or all of these things, we will have an improved movement.”

Conservative thinkers have, for some time, pondered how to invigorate the movement. Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood has suggested a name change to something that better reflects the direction and potential of the movement. He suggested Covenental Judaism.

Eisen disagrees with that approach: “Rather than have a name change [of the movement], I’d rather we live up to our potential.”

For his part, Wolpe has enthusiastically embraced the choice of Eisen.

Eisen’s selection to head the JTS follows a trend. Richard Joel, the former president of Hillel, took over the presidency of the Orthodox Yeshiva University in 2003; like Eisen, Joel is not a rabbi. In 2001, David Ellenson took over the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). And while Ellenson is a rabbi, he is best known for his scholarship in Jewish studies.

“That JTS needed to go to Stanford to pick their president a couple of years after HUC had to go to Los Angeles to get David Ellenson, now the myth is finally broken. The West Coast is not a backwater of the Jewish community. Indeed, it’s very likely the cutting edge of the new leadership of the Jewish community,” said Stanford’s Shulman.

Eisen, for his part, downplayed any rivalries between East Coast and West Coast Conservative Judaism, namely Los Angeles’ University of Judaism and New York’s JTS. But, as a native Philadelphian who has lived in the Bay Area for nearly 20 years, he says he could serve as a natural bridge.

He’s also not quite ready to leave the Bay Area yet, and as “chancellor designate,” he doesn’t have to assume full duties until July 2007. In the meantime, he will serve at both Stanford and the seminary. But he says he’s ready to take on the challenges, while also realizing the inherent limitations of his new mission.

“You know, I’m a pluralist,” Eisen said, “and I don’t think Judaism is the only way to be a good person and serve God. I don’t think Conservative Judaism is the only way to be a good Jew. But having said that, I’ve been a Conservative Jew all my life, and this is the path that matters most to me. And I will do all I can for it.”

This article is reprinted from the J Weekly, a Northern California publication.

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.

Opening the Closet

In Sandi Simcha DuBowski’s searing new documentary, “Trembling Before G-d,” about Orthodox gays and lesbians, David, a handsome L.A. doctor, describes struggling to change his sexuality. A psychotherapist prescribed aversion therapy; a rabbi advised David to recite psalms and to eat figs. “I would have tried anything,” he says.

“Trembling” also introduces Devorah, an ultra-Orthodox mother who requires anti-depressants to stay in her marriage, and Israel, who was confined to a mental hospital, then banished by his family because he was gay.

“One of the greatest sadnesses I’ve had in making this film is witnessing Jewish families casting out their own,” said DuBowski, 30, whose own supportive, Conservative parents will attend the film’s world premiere at Sundance.

Not that his coming out was easy. He did so on the last day of summer vacation before returning to Harvard for his sophomore year. “My mother and I sat on the edge of the bed and I said, ‘I have something to tell you, and are you going to love me no matter what?'” he recalled. “It took me 45 minutes to say it, and I was crying nonstop.” His mother couldn’t eat or sleep for the next three days. “There were fights and talks and a lack of information,” he added. “But there was never any question that I was loved.”

In fact, “Trembling” began after DuBowski moved back home with his parents in the early 1990s.

“Returning to Jewish Brooklyn awakened something,” said the director, whose previous films include an acclaimed short, “Tomboychik.” There was something, he said, about standing at Sheepshead Bay for tashlich, the annual ritual purging of sins, with a virtual “universe of Jews.” There were Russians and Syrians, Modern Orthodox and unaffiliated. DuBowski began to wonder about Jews who were gay and Orthodox and how they came to terms with the verse in Leviticus that deemed them an “abomination.”At the International Conference of Gay and Lesbian Jews in 1994, he met Mark, a British man with AIDS, exactly his age, who had abandoned Orthodoxy after being kicked out of seven yeshivas. “We became like chavruses [study partners] in a yeshiva without walls,” said DuBowski, who brought his camera along as Mark revisited the Israeli schools he had loved in Mea Shearim and B’nai Brak. On Lag BaOmer, director and subject davened and danced all night long on Mount Meron and watched 3-year-old Chassidic boys receiving their first haircuts at dawn. “The film began a Jewish journey for both of us,” said DuBowski, who now prays at Orthodox synagogues.

Obtaining additional interviews proved far more difficult. Devorah initially agreed to speak to DuBowski only in a parking lot far from her religious neighborhood. There were clandestine meetings in borrowed apartments or in parks with Jews who declined to reveal their real names or telephone numbers. Rabbis hung up on DuBowski; a former chief rabbi of Israel called his interviewees “animalistic.” “I was so distraught,” he said.

A Chassidic rebbe in Israel gave him the strength to carry on. The rabbi greeted him with a humble bow in his modest apartment, as a girl made rice pudding in the next room and children played on the outdoor balcony. “I just started weeping,” DuBowski recalled. “I told him I had been carrying the pain of so many Jews for so long — about Mark being sick and David trying to change and all these people who were unhappily married or who had been disowned. And he was utter rachmones [compassion]. He took my project very seriously, which validated the film for me and made me feel that it was not a chilul HaShem [a desecration of God’s name].”

Nevertheless, DuBowski expects his ground-breaking documentary to be controversial. After a recent screening for 75 heterosexual Orthodox Jews in New York, the viewers (some supportive, some not) shouted and argued with each other. A woman angrily told DuBowski that he was a liar; that gays could change, and that her daughter — cast out at 16 because she was a lesbian — could choose to become heterosexual. Her other daughter, meanwhile, who is not gay, informed the director that she would work hard to promote the movie in her Orthodox community.

DuBowski, who’ll appear at Sundance with interviewee Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the only openly gay Orthodox rabbi, hopes the film will continue to promote discussion about a previously taboo subject. “The point of the movie is to help Jews who are suffering,” he said.

For information about “Trembling,” and DuBowski’s upcoming Orthodox community education project, log on to

Out and Proud

For some prospective rabbis, the greatest challenge is getting into rabbinical school. For Benay Lappe, the challenge was getting out, coming out and being out.

Lappe is the new scholar-in-residence at Milken Community High School’s Advanced Jewish Studies Center, where she is teaching Talmud, Jewish law and ethics. She’s one of a tiny group of openly gay Conservative rabbis (“There aren’t more than five of us,” she told The Journal), and she had to struggle to be ordained while in the closet and to remain a member of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly once her homosexuality was known.

She will tell her story tomorrow during the Rosh Hashanah morning service for Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC).

Two days before Lappe’s 1997 ordination at The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, the rabbinical school’s dean called her into his office. The seminary had received a phone call from someone who made various charges centering on Lappe’s being a lesbian.

“He made it clear that if I didn’t answer, I wouldn’t be ordained, and if I said I was a lesbian, I wouldn’t be ordained,” she said.

Lappe did the only thing she could so that the ordination could proceed – she denied her orientation. “It was very, very painful, a decision no one should be forced to make,” she said. The dean didn’t confirm until an hour before the ceremony that she would be ordained.

She spent the next three years working for the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership under centrist Orthodox rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg and remains an associate there. During that time, she served as director of education for Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s gay and lesbian congregation, where she created the synagogue’s Gay and Lesbian Lehrhaus Judaica, the first institution to seriously integrate gay and Jewish studies.

When the local Jewish paper The Jewish Week wrote up the program – with the headline “Out of the Closet and Into the Classroom” – she got a call from Rabbi Joel Meyers, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), who asked her point-blank if she was a lesbian. The policy of the Conservative seminaries and clergy organizations is not to “knowingly admit or ordain avowed homosexuals.”

But the rest of the Conservative movement’s stand on gay clergy was on Lappe’s side. Drafted by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, currently rector of the University of Judaism (UJ), as an interim policy in 1992 and never changed, the policy states that the seminaries, the RA and the Cantors Assembly “will not instigate witchhunts against those who are already students or members.”

With support from Dorff and other prominent Conservative rabbis, including Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Lappe turned back the RA’s attack, charging that the policy does not require any seminary student or prospective RA member to divulge his or her sexual orientation, so she hadn’t violated movement policy – but the rabbis who had gone after her had.

“The fact that I remain a member of the RA in good standing sets a strong precedent,” Lappe said, adding that she hopes her willingness to challenge the Conservative establishment will cause it to deal more fairly with gay students and rabbis in the future.

Ironically, she said, it was her rabbinical studies that allow her to stand up for herself as a lesbian in the face of centuries-old Jewish teachings about the supposed evils of homosexuality. “The seminary gave me the tools for drawing the circle so that gays and lesbians are included,” she said.

“It isn’t God or the tradition that reads out gays and lesbians,” she added. “It’s leaders who have confused their own homophobia with the tradition.”

Lappe, 40, a licensed pilot who grew up in an Orthodox synagogue and whose jobs before entering rabbinical school included teacher and shoemaker, thought of matriculating at a rabbinical school more receptive to homosexuals, but she identified too strongly as a traditional Jew to walk away from the movement she considered her spiritual home. “I’m very proud to be a Conservative rabbi,” she said.

Lappe’s move to Los Angeles is a return – she completed her first two years of rabbinical school at UJ – and her appearance at BCC tomorrow, where she was a member when she lived in Los Angeles, is a homecoming of sorts as well.

Dorff, for one, is delighted to see her back in town. “She’s bright, she’s warm, she’s a terrific teacher, and she’s well-rooted in the tradition,” he said. “I think she’s going to be a major asset to the community.”Lappe loves the work she’s doing at Milken, where she has been out from the beginning. “Milken is a very exciting place,” she said. “It’s very unusual for a Jewish day school to hire an openly gay teacher in Jewish studies, especially a rabbi. Having the opportunity to teach Talmud to kids is something I didn’t think I’d have.”

“I am inspired by her creativity, the depth of her learning, and her menschlichkayt,” said Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin, Milken’s rabbinic director.

Lappe relishes the chance to show historically disenfranchised Jewish groups such as gays and women that they have a place within Judaism. “I can now say to the gay and lesbian community, you’re part of the tradition, and the tradition is yours; let me teach it to you.”

Beth Chayim Chadashim’s Rosh Hashanah morning service will begin at 10 a.m. Sat., Sept. 30, at Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd. in Rancho Park. BCC asks a donation of $75 for the single service, or $200 for the full series of High Holy Days services, which begin tonight.

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.