Orthodox Rabbi Steven Greenberg talks to Pasadena shul about homosexuality, welcoming the stranger

When Rabbi Steve Greenberg was a young rabbinical student at an Orthodox Yeshiva near Jerusalem in the mid-1970s, he was attracted to a fellow (male) student. He wanted to talk about his feelings of homosexual desire to a respected old rabbi — but was afraid to. So Greenberg fudged by telling the rabbi he was “attracted to both men and women.” The venerated old rabbi shrugged: “So you have twice the power of love. Use it carefully.”

Greenberg recounted this anecdote to an audience of about 100 at Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (PJTC), a Conservative synagogue where he was warmly received this past weekend. He talked about his remarkable personal journey, carefully using his “power of love” — his rabbinic insight, humor and dynamic lecture style — to impart what he’s learned about inclusiveness, having navigated the tricky waters of being a gay rabbi in the Orthodox world.

Greenberg cited the passages from Leviticus that caused him anguish when he was young: “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” 

During Greenberg’s rabbinical student days at New York’s Yeshiva University, reciting these passages — especially since they’re said on Yom Kippur — caused him so much pain that he covered his head with his tallit so that others wouldn’t see his tears or emotions. He’s struggled much of his adult life to explain this basic question: How can one be an Orthodox Jew, believing and following what is written in the Tanakh, and be homosexual?

In 1999, in his 40s, he decided that “it’s worse for a man to have to live with the shame and depression of not being who he really is than to suffer the consequences of being himself.” He came out, writing a published article about his sexuality.

At PJTC, Greenberg talked about how he reads those Leviticus passages now. First, he analyzes the reasons for the condemnation of homosexuality. 1.) Reproduction: A homosexual will likely not be a parent, which goes against the biblical command to be fruitful and multiply. 2.) Social confusion: When relationships go against traditional behavior, people have limited tolerance levels. 3.) Gender confusion: Many feel discomfort in the presence of cross-dressers or feminine boys, for example, because it throws traditional gender definitions into disarray. He refuted all these reasons as a basis for condemning homosexuality.

Then Greenberg zeroed in on reading the Leviticus passages in a novel way. 

He said that the passages are really about sexual violence. He cited how the words of the passages are used elsewhere and concluded they’re about someone exerting power over another by violent, forcible penetration: “Abu Ghraib-type sexual violence.” Because anal rape of a man is a way of emasculating him, the Leviticus passages are a condemnation of violence, rape and sexual debasement.

Greenberg acknowledges that he interprets the passage this way “because it offers me a way of coming back to Judaism. It’s a radical reading, but if you believe that God hates what you are, why would you go to such a temple?

“Imagine someone going to an Orthodox synagogue and saying, ‘Rabbi, I’m gay. What does Hashem want from me? Lifelong celibacy?’ A rabbi can’t say: ‘OK, we welcome you, but our God thinks that what you are is abhorrent.’ Instead, he might say: ‘OK, keep the other 612 commandments, and we can let that one go.’ ”

Whatever the Orthodox community’s attitude toward homosexuals, Greenberg believes that’s not enough reason for him to leave the fold. 

“Choosing a religious commitment,” Greenberg said, “is similar to choosing a life partner or shul to belong to. We base that decision on those things we love — and there are plenty in Orthodox Judaism — and on the weaknesses we can live with.”

For nearly 30 years, Greenberg has been working with CLAL, National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, where he’s now Director of Diversity Project and Senior Teaching Fellow. 

“There are two different tasks when it comes to inclusiveness and diversity,” Greenberg said. “One for the Orthodox, one for the liberal community.” 

Liberal communities have issued welcoming statements, he said, but they should do more. Welcoming the stranger should be more than political correctness. 

“It means thinking through how the curriculum is built for the Hebrew school, how the policy works in synagogue membership, what kind of anti-bullying program has been put in place in the school, what is the language teachers commonly use when dealing with questions of gender and sexuality, and do they make room for two dads or two moms when they’re teaching preschool and kindergarten kids?”

For the Orthodox community, Greenberg said, the task is to “broach the problem with an awareness of the human circumstances. There’s reason to believe that, in time, perhaps in 20 or 30 years, the Orthodox community will recognize our Jewish responsibility for welcoming ‘the other,’ the person who doesn’t ordinarily fit, the person on the margins. I think there’s a great deal of hope that will change, so we can at least stop the witch hunt and find a way to make our community broader and richer and more caring of everyone.”

Pro-gay marriage leader apologizes for ‘Nazi’ comments

A religious outreach official for a campaign seeking marriage equality for gays in Minnesota apologized for likening opponents' tactics to those of the Nazis.

“It was a terrible mistake to even mention Nazism in an attempt to illustrate my point, and I fully understand why many found it to be offensive,” the Rev. Brad Brandon said in a statement first published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Oct. 24.

In an earlier presentation on behalf of an amendment that would legalize gay marriage, Brandon said he was not drawing analogies between his opponents and the Nazis, but added: “What we are simply saying is that when a totalitarian dictator takes place and wants to suppress the voice of a group …. they use certain tactics.”

Opponents of the amendment solicited condemnations of the comments from other religious leaders.

Among these was a statement from Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel in Minneapolis.

“Comparing our deeply held religious beliefs to the genocide committed to our people by Adolf Hitler in Germany and the Nazis is not only hurtful, but it stops any civil discourse engaged in our state,” she said, according to the Star Tribune.

Faith, not just gayness, informs filmmaker’s works

This has been a good year for filmmaker Ira Sachs. His new feature, “Keep the Lights On,” received a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and won the prestigious Teddy Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. And while the intensely personal, autobiographical film centers on a tumultuous love affair between two men, Sachs believes audiences will relate to the human experience of relationships shared by all couples.

During a phone interview from his New York City home, Sachs attributed his ability for universal affinity to his cultural heritage. “I feel that I live and breathe my Judaism as an individual, and it is how I connect to people here every day.”    

Sachs has been living in Manhattan since 1987, but his roots stem from the Deep South city of Memphis, Tenn., where he was raised in what he described as a Reform Jewish household. 

“My maternal side was German Jews who came to Memphis in 1850, and, on my father's side, Eastern Europeans who came in 1900; two major Southern immigration times for Jews, so I grew up in a mixed Jewish family,” he said.  

Sachs also points to the era of social change, in which he grew up, as an influence on his formative years. 

“I was in Memphis in the '60s, and that was obviously a very complicated time,” he explained. “One of the things about growing up Jewish in the South was there was a lot of assimilation going on among Southern Jews. And one of the things that did was create a greater interest in social action there. For example, there was a great connection between our rabbi and the civil rights movement, so I've always been interested in how people live and how difference is a part of one's experience. And growing up in the South as a Jewish person, and as a gay person, I think there were certain ways in which the two identities would overlap because it was a place in which I was an outsider. But I felt more of an outsider being gay.”

Keep the Lights On” target=”_blank”>keepthelightsonfilm.com.

Families Will Gather in Malibu for SoCal’s First Jewish LGBT Weekend Retreat

Children being raised in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) families are likely to face some pretty awkward questions from their peers: How come you have two mommies? How were you born if you have only dads? Who lights the candles at your house?

Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), the world’s oldest LGBT synagogue, says kids might encounter a whole range of attitudes, including jealousy and bullying, which is why her synagogue, along with Congregation Kol Ami and other local Jewish institutions, has initiated Southern California’s first Jewish LGBT Family Shabbaton.

The landmark weekend will unite Jewish LGBT families from across the Southland at the Shalom Institute in Malibu from April 20 to 22.

The Shabbaton, which has the support of more than 20 congregations and organizations, was organized at the request of LGBT families themselves,  Edwards said.

“It’s something LGBT families feel a need and desire for even though they have been welcomed into mainstream communities,” she said. “A weekend like this will let them know that their family is a lot like other families.”

Rod Bran and John Scoles, members of both BCC and Temple Israel of Hollywood, are looking forward to attending with their 6-year-old daughter, Katie.

“It’s nice for similar families to experience a community environment where we’re not being judged by others that our families are different,” Bran said.

He says Katie has been told by other kids “that she can’t be alive if she has two dads. But when she goes to a camp like this, her situation is typical.”

The weekend will include traditional Jewish camp activities such as Shabbat and Havdalah services, song sessions and campfires, hikes and zip lining, arts and crafts, yoga and gardening, as well as opportunities to discuss issues affecting LGBT families in a safe, welcoming and supportive environment.

According to Leah Zimmerman, director of education at BCC, discussions will address the various compositions of LGBT families — whether formed through adoption, fostering or surrogacy — and questions of multiracial and multifaith identity, as seen through a Jewish lens in a heteronormative world.

“It’s realizing that you are a part of a larger conversation and a larger community,” said Zimmerman, who is an ally of the LGBT community, along with her husband and their two daughters. “Bringing people together from different congregations helps to create a stronger LGBT community. Our kids see themselves as part of BCC, but what I’m interested in doing for them is helping them see themselves as part of a larger Jewish community, and know that BCC is not the only place that recognizes them as Jewish and invites them to be part of the community.”

Although many local synagogues are welcoming toward LGBT individuals and families, most don’t offer relevant activities and programs because there isn’t enough demand or resources.

There are no official programs to support LGBT congregants at Adat Ari El in Valley Village, and for this reason, the LGBT Jewish Family weekend has the congregation’s endorsement.

“These families are Jewish, and want support and strength from our tradition. They want opportunities to connect with one another,” said Senior Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard, who has been with Temple Adat Ari El for 15 years. “The shabbaton is a wonderful way to create these opportunities for them.” 

“We want to reinforce the idea that you don’t have to choose between your faith and your family,” said BCC Executive Director Felicia Park-Rogers, who has two sons with her partner, Leo Baeck Temple Assistant Rabbi Rachel Timoner. “Judaism in its broadest form is so welcoming of families based on commitment and love, following the principles and ethics and traditions of Judaism.”

The organizers are hoping the weekend turns into an annual event.

“So often when you start something, you don’t know if it’s going to be the first and only or the first of many,” Edwards said. “Hopefully this will be the first of many.”

Registration deadline is April 5. For more information and to register for the weekend visit shalominstitute.com.