Rabbi Discusses Sexuality and God
“Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.”
These influential words from Leviticus, which are commonly interpreted in Orthodox Judaism to forbid homosexuality, greatly affected Rabbi Steve Greenberg’s life. Greenberg, who spoke in Wilder on Jan 6, wept as a young man when these words were read every year in his synagogue for Yom Kippur.
After years of hiding his sexuality from colleagues, community members, and the public at large, Greenberg had had enough.
“I got angry enough that I couldn’t cry anymore,” Greenberg said during the talk he delivered Monday.
“I decided, ‘They haven’t heard what that verse means because they haven’t heard our pain. They can’t finish making meaning out of that text until they hear what we have to say.’”
Greenberg is the author of Wrestling with God and Men, a book that addresses hermeneutical and cultural conflicts between homosexuality and Orthodoxy in Judaism. He is also the founder of the Jerusalem Open House, a drop-in center for gays and lesbians. He began his talk with a long description of his adolescence and early adulthood, and the formative events that led to his current status as the authoritative voice of gay Orthodox Jews.
Greenberg was raised in the Conservative Jewish tradition, and as a teenager had been welcomed into the Orthodox community in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. At weekly Bible study with the Orthodox rabbi in town, Greenberg found himself entranced by both the centuries of Jewish history that Orthodoxy introduced to him and the sense belonging he felt in that environment.
Greenberg’s deep attachment to Orthodox Judaism has motivated him, in his current life as an openly gay Rabbi, to find a place for gays and lesbians within Orthodoxy rather than bring his homosexuality to other, more traditionally open sects.
Greenberg’s talk combined lucid, intelligent explanation of his theoretical arguments on homosexuality in Judaism with sheer entertainment. Athough his story is rooted in Jewish culture and religion, its compassionate theme of a struggle to belong must have resonated with the entire Oberlin audience.
One of his most compelling anecdotes recounted his own college years, when he was studying in Israel on a scholarship from Yeshiva University.
“It’s [in Israel] at the age of 20 that something new strikes,” he described. “My sexuality, which I had kept under wraps and out of view, at the age of 20 can no longer be repressed.”
Greenberg had avoided typical teenage dating and sexual exploration by strictly and publicly obeying an Orthodox rule. As he put it:
“You’re not allowed to touch girls until you’re married.”
By the time he got to college, though, the truth of his sexuality was unavoidable. “You know because your body keeps hitting you over the head with it,” he joked.
“I would hear the showers go in the communal [bathroom], and I would jump out of bed, and I would have to inquire why I’m jumping out of bed when the showers go,” he continued. “I thought, oh my gosh, I guess that means I’m attracted to men.”
Greenberg’s description of the moment of realization was, “it’s totally new and I’ve known it all my life.”
His next step was to go to “the most ultra-orthodox rabbi” he could find in Jerusalem to ask for counseling. He told the rabbi he was attracted to both boys and girls.
Greenberg gave his audience the rabbi’s response in both Hebrew and English: “My dear one—my friend—you have twice the power of love. Use it carefully.”
“I thought, ‘Wow—that’s incredible to hear from a man who’s further to the right than Attila the Hun’,” Greenberg remembered. “His answer was, that’s not ugly, that’s just the power of love...I danced my way back to Yeshiva.”
Beginning work as a rabbi in New York after his graduation, Greenberg found himself coming more directly into conflict with the problematic passages from the Hebrew Bible. He tried to pursue life as a straight Jewish man, but had little success.
“I dated up the wazoo for years, every last available Orthodox woman in the west side of Manhattan,” Greenberg said. “It was a wonderful but very painful time, because increasingly I would find women who were wonderful, who I cared about, but who I could not find it in myself to desire.”
In 1993, Greenberg published an essay entitled “Gayness and God” under a pseudonym in Tikkun Magazine. In response, he received letters of support from both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, gay and straight.
Three years later, Greenberg was given a fellowship to study in Israel for two years, and he decided to spend half his time there studying sexuality. He started a gay men’s study group, and met with activists looking to establish a gay community center in Jerusalem.
It was also in Israel that Greenberg first met with Sandi Simcha DuBowski. At the time, DuBowski was a filmmaker doing research for a documentary about gay Orthodox Jews. He eventually directed the now-famous Trembling Before G-d. After two years of conversation, Greenberg finally allowed his taped interview with DuBowski to be included in the film.
In 1999, on his return to New York, Greenberg came out publicly in an article published in the Jewish weekly The Forward. Responses from his colleagues in the Jewish community were mixed: some discreetly congratulated him, some said nothing at all, and two were critical.
“‘There’s no such thing as being an Orthodox gay rabbi,’” Greenberg remembers being told. One man even said it was “like eating cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur.”
“My response was, to deprive a human of intimacy, love and compassion is not to deprive a person of a cheeseburger,” he said, pointing to the emotional and psychological differences between forbidding homosexuality and restricting diet. “People don’t get electric shock therapy because they can’t eat a B.L.T.”
At this point in his story, Rabbi Greenberg changed course slightly to discuss the specifics of his book—the biblical material he attempted to reinterpret, and the unexpected conclusions he came to.
After establishing in his research that sex between men, not homosexuality in essence, was the problem, Greenberg needed to explore the reasons for prohibiting intercourse between men. Of the four he found, the final one—that “sex between men is culturally marked in the ancient world as violence to the penetrated man”—was perhaps the most theoretically complicated, yet fascinating.
“In the ancient world, sex between men was most commonly used for torture,” he said. “It’s about Abu Ghraib...In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the punishment for hubris was humiliation via rape...This is exactly what Abu Ghraib is about—treat a man in a patriarchal culture like a woman and you humiliate him.”
The specific act of sex between men, Greenberg explained, was historically considered the way to demote a man to the status of a woman since “intercourse is an act that gets its power from the placement” of two people.
“The demotion of woman fuels the entire process of homophobic fear,” he said finally. “The patriarchy constructs sex as humiliating and demeaning, because that’s what men do to women, and women are lower than men.”
Greenberg ended his talk by describing how he has tried to work with Orthodox community dynamics to give gays and lesbians space within them.
“Change occurs when people with different ideas rub shoulders,” he said. “People can’t deal with all kinds of difference. Difference is hard, period; we’re all addicted to sameness.”
His last statement, after a brief Q&A, was the story from Genesis of God seeking to relieve Adam’s loneliness. None of the animals suited Adam’s fancy, as Greenberg told it—it took another human being.
“When it comes to the free human heart, God cannot impose the answer to
the problem of human loneliness,” Greenberg said. “He can only hope
that Adam goes out and finds what works.”