Gay Orthodox rabbi grapples with Torahs gray areas

When Orthodox Rabbi Steve Greenberg came out of the closet, he opened more doors than just his own.

"I've received quite a few calls from people who want to belong to the Orthodox community but don't want to do so at the cost of self-rejection," said Greenberg, a senior fellow at the New York-based CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

"I think it's becoming increasingly possible to find a place where one can be quietly gay and frum [devout]."

But it hasn't been easy.

Although Greenberg said he was not subjected to overt hostility after coming out, for many painful years he's struggled against what he calls "binary thinking." It started during his teenage years growing up in a Conservative household and continued through his academic career at Yeshiva University in New York.

"I think pluralism really feeds the discussion of why someone who's gay can't possibly be Orthodox," he said. "Why shape the conversation in such black-and-white terms? The issue isn't flat — just the religious vs. the secular. It's about a tradition having a conversation with itself."

Although the rabbi has come out to family and friends over the years, doing so in his New York-based Orthodox community was more difficult.

After more than two decades of keeping his sexuality under wraps, Greenberg was spurred into action during Shavuot two years ago, when a fellow Orthodox rabbi showed him a ketubah, or marriage contract, adorned with the images of two men.

When the rabbi told Greenberg some jokes about what the "reformers" were doing to Judaism, Greenberg replied that it was possible to be openly gay and Orthodox.

And he offered himself up as one — and, as far as he knows, the only — example.

His friend's response, Greenberg recalls, was along the lines of "have you gotten help?"

But the 42-year-old rabbi, who was ordained in 1983, isn't seeking help — only understanding.

"There's no battle here," said Greenberg. "There no question of winning or losing. It's just a matter of trying to understand the experience of the other."

Greenberg attempted to do just that during a recent talk in San Francisco. The title: "What does Jewish Tradition Really Say About Homosexuality?"

During that talk, which was jointly sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's gay and lesbian task force and San Francisco Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, Greenberg said there are many "gray areas" concerning the Torah's take on homosexuality.

Greenberg, who is also the co-founder of Jerusalem's first gay and lesbian community center, reiterated those points during a recent phone interview.

While reluctant to lay out specifics — which he said will be covered in a forthcoming book to be completed by year's end — Greenberg did address some broad issues.

For starters, there is Leviticus 18:23, which states: "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination."

Seven years ago, writing under the pen name of Rabbi Yaakov Levado (Hebrew for "alone") in an article for Tikkun magazine, Greenberg wrote that "for the present, I have no plausible halachic method of interpreting this text in a manner that permits homosexual sex."

Since then, he's come up with a possible solution to the biblical dilemma. Greenberg, whose partner is also Orthodox, posited a scenario in which the specific sexual acts prohibited by the Torah were not a major component of a gay male relationship.

When asked if he thought many gay male couples would see that as too great a sacrifice, Greenberg responded that his premise wasn't fully being grasped.

"Look," Greenberg said, punctuating his message with a New York inflection, "the Torah also prohibits a man sleeping with his wife while she's menstruating — and yet it occasionally happens.

"This dichotomy is so painful," he said, "because the Jewish tradition is so rich, and no one wants to injure it."

What Greenberg ultimately wants to do falls well within standard rabbinical duties — interpreting ancient Jewish texts.

"There is a much more interesting picture that exists which requires more than a mere superficial reading."

As an example, Greenberg offered the tale of Sodom, the city famously destroyed for its supposed amorality. The rabbi said the narrative's original meaning has been distorted by centuries of non-Jewish interpretation.

According to Greenberg, Sodom was destroyed because the city was inimical to strangers, or to the "other."

"The Jewish take on Sodomy is much more vague and unclear than we thought," he said. "Sodom was not destroyed because it was a place of sexual perversity. Jewish texts depict Sodom as a place of social amorality — as a place of wealth that didn't know how to share."

On the other hand, Greenberg talks about such biblical figures as Abraham, whose tents were "open all four sides," and hence, who were unafraid of strangers in their midst.

Biblical references such as these give Greenberg a template to initiate new conversations about the Torah and homosexuality, as well as about having a spiritual base in Orthodoxy, "one of the most grounded and imaginative ways of being on this earth.

"Living life as an Orthodox Jew is too precious and sweet and wonderful to leave, despite the pain [of gay intolerance]," Greenberg said.

And that belief has inspired him to lend a helping hand to other Orthodox Jews who are afraid to come out.

"I couldn't keep quiet, because there's too much to say and too many people to help," Greenberg said. "Coming out is a redemptive move, both of the person and of society — and I think there is a religious imperative to find the strength to come out."

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