It was as a 20-year-old rabbinical student at Yeshivat Har Etzion near Jerusalem that Steven Greenberg first found himself attracted to another male. This covert desire for a fellow student left Greenberg disturbed and confused.
“It dawned on me not only that I was attracted to him but that I’d always been struggling,” he reflects.
When the young Greenberg confessed his urges to Rabbi Elyashiv in the Haredi community in Jerusalem, he was told that being attracted to both men and women gave him “twice the power of love.” Use this power carefully, the rabbi advised him.
“I danced my way back to Yeshiva and thought, ‘wow, twice the power of love, I’ll make a great rabbi’ and I assumed I was bisexual enough to marry and to have a family in an ordinary way.”
Four decades later Greenberg has pulled off an astonishing dance move, navigating theology and social prejudice to become the world’s first openly gay Orthodox rabbi. He has arrived at self-acceptance but is still “struggling” against orthodoxies of all sorts. He’s even married with a family, residing in Boston with his husband, actor and singer Steven Goldstein, and their six-year-old daughter, Amalia. As it turned out, he was not “bisexual enough” for a life more ordinary: simply brave enough for a life more authentic, compromising neither his sexuality nor his religiosity.
As a guest at Sydney’s Limmud Oz Festival of Jewish Ideas in June, Greenberg will speak about how Orthodox communities can theoretically and practically extend belonging and membership to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer Jews. He will be drawing on his work with Eshel, a group he helped found and now co-directs, which aims to foster acceptance for LGBTQ Jews in Orthodox communities. He says even rabbis are getting the message about respecting diversity in their congregations.
“I would say about 30% [of 60 shuls interviewed by Eshel]are willing to call a gay couple a family and include them in the synagogue’s life,” Greenberg says. “Another third are struggling with how to do that and perhaps a third are saying, ‘you know, maybe this isn’t the place for you.’”
“It gives you the sense that there really is movement both on the conceptual plane and on the intellectual plane. Young people growing up don’t know the institutions will be there for them but they tend to have evidence that their friends will be there for them, their family will be there for them.”
Since 2010, Eshel has run an annual national retreat for Orthodox men and women, who are struggling to accept their own sexuality. Greenberg says the clientele is varied, with some participants who are struggling in marriages and some who have left marriages, but all are given the same opportunity to “feel like their whole self is present.”
“One young gentleman came in and on his name tag there was a male name but underneath the male name were female pronouns.”
Retreats are also held for parents of LGBTQ Jews to provide a forum where they can ask questions about their child’s coming out and relate to other parents in similar circumstances. Now in its fifth year and increasing in popularity, Greenberg has seen how helping parents accept their child’s sexuality can have a wider impact on their communities.
“Groups of orthodox parents come to try and understand and address their kids,” he explains. “They become a very powerful force to getting their rabbis to take this seriously.”
He acknowledges that progress in the Yeshiva and Haredi communities has been slower.
“In the right wing (Orthodox) communities there really is still a fear it is possible to lose everything,” he says. “I know young men and women who are estranged from their own parents. Young people end up homeless because their families can’t handle them.”
Greenberg can relate to this kind of familial rejection.
“I have family in South America who would be very happy to have me visit them…as long as I am terribly upset and depressed by the reality of my gay identity. They would be happy to have me if I was disappointed and disturbed by it and guilty and repentant.”
Of course, Greenberg had felt all of the above emotions at the time when Rabbi Elyashiv delivered his “twice the power of love” words. There is remorse in Greenberg’s voice as he explains how it took 15 years of difficult relationships with women and one broken engagement to finally accept that the Rabbi’s formula wasn’t right for him.
“After a lot of pain I finally was able to say to myself the three words that for 15 years I was afraid to say, not to anybody else but to me, which are ‘I am gay.’
“The moment you say those words to yourself, every future you have ever fantasised about in this little community, every good playing out of your life, vanishes. All you have are a set of futures that you know nothing about.”
Yet Greenberg has made a future for himself in his “little community.” In 1993 he published in Tikkun magazine, under a pseudonym, the article Gayness and God: Wrestlings of a Gay Orthodox Rabbi. More than 10 years later, his book Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition was published in his own name. In the book, he reconciled his homosexuality with his faith.
“Orthodoxy is a very diverse container that includes philosophers and mystics alongside pragmatists and romantics,” he explains. “There also isn’t one single way to describe all ‘gay’ expressions or sensibilities.”
One way in which Greenberg unites the various aspects of his identity is through his reading of Leviticus 18:22, which is generally read as prohibiting sex between homosexual partners. Greenberg bases his interpretation on rabbinic traditions and suggests that the line “and with a male you should not lie the lyings of a woman” warns against using sex to dominate and humiliate the other party. As he described in his 2004 article Gay orthodoxy revisited: The constrained Halakhic solutions, “we might be quite vigilant in our fulfilment of the Torah by abominating the use of sex to abuse, debase, or humiliate and still celebrate the love between two men or two women.”
In the article Greenberg also asserts that the “Orthodox community is just beginning to seriously address the question of gay and lesbian inclusion,” largely prompted by the documentary film Trembling before G-d, in which he appeared in 2001. He describes the film as “the first moment that LGBTQ and orthodoxy as a possible reality became visually and experientially available.”
“There’s this screen portrayal of a bunch of very thoughtful and clearly really faithful Jews who were LGBTQ,” he says. “It created, I think, the beginning of our history where it was possible for people to begin imagining, ‘oh I guess a person can be gay and wish to remain Orthodox’.”
As we chat on Skype, Greenberg’s daughter, Amalia, smiles at me from his profile picture.
“She is just a bundle of energy and drama and smart and giggles,” he says. “Being dragged through the excitements and pleasures and also the utter frustrations of being a parent, it’s all great.”
On 21 January Amalia shared in the excitement of his local anti-Trump Women’s March. She wore a pink hat.
“It was a moving experience,” Greenberg says of the protest.
He has signed clergy petitions and contributed to a soon-to-be-released publication, along with thirty other clergy members, that addresses the religious and moral challenges of the Trump Presidency.
On Trump’s election, he says:
“I’ve gone from incredulous to terrified; then from anxiety ridden to angry— and now to motivated.”
Limmud Oz 2017 takes place in Sydney on 10-12 June – see here to book tickets.
Rabbi Greenberg will also present at Yom Limmud in Melbourne on 18 June.
This Plus61J article may be republished with this acknowledgement: ‘Reprinted with permission from www.plus61j.net.au’