Orthodox rabbi teaches what it's like to be gay

Orthodox Rabbi Steven Greenberg is openly gay.
Orthodox Rabbi Steven Greenberg is openly gay.
Posted: January 27, 2011

Steven Greenberg was a 20-year-old Orthodox rabbinic student from Ohio, studying in Jerusalem, when he realized his affections were "ripping me apart."

So he visited a sage, an esteemed interpreter of Jewish law.

"Master, I am attracted to both men and women," he told Rabbi Yosef Sholom Eliashiv. "What shall I do?"

The ultra-Orthodox Eliashiv's answer came as a surprise.

"My dear one, my friend, you have twice the power of love," the aged rabbi told him. "Use it carefully."

Stunned, Greenberg beseeched him to elaborate. But Eliashiv simply smiled and replied, "There is nothing more to say."

It is a story told often over the years by the man who contends that he is the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi. Greenberg likely will share it again this weekend in Montgomery County as he presents programs about homosexuality and Judaism, beginning with a luncheon conference Friday in Elkins Park for area rabbis.

That evening, and continuing through Sunday morning, he will lead a three-day "shabbaton" - a period of study and reflection - for Congregation Tiferet Bet Israel, a Conservative synagogue of about 500 members in Blue Bell. The public may attend portions of the program titled "Opening Our Tent Wider."

"We will be asking ourselves, 'What do we do with the parts of the Bible that exclude certain individuals?' " said Rabbi Joshua Kalev, head of Tiferet Bet Israel.

Orthodox Judaism, with 1.3 million members in the United States, bars homosexuals from serving as pulpit rabbis, and does not permit same-sex marriages or blessing ceremonies.

The Conservative movement, with about two million members, has allowed the ordination of gays and lesbians since 2006. Reform Judaism, the nation's largest branch with about 3.2 million members, has done so since the early 1990s.

Despite these trends, Kalev says, any Jew sympathetic to homosexuals' need for intimacy and companionship "still must struggle with the text" of the Torah, which calls sexual relations between men an "abomination." Older members of his congregation, he said, tend to view homosexuality warily.

Nevertheless, Greenberg can expect a warmer welcome in Blue Bell than he has received at the two Orthodox synagogues in Cincinnati, where he, his partner, and their infant daughter live.

"One won't even let us in the door," Greenberg said last week. He does not have his own congregation, since Orthodoxy does not permit openly gay rabbis. Much of his work involves leading programs, like the one this week, about Judaism and homosexuality.

The other synagogue permits the family to attend, but will not allow him or his partner, Steven Goldstein, to perform the traditional blessing ceremony at the Torah for baby Amalia. Carried by a surrogate mother, she was born Nov. 11.

"I don't care if they don't give us honor," Greenberg said. "But not to honor our daughter - I'm really upset about that." Since then, he has refused to shake his rabbi's hand.

Barred from having a congregation of his own, Greenberg immerses himself in the workshop circuit. His book, Wrestling With God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, won the Koret Jewish Book Award for Philosophy in 2006. At 54, he no longer feels any need for rabbis to approve his lifestyle, he said.

Yet, as a young man, his anguish was palpable. When the biblical injunctions against homosexuality were read at Yom Kippur services, he said, "I would bury my head in my tallis," or prayer shawl, "and weep."

He dated several women and for years supposed that his "unruly feelings" would some day abate and that he would marry. It was not until his mid-30s that he accepted who he was and told his family. "My parents," he said, "were very broken up for a while."

Orthodox Judaism does not believe it has authority to change Jewish law, said Rabbi Albert E. Gebbai, senior rabbi at Congregation Mikveh Israel in Center City. "We all have urges and desires," he noted. "But we can't say, 'You have permission to act on them.' Just as we cannot say, 'You may steal, or commit adultery.' "

Gebbai said he could not allow a gay couple to bless its child at the Torah. To do so would be "to condone a wrongful act in front of everybody." For people with same-sex attraction, he said, traditional Judaism "has compassion without end. But the rules are there."

Greenberg said he had had no expectation that Orthodoxy would abandon its injunctions against homosexual activity any time soon. But just as gay people have to be "vulnerable to the words of the Torah," he said, "the words of the Torah have to be vulnerable" to gay people.

Eliashiv did not mean to condone homosexual activity when he admonished Greenberg to use " 'the power of love . . . carefully," he said. "I think he meant that having these inner strivings was potentially a good." His reassurances "allowed me to stay in the Orthodox community and continue learning."

And, he hopes, enlightening others. In Connecticut last weekend, 140 gay and lesbian Orthodox and Hasidic Jews gathered for his program. Many were married with children and wept as they shared their secrets and shame. "One said, 'I've waited 35 years for this,' " Greenberg recounted.

"My fundamental aim is not to change the rules" about homosexuality, he said, "but to get rabbis to experience our conflict. ... Where it will lead is up to them. But until their hearts break, they won't be able to figure out what comes next."


Contact staff writer David O'Reilly

at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

More information about "Opening Our Tent Wider" is available from Congregation Tiferet Bet Israel at 610-275-8797 or its website, www.tbibluebell.org.

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