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Gay Orthodox Jews Prepare For Hanukkah

Dec 7, 2012
Originally published on December 7, 2012 2:52 pm



I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll dig into our mailbag to hear from you about some of our recent stories. That's BackTalk and it's just ahead.

But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Tomorrow night marks the first night of Hanukkah, the annual Jewish Festival of Lights. It celebrates the bravery of the Jewish people, the miracle of purified oil, which kept the menorah lit for eight days, and the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

And it is a time when families come together to light the menorah and exchange gifts, so we thought this would be a good time to talk about some of the not-so-typical families that are changing the face of Judaism today.

Our next guest is Rabbi Steven Greenberg. He is an Orthodox Rabbi, a father, a husband, and one of the pioneers of a growing movement of openly gay Orthodox Jews. He's the co-founder and co-director of Eshel, an organization committed to the full integration of Orthodox LGBT Jews into the community. He's the author of "Wrestling With God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition." And Rabbi Steven Greenberg is with us now.

Welcome. Happy Hanukkah to you.

RABBI STEVEN GREENBERG: Well, thank you so much. Happy Holidays to you.

MARTIN: And I do want to mention that, in recognition of your observance of the Sabbath, that we actually recorded this interview before the Sabbath began. OK?

GREENBERG: Thank you.

MARTIN: So with that being said, I did want to ask about your own personal story. Were you raised in the Orthodox tradition?

GREENBERG: No. I was raised in a conservative Jewish family. That means that we were, I would say, ethnic Jews, attended synagogue once a week maybe. When I was 15, I accidentally got invited to an Orthodox rabbi's lunch at his home and it was an invitation to a totally wild and different world that I found totally compelling and interesting and engaging. At the end of the meal the rabbi challenged me to study with him. He was English, so it was over tea and oranges in my study. Do you agree, young man?

So I was totally smitten by meeting such a mercurial, interesting fellow. I said yes. And slowly but surely I became an observant Orthodox Jew.

MARTIN: When you were ordained, when you decided to follow that path, you were ordained in the Orthodox tradition. Correct?

GREENBERG: Oh, yeah. Yeshiva University. Yeah.

MARTIN: And so did you know at that time that you were attracted to men?

GREENBERG: No. I had no notion that there was even the possibility of being attracted to the same sex. I knew that there was something dangerous about my feelings that I needed to keep quiet. I couldn't have told you what that was. When I was 20 it broke through my repression, you know, and I felt consciously attracted to another fellow at the yeshiva I was studying at in Jerusalem.

MARTIN: When you began to really understand yourself, this also coincided at a time when you were very deeply immersed in your studies. How did you think you were going to reconcile these two very important parts of your life?

GREENBERG: Well, at the time I needed to talk with someone and I wanted someone outside my world. I went to Rav Elyashiv, who was well-known as a very competent and wonderful, soulful counselor, and I told him, Master, I'm attracted to both men and women. What should I do? And he said to me, my dear one, my friend, you have twice the power of love. Use it carefully. It was that statement that encouraged me to believe that I could be a great rabbi with twice the power of love. I believed that I could marry and raise a family and it took me 15 years to finally recognize that it was a pipedream, that I was actually not interested in women in the least in that fashion.

And I think it took me so long, Michel, because the line - I am gay - would have kind of made any future that I'd ever imagined unthinkable and it would have replaced it with a horrible and unthinkable future, so I felt like I'd be standing at the edge of a cliff if I had said those words, and so I avoided saying them for 15 years.

MARTIN: Both Jews and Christians cite passages from the Hebrew scriptures, Leviticus particularly, to argue that homosexuality is forbidden by scripture. Parts of that scripture are read on the holy day of Yom Kippur. You have a very personal reaction to it. Can I ask you how you grapple with this theologically?

GREENBERG: Well, so the first thing I want to say is, is that the verse always means something within a particular community and context, so when people - Christians or Jews - say but it says it clearly in the verse, I always say, well, you know, your pastor, your rabbi has read it that way, but please take responsibility for your reading because the verse can be read in other ways.

So the story that maybe you're referring to on Yom Kippur is this one, is that I'm still in the closet, in a lot of pain, and the verse is read on the holiest day of the year in the afternoon and I used to put my prayer shawl over my head and weep. And then, finally, after 10 years, I decide to rise up and go to the lectern where the verse is read, taking the honor of being there and saying the blessings over the scripture when that happens. And at that moment I felt, for the first time, that being vulnerable to the text requires it to be vulnerable to me and everybody like me and if the rabbis or scholars who read that text have not heard my story, our stories, then they don't know what the verse means. They can't.

MARTIN: How, though, do you address the whole question of what it means to be Orthodox if it doesn't mean fealty to tradition and text?

GREENBERG: Loyalty to a tradition can also mean that you're loyal to its remaining alive and real in the moment, and so it's repeated over and over again in the history of religion that a text that meant one thing in one age means another in another, and that is what keeps the tradition alive.

So I would say that it's a mistake to think that traditions are unchanging. They are evolving and if that verse isn't reconsidered, then what one ends up with is a text that is quite mean-spirited to people who made no choices but simply discovered themselves to be gay or lesbian.

The challenge here is to find a way to read the text in line with what we know goodness and God's will to be.

MARTIN: It's such a rich topic and we're really only scratching the surface. I'm speaking with Rabbi Steven Greenberg. He is believed to be the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi and we're talking with him, obviously, on the eve of Hanukkah.

The question is sometimes asked of Christians who disagree with the instructions of some denominations around homosexuality, their argument is, why don't you just practice differently or practice with other people? So I hope you don't mind my asking you the same question...

GREENBERG: No, not at all.

MARTIN: ...because there are Jewish traditions where you could practice. You could even lead a congregation and your sexual orientation would not be an issue. So do you mind if I ask, why not...

GREENBERG: Why stay?

MARTIN: Why stay? Yeah.

GREENBERG: So I think it's a good question and I don't begrudge anybody for leaving because they feel that they can't sustain it any longer, but there is a courage necessary in order for the deep religious communities to be responsible to human beings, and so I honor those who have the courage to say we're not leaving because we trust this tradition and because we know that it has in it the resources to be responsible to all human beings in ways that right now it is not.

I love the Orthodox community in lots of ways and don't think I - I couldn't leave it any more than I could leave my gayness.

MARTIN: How have things changed? You've been out now for, what, eleven years?

GREENBERG: So the attitudes have changed in the following way. It used to be that homosexuality was deemed a demonic aberration. Then it moved to being merely sinful and then it moved from being sinful to being sick. And all of these have shifted to a more open space. Just yesterday a statement came out from a very central modern Orthodox rabbi that even the notion of illness is no longer acceptable, that homosexuality may simply be a part of the human condition.

And once we are seen as an ordinary expression, if minority, but an ordinary expression of human sexuality, every religion will have to begin to reevaluate its response to gay and lesbian people and find a way to welcome and embrace their own gay and lesbian kids. And if I can accomplish that, I'd be very happy.

MARTIN: Rabbi Steven Greenberg is an Orthodox rabbi ordained in the Orthodox tradition. He is an author and a senior teaching fellow with the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He's co-founder of Eshel, which is a group dedicated to reintegrating LGBT people within the Orthodox community. And he was kind enough to join us from Cincinnati Public Radio.

Thank you and Happy Hanukkah to you and to your family.

GREENBERG: Thank you so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.