Temple Kol Ami, a Reform congregation in Thornhill, in April hosted Rabbi Steven Greenberg, often described as the first openly gay Orthodox Jewish rabbi, as its scholar in residence for a weekend of discussion sessions related to homosexuality and the Torah.
The Boston-based rabbi, author and speaker is executive director of Eshel, an organization that promotes acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities.
He spoke to The CJN about addressing homosexuality across denominations, his sense of responsibility to gay Orthodox Jews, biblical interpretation and the future of Orthodox acceptance of LGBTQ Jews.
Was this your first time speaking at a Toronto synagogue?
My partner is an opera singer and he does chazzanut, and for the last two years, we’ve been going as a family to a really sweet little downtown minyan, Makom, and I’ve spoken a bunch of times there on High Holidays. But this is the first time speaking here at a standard synagogue.
How were the topics chosen for the discussions you led at Kol Ami?
It was a mix of my suggestions and Kol Ami Rabbi Micah Streiffer and his committee’s ideas.
Is it typical for you to speak at, or be involved with, Reform synagogues, given that you’re Orthodox?
I’ve been a Jewish educator for some 30 years, and many of those years were with the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Its founder, Yitz Greenberg, who’s an Orthodox rabbi, had already, in the 1980s, begun to speak about the need for pluralism. I joined the team in the mid-’80s and have been a kind of pluralist voice in the Orthodox community since.
I’ve been involved in Jewish conversations around the Jewish future with all kinds of Jews of all kinds of denominations and ideologies. The Reform movement has taken the lead on discussing issues of gender and sexuality on the American Jewish scene. I typically go to a Reform synagogue with different aims, though they can overlap, than when I walk into an Orthodox environment.
But it’s not unusual for me to speak at Orthodox, Reform or Reconstructionist shuls, and I’ve also spoken at churches. I’m an equal opportunity speaker in that sense.
When did you receive ordination as an Orthodox rabbi?
And when did you come out publicly?
I came out in 1999.
So are you considered Orthodox by the Orthodox movement?
It depends who you ask. When I first came out, one of the rabbis at Yeshiva University said there’s no such thing as a gay Orthodox rabbi – you’re a Reform rabbi. Indeed, plenty of my colleagues would say that, by coming out, I’m no longer Orthodox. But over the years, my insistence that this makes no sense and that I am Orthodox has picked up steam. So a bunch of my colleagues also would not dispute that I’m Orthodox.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility as the “only” openly gay Orthodox rabbi to nurture other Orthodox LGBTQ Jews and help ease their coming out processes?
Yes, of course. My aim is to encourage people who wish to stay connected to traditional Judaism, [to say] that there will be room within the community for them. That they should press on and hold their leaders and communities accountable, bring their families with them as allies and push to make room in the community for a dignified and loving presence of LGBTQ Jews and their families.
So I spend a good deal of my time counselling both the individuals who are struggling and their families.
Do you also feel a similar sense of responsibility to non-Orthodox LGBTQ Jews?
I have to admit that while there are people in the Reform movement who are feeling lost, most of the families that want my counsel are on the traditional side.
But the reason I’m eager to speak to Reform Jews is, on some level, to restore a sense that the tradition has the capacity to open doors, and that they don’t need to believe that the Torah itself is hateful toward gay and lesbian people.
I think that no matter how liberal you are, you still kind of hope that the tradition, even in its ancient forms, isn’t as mean-spirited as you might have been taught. There’s a desire to encounter a sense of Jewish memory that is a little healed, a more nuanced, thoughtful story can be told that restores people’s trust in Torah and the rabbis’ attempts to creatively read the text they were bequeathed.
I’m making room for a religious discourse around gender and sexuality, but I’m also demonstrating that a human approach to these issues is surprisingly available, even within the oldest and deepest resources of our shared memory as Jews. The old can be renewed, and the new can be sanctified, as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, said.
So do you try to show people different interpretations for texts that seem black and white?
Sometimes I do, or I try to show that it was never read as black and white as they thought, or open them up to a more complex picture. I’m trying to restore people’s faith that an ancient book can be read in successive generations and new insights can be found. That’s what makes it eternal.
Do you read the prohibition against male homosexual sex in Leviticus as not being black and white?
I wouldn’t put it like that. Any biblical text will have multiple readings, applications or ways of putting it alongside other texts that contend with it. In other words, there’s hardly anything black and white anywhere.
Thou shall not kill sounds pretty black and white until you think, well, Jewish law clearly doesn’t prohibit self-defence. So, on some level, every text comes up against competing realities, circumstances.
Then there’s the linguistic side – you’re reading it this way. It could have been read that way. So, when you say black and white, you’re talking about a different religion, not Judaism.
Would other Orthodox rabbis agree with you on that?
Sure. It doesn’t mean there aren’t communal consensuses that have a lot of weight. But it also doesn’t mean there’s always a simple, unambivalent truth. Rabbis like to say that every word at Mount Sinai was heard in 70 different languages and 70 different ways, so the Torah is fractured into 70 different perspectives.
Any system of law or ethics has to interact with the multiple human perspectives engaging with it. That’s not radical theology, that’s talmudic theology.
Do you belong to an Orthodox synagogue?
Yes, I go to Kadimah-Toras Moshe in Boston. It’s a complicated existence. My daughter was rejected from a local Orthodox day school that opened up an early learning program for pre-kindergarten kids. We were very excited when it opened, but were told to not even apply, that we wouldn’t be accepted because of the nature of our family. Yet, we belong to a congregation that fully embraces me and my partner.
So, there are contradictions everywhere. For example, the Chabad school would be happy to have her. It’s the modern Orthodox school that doesn’t want her.
Do you think the Orthodox community is becoming more progressive regarding these issues?
I think there’s no longer space for the demonization of gay and lesbian people in the Orthodox world. Even in the most traditional environments, I think there’s recognition that people aren’t choosing this, and there must be a basic empathy when approaching this. In the Orthodox world, there is still strong pressure to remain celibate if you’re gay, but increasingly, younger rabbis and educators are recognizing there’s something destructive in that request, and they’re seeking ways to sustain their halachic perspective while being respectful of the mental health and emotional and religious well-being of gay and lesbian people and their families.
Do you see a time in the future when Orthodoxy will fully accept LGBTQ people?
I think given the diversity of what Orthodoxy is now, one couldn’t say one blanket thing about all of it. The differences between the various enclaves in Orthodoxy are greater than those within the Reform or Conservative movements.
I’d say that some percentage of the Orthodox community will tacitly, without ideological fanfare, be welcoming of LGBTQ Jews – I’d say up to 30 per cent is not an unreasonable hope.
My aim at Eshel is to ensure there are at least 36 synagogues across North America where, if you or your child discovers yourself to be gay, lesbian or trans, you could choose from any of them and, if you want to, stay in a community with an expectation of observance and knowledge. Once we achieve that, I’ll feel I’ve done my job.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.