An Interview With Rabbi Steven Greenberg: Orthodox And Gay

By Nicole Neroulias
Religion News Service

(RNS) More than 100 gay and lesbian Jewish leaders recently wrapped up a meeting in Berkeley, Calif., to develop a unified agenda for gay rights within American Judaism. Rabbi Steven Greenberg, who's often called the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, was among them.

Greenberg, 54, is a senior teaching fellow at the New York-based CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He came out in 1999, 16 years after his ordination. His book, "Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition," was published in 2004. He and his partner live in Cincinnati.

Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What did the LGBT Jewish Movement Building Retreat accomplish?

A: A great deal occurred in one-on-one relationships, taking the first steps in creating trust and coordinating affairs in a friendlier way. I think more will be built upon it.

Q: Is it possible to have a unified voice on gay Jewish issues, given that there isn't a unified voice on any issue in Judaism?

A: No one ever fantasized there would be a unified voice. The aim was to work toward respectful coordination, minimizing infighting and increasing capacities for collaboration. Instead of thinking that we're fighting over the same small pot of funding, we should be supportive of each other's growth and success. That's easier said than done, but it's not a zero-sum game.

Q: Most of the non-Orthodox Jewish community already recognizes gay clergy and same-sex unions. What's left to fight for?

A: In the American Jewish community, there's a desire to be tolerant, but to move from tolerance to real welcome, and from welcome to celebration, is something that has yet to occur, even in the more liberal congregations.

Q: You were the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi when you came out 11 years ago. Have any others come forward since then?

A: I would say that the scene is opening up. There's an openly gay Orthodox rabbi in Israel, but he insists that he is celibate. And, there's a fellow in America who's an Orthodox rabbi who has not come out publicly, but he's also not hiding it.

Q: How have other Orthodox rabbis responded to your sexual orientation?

A: A rabbi at Yeshiva University, my alma mater, said that there was no such thing as an Orthodox gay rabbi, that it's like an Orthodox rabbi who eats cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur.

I told him that nobody contemplates suicide for want of a cheeseburger; nobody takes Prozac to ease their desire for a shrimp cocktail; and nobody gets electric shock therapy to free themselves of the need of a BLT. To deprive a human being of intimacy, love and companionship is not the same as depriving someone of a cheeseburger.

In New York City, my partner and I were members in good standing in three Orthodox synagogues--we prayed with the congregation, led the service, spoke from the pulpit, contributed to the congregation. In Cincinnati, one synagogue will not allow us to sponsor a Kiddush or lead services, and the other won't even let us walk in the door.

Q: The Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements are more accepting of gay clergy and unions. Why not join one of them?

A: We all choose the movement whose strengths are the ones we love the most and whose weaknesses are ones we can bear and work on. I have chosen Orthodoxy because its unique strengths are precious to me, so much so that I can suffer its weaknesses and work to fix them.

Q: Has the Orthodox movement become more accepting since you came out?

A: Yes. Despite the hardening of some in fear, most are hearing our stories and opening their hearts. It's much earlier in the conversation than it is in the wider Jewish community.

But, as gay people became victims of a great deal of aggression, as gay people came out to rabbis and described to them how painful the experience has been, as parents came to rabbis and talked about their children contemplating suicide, rabbis began seeing homosexuality in other ways. Rabbis can't help identifying with the underdog.

Q: Does it make a difference that you don't lead a congregation?

A: At this point, no congregation could hire an openly gay rabbi and retain their Orthodox affiliation. There are a number of non-affiliated Orthodox shuls, and while it might be possible in theory for a gay rabbi to head such a shul, it is unlikely in the near future.

Q: In the wider Jewish community, there are rabbis who will officiate at a same-sex Jewish wedding, but won't bless an interfaith marriage between a man and woman. So which is harder: being in a same-sex Jewish relationship, or an interfaith relationship?

A: I really can't answer this question. Ask Jewish mothers: some will say "Oy, better a shiksa" (gentile girl) and some will be say, "Oy, better a nice Jewish boy."