And God Created Gays: The First Openly Gay Orthodox Rabbi Talks About Coming Out, Pain, and Parenthood

With his groundbreaking book on homosexuals in Orthodox Judaism now out in Hebrew, Rabbi Steven Greenberg talks to Haaretz.

Yanai Yechiel

Amalia, two and a half years old, has an abundance of self-confidence and a winning smile. Her parents, Orthodox rabbi Steven Greenberg, 57, and actor and opera singer Steven Goldstein, wed last year in a civil ceremony in New York, while holding the toddler in their arms.

A few weeks ago, Greenberg and his family were staying with friends on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem. Upon seeing Amalia with her parents, I wondered aloud who the biological father was. She looks just like him (he eventually confirmed with a nod that he’s the biological father). She calls him “Abba” and Goldstein, “Daddy.” Both men speak Hebrew.

How do you share the childcare and who gets up with her at night?

Greenberg: “We both get up. The division of labor changes from day to day. But the one who always knows where the clothes she likes are, and the toys and all of her stuff, and never forgets where her barrettes are and is also great at taking care of her hair − is my husband. He’s more obsessive than I am about those details.”

By more obsessive do you mean more feminine?

“No, I didn’t say that,” Greenberg hastens to reply. His partner, who was busy making a cheese sandwich for their little girl, interjected. “Yes, a little more feminine: Why don’t you want to admit it?”

Greenberg felt a need to explain: “As a gay couple we have to create a method by which we can work together without the stereotypical gender assumptions. When we took a course before entering the world of parenthood, we learned how to change diapers and care for a newborn, and there were also group discussions. To our surprise, not a single man spoke. On the one hand, there’s equality between men and women, but when it comes to babies, everybody there seemed to assume that only mothers have anything to say.”

For a religious person like American-born Greenberg, who agonized for years before mustering the courage to come out at age 36, the new experiences of parenthood and marriage mark the closing of a circle. In 1993, he published a confessional essay in the American Jewish quarterly Tikkun, entitled “Gayness and God,” under the pseudonym Rabbi Yaakov Levado (meaning Jacob alone).

In it, he wrote: “When other boys were becoming enraptured by girls, I found my rapture in learning Torah. I was thrilled by the sprawling rabbinic arguments, the imaginative plays on words, and the demand for meaning everywhere.Negiah, the prohibition to embrace, kiss, or even touch girls until marriage, was my saving grace. The premarital sexual restraint of the halakha [traditional religious law] was a perfect mask, not only to the world but to myself.”

The revealing article symbolized Greenberg’s coming out the previous year and marked the start of his efforts to form a gay and lesbian Jewish community and  establish a center for that community in Jerusalem .

In 1996, in Jerusalem on a grant from the Mandel Leadership Institute, he founded Moah Gavra, a gay men’s study group that grappled with Talmudic texts and their attitude toward homosexuals. In March 1999, seeking to promote the new gay and lesbian center, Greenberg decided to give an interview in Maariv in which he let the world know that he was a gay rabbi. A week later, the story was written up in The Forward, which proclaimed Greenberg the world’s first openly gay Orthodox rabbi. By way of comment, a rabbi from Yeshiva University where Greenberg studied and obtained his ordination, said that a gay Orthodox rabbi was about as paradoxical as a rabbi who eats a cheeseburger on Yom Kippur.

Greenberg’s writing has won him many fans; last year he was ranked 44th on The Daily Beast’s list of leading American rabbis. At present he is a senior teaching fellow and director of the Diversity Project at Clal − the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also serves as director of Eshel, an organization whose mission is “to create community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities.” In the coming month he and his family will be moving from Cincinnati to Boston.

This month Greenberg was back in Israel in connection with the publication of the Hebrew edition of his book that originated in the Tikkun piece: “Wrestling with God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition” (Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Kav Adom series; translation by Ziv Milman). The original edition was published in the United States some 10 years ago.

Prof. Zvi Triger, a vice dean in the law department at Israel’s College of Management, says the book is important mainly for “religious gays and lesbians who want to find answers in the halakha to issues raised by religious prohibitions, and to live in peace with themselves and with halakha. The thorough analysis of the biblical prohibition against homosexual relations and its later interpretations, and the portrayal of the rabbinical prohibitions against lesbian relations, are surprising in their originality.

“Rabbi Greenberg,” Triger continues, “does not delude his readers into thinking that total acceptance of gays and lesbians by Orthodox halakhic arbiters is possible − because of the conservative tendencies of Orthodox religious rulings, as well as for social and cultural reasons such as the desire to remain apart from secular society. Secular readers will find in the book an intellectual pluralism and degree of self-criticism they are not accustomed to thinking of as characteristic of Orthodox Judaism.”

Greenberg’s book was aimed at religious homosexuals desperate for encouragement and support as they made the harrowing decision to come out. A year after it was published in America, it received the 2005 Koret Jewish Book Award for Philosophy and Thought. Greenberg stresses that the book was written from the perspective of an Orthodox person who is not prepared to abandon his faith or religious community.

Ten-year struggle

Two biblical verses appear to clearly define sexual relations between men as abhorrent. Leviticus 20:13 says: “If a man lies with a male as with a
woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” Orthodox and traditional Jews have therefore condemned homosexual relations and reviled them. In 1999, Greenberg defied this tradition by openly declaring his gay identity. His book is the product of a 10-year struggle to reconcile his two identities − gay and religious.

Did your book generate any shift in the attitude of American Orthodoxy toward gays?

“It’s very hard to measure. On the individual level, more and more people come to me and say things like: ‘This book saved me from total depression ... The book made my father understand me ... I gave it to my children who were having a hard time dealing with the fact that their father is gay, and now we’re able to talk about it.’ Something was opened up. The book has a significant effect among the Orthodox community. Rabbis read it, even if they don’t say so openly. Rabbis refer young people who are deliberating about coming out to the book, but so far not a single major rabbi with authority has publicly referred to it, so no public discussions about it are being held.”

Are there more ultra-Orthodox coming out now?

“Haredim have a tougher problem when their sexual identity is in conflict with the religion. Remember that this is a society that translates the Jewish religion into a hard reality. There has been a positive change, though, in the way that Haredi society doesn’t view gays and lesbians as such a demonic threat as in the past.”

Greenberg offers an anecdote from his own past: “I came to Israel in 1976, at age 20, and while studying at the Hebrew University I also studied at the Har Etzion Yeshiva. I hadn’t yet acknowledged my sexual identity as a gay man. For years I’d felt that I had problems but I couldn’t figure them out.

“At yeshiva I realized, to my great alarm, that I was attracted to another student named Yossi, and I didn’t know what to do about it. Instead of going to the rabbi of the yeshiva I chose to consult with the great rabbinical sage of the generation, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, leader of the Lithuanian sect, who lived in one of the most insular communities in Jerusalem [Elyashiv died last year at age 102]. I sat down across from him and I said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbi, I’m attracted to men and women both. What should I do?’ Rabbi Elyashiv answered, ‘Dear one, my friend, you have a dual power of love. Use it carefully.’ I was stunned. ‘That’s all?’ I asked, and he smiled and said, ‘There’s nothing more to say.’”

What did he mean exactly?

“He understood that I was asking if this attraction was something one could seek atonement for − not if it were possible to translate it into action. Rabbi Elyashiv did not offer permission for anything but his greatness was that he understood I mustn’t be made to feel like a monster. I understood from his words that everyone needs to be careful, that our sexuality is a mighty thing and that it has to be restrained. I was 20 when I talked with Rabbi Elyashiv, and it wasn’t until I was 36 that I was able to really declare to myself that I was a gay man, and that’s because the culture marked it as something ugly and repulsive.

“I grew up in a healthy family and I wanted to repeat my parents’ story − to fall in love with a beautiful woman and have children. Even after my father accepted me as a gay man, he asked if I had the capability to imagine myself finding a wife and having a family. At the time, no one could conceive of gay men living a healthy life. Being a gay man meant being perceived as someone who has casual, indiscriminate sex. The moment you’re deprived of the right to live a true life, you have to make do with the consolation prize of as much casual sex as you can get, filled with trepidation at the thought of living out your life in misery and with self-hatred.”

At what age did you come to a realization of your sexual identity?

“At 10 I felt that I was different. At 11 I sometimes felt threatened by groups of boys. At 12 I was excited by the beauty of one of my cousins. When my father took me to the Jewish men’s club and I saw men walking around naked it made me fearful and excited. In my teens, the age when your hormones are exploding, I didn’t dare experience attraction to men. I didn’t possess the words to explain or define it. When I saw a naked teenage boy in the locker room, I blushed. In my consciousness there was no category of homosexuality. ‘Faggot’ and ‘gay’ were terms used to describe wimpy, nonathletic types. In the Columbus, Ohio suburbs in 1973, this was not a possible scenario.”

Is that why you became religiously observant when you were 15?

“I had an argument with my mother, who insisted that I drive with them to synagogue. To make her angry, I walked with friends to the Orthodox synagogue. Rabbi Joseph Vilensky invited me to Shabbat lunch at his home and I went just to make my mother worry. To my surprise, the rabbi proposed that I learn with him every Shabbat afternoon. I brought another friend and he introduced us to Jewish learning and adopted us into his congregation. Life in America, especially in the Midwest, was pretty boring. There were just football games and girls, while Rabbi Vilensky spoke about meaning and purpose. It appealed to me and I became religious. My mother thought I was possessed by the soul of my great-grandfather [who was religious].”

‘Destined to be a rabbi’

Greenberg grew up in a Conservative family in a Midwest suburb. His mother, Fran Zilberstein, was born in Paris and survived the war with the aid of a Christian family who hid her from the Nazis. When the war ended, family members helped 11-year-old Fran and her sister (their parents had perished), to go to America. Greenberg likes to tell the story of his paternal great-grandmother, who staged a revolt in the synagogue in Pittsburgh when communist Jews were barred from entering to pray on Yom Kippur. “My great-grandmother used her own money to buy two Torah scrolls and founded a new synagogue in the city. My struggle for acceptance of the stranger and the ‘other’ with tolerance and compassion is influenced by her and by the fact that my mother was saved by Christians who risked their lives for her sake. Today there are 36 Orthodox synagogues [in the U.S.] that will welcome all Jews, be they gay or straight.”

His mother became a real-estate agent. His father, Dan Greenberg, was a businessman. They had four children. “My parents are not easy people. My mother had a hard time coming to grips with my sexual identity because I’m named for my grandfather who perished at Auschwitz, and I was destined to become a rabbi.”

In his book, he describes the process of his coming out, which he likens to standing on the edge of an abyss, in relation to his parents as well as to others in his close circle. In 1978, at 22, he went to New York to begin his rabbinical studies and try to get married. He fell in love with one woman, but was not disturbed that he didn’t feel any sexual attraction toward her.

Finally, in 1985, when working as a community rabbi on Roosevelt Island, a friend asked him if he was gay. “I surprised myself and nodded yes,” he writes in the book. “A heavy weight was lifted from me. I almost passed out.” He says that he had a male partner for a time, but still for five years continued to go on dates with women with the aim of marrying. The fear that as a gay man he would have to give up his Orthodox Judaism led him to write the essay in Tikkun and to pose the question of whether the combination of being a rabbi and a gay man was tenable at all.

In 2000, a year after his coming-out interview in Maariv, Greenberg took part in the documentary film “Trembling Before G-d.” (directed by Sandi Simcha DuBowski). His mother, who was interviewed in the film, never imagined it would ever be screened in his hometown, Columbus, Ohio. In the movie, she talks about what a bright child Steve was − how he said his first word at just seven months; how at three he was already discussing with his father the news he read in the paper; and how, in middle school, he started keeping kosher and became hooked on learning Hebrew and Jewish studies. When she remarked that he was getting too pious, he replied that it was a good thing for him. She relates that one day, he called and informed her that he had canceled his engagement and was on his way from New York to Columbus. His startled mother worried that he planned to announce he was moving to Israel. Instead, he had come to tell his parents he was gay.

“When the movie was shown in Columbus, my mother decided to flee. Even her colleagues at work didn’t know that her son the rabbi was gay. She called her sister in Florida and said she was coming to visit, but my aunt told her, ‘Stay in Columbus and support your son.’ Every night my mom stood there like a diva at the cinema and greeted everyone. Now she sees that I’m protected and happy, and she loves Amalia, but I suspect she still wishes that my personal situation was different.”

The book raises the issue of whether homosexuality is somehow God’s will.

“In the Torah there are several genders including man, woman, androgynous and ayalonit − a woman who has certain masculine elements, who is mentioned by the Talmudic sages who also have a lot to say about androgyny. The question is asked: How do the sages have the authority to speak about a gender that isn’t expressly written about in the Torah? The answer: There was such a gender, in reality. A certain percentage of the population was attracted to members of their own sex. It’s the way that God creates human beings, with a non-pathological minority among them. I say to the rabbis: I’m not asking to change the halakha, I’m asking you to take responsibility for all human beings, including those who were born gay.”

And what do the rabbis say?

“Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky from New York published an opinion piece last December saying that the statement made by the Rabbinical Council of America, the RCA, constitutes a bold breakthrough for recognizing that there is no evidence that reparative therapy [a psychotherapy technique touted by some religious and political organizations as capable of ‘curing’ homosexuality] is effective and therefore there is no obligation to pursue it. This is what he wrote (in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal): ‘[The Orthodox] community is acknowledging that homosexuality may very well be simply part of the human condition. Accordingly, we have decided that homosexuals should not any longer have to pay the psychological, emotional and even physical price for our theological comfort. We have effectively designated our theological question as a teyku [lit., a tie], whose answer still needs to be determined. But one that will, meanwhile, not prevent us from seeing the human truths in front of our eyes.’

“That came from an Orthodox rabbi from Yeshiva University. People are starting to understand that there is not just a single type of sexuality. In the past, one of the greatest Jewish sages of his generation, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, described homosexuality as a willful rebellion against God, and as an illness, but now it is perceived as a normal difference. You have leftist views and I’m a rightist. You have brown eyes and I have blue eyes. We’re just different.”

The biblical texts largely reflect the reality of the era in which they were composed. How can they be taken literally and applied to the reality of the 21st century?

“For a religious person, the text is eternal and living, and is not subject to just one interpretation. ‘The Torah has 70 faces,’ goes the saying. The text is still binding and I feel the words of God calling to me. But I hear them in a different way because I live in a different time. It’s impossible to understand the text while ignoring the people in the street. They must be heard, and if the rabbis won’t listen to the stories that each one of us carries, they will have difficulty understanding the text. The process of change has begun. The rabbis have stopped responding aggressively toward gays. Our strategy is to enter into the halakhic discourse, and this is what I did in the book.”

Meaning?

“If I worship in an Orthodox synagogue where they think that homosexuals are disgusting and despicable, just by entering this place I’m putting myself under threat and collaborating in my own humiliation. I’m proposing another possible reading of the verses in Leviticus (banning homosexual relations) in a way that I can accept them. I don’t care if the rabbis agree with this approach or not. The question is whether I can read the text in a way that won’t make me hate myself. And I propose reading it as love between two men and not as it is described, as an act of violence, humiliation and idol worship.”

You wrote in the book that modern Orthodox American Jews don’t feel the same fear of homosexuality and the moral threat as was the case in the past. What about in Israel?

“Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, the head of the Har Etzion Yeshiva, declared six months ago (in December 2012) that he is against homosexuality. But he definitely thinks that it’s something that should be treated with greater sensitivity and honesty. He asked why, for example, we accept people who desecrate the Sabbath, and cheaters, and so forth, as they are, and don’t judge them. He said that all of this moral approbation that is directed at homosexuals ought really to be directed against these other sorts of transgressors.”

Would the solution that Orthodox gays forgo specific sexual practices that are opposed to halakha, and thereby not violate the prohibition, satisfy the rabbis?

“Can the rabbis marry a couple that won’t go to the mikveh (ritual bath) and observe the family purity laws? A prohibition applies to this, after all. But yet they are willing to let people conduct their private lives according to their own religious initiative, between themselves, and between them and God. Why don’t they treat us the same way? They’ll say what is permitted and what is forbidden by the halakha and we, the members of the gay community, will struggle over these verses and create a sanctified sex life in our bedrooms just as heterosexuals do. All I’m asking is that we be treated the same way any heterosexual couple is treated. The rabbi will instruct you to observe the law, and you will do your best, and no one will pry into what goes on in your bedroom.”

Kisses of beautiful men

Greenberg’s book is divided into four sections: sacred texts, testimonies, rationales and discussions. The first section focuses on biblical texts regarding sexuality and gender, the creation of Adam and Eve, and the origins of gender and passion, and it focuses on three sexual incidents in the Book of Genesis that indirectly touch on homosexual relations. In the second section, Greenberg addresses two tales of male love − one biblical, of David and Jonathan, and one rabbinic − Rabbi Yohanan and Raish Lakish. In the third part, Greenberg returns to the basic prohibition from Leviticus 20, and offers a response to the question of why the Torah is so disturbed by sex between men but not between women. In the final section, the writer proposes a legal path that would enable a more compassionate handling of the issue of Orthodox homosexuality, and suggestions for how synagogues and religious communities can become more accepting of those who are different.

Greenberg writes that there are no overt tales of homosexuality in either the Bible or the Talmud, but there are erotic expressions of love between men that are not openly sexual. He also delved into the “very, very beautiful” poems of 10th and 11th-century Spain. “The most famous of these poets was Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, whose philosophical work, the ‘Kuzari,’ is well known. Halevi wrote beautiful poems for men. Poems of male love. It’s of no importance whatsoever whether this male love was physically realized. But just to see that they acknowledged not just the existence of sex, but of passion and love.”

At the end of the 10th century, Yehuda Halevi won a poetry competition in Cordoba, and Moshe Ibn Ezra, who was already famous by then, was so impressed with the young poet’s talent that he invited him to come live with him in Granada and became his patron. These two medieval poets, says Greenberg, wrote works that hint that neither was immune to the kisses of beautiful men.

Yanai Yechiel
Yanai Yechiel