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Conversation with… Rabbi Steven Greenberg: A renowned gay Orthodox rabbi examines the nexus between Judaism and inclusion.

By Cindy Mindell

Rabbi Steven Greenberg

Rabbi Steven Greenberg

Two years have passed since the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism unanimously approved two model same-sex marriage ceremonies. The end result of a long and difficult debate, the decision brought the movement closest to Orthodoxy into territory only inhabited by the more liberal Jewish denominations – Humanistic, Jewish Renewal, Reconstructionist, and Reform, long known for their welcoming stances toward LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) Jews.

To date, none of the Orthodox denominational branches has sanctioned same-sex marriage or LGBT Jews. In 1993, under the pseudonym Rabbi Yaakov Levado, Orthodox rabbi Steven Greenberg began to reveal his struggle as an Orthodox Jew and a gay man in the pages of Tikkun magazine. He finally came out publicly in a 1999 interview in the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi in the U.S.

Greenberg is a Senior Teaching Fellow at CLAL, a New York-based think tank, leadership training institute, and resource center, where he is also director of the CLAL Diversity Project. He is the author of the book, Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition which was awarded the 2005 Koret Jewish Book Award for Philosophy and Thought.

Greenberg is a founder and co-director of Eshel, an Orthodox LGBT community- support and education organization, and serves on the faculty of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He is a founding member and educational advisor of the Open House in Jerusalem, an organization that advances the cause of social tolerance. He lives in Boston with his partner, Steven Goldstein, and his daughter, Amalia.

Greenberg spoke with the Ledger about what Judaism has to say about inclusion.


Q: How do you as an Orthodox rabbi define “belonging?”

A: Belonging is meaningful if it shapes a community with social expectations and boundaries. Welcoming the ‘other’ is also in the Jewish cultural DNA. The classical mitzvah of welcoming in strangers can shed new light on the challenges of inclusion. A group that openly welcomes everyone isn’t a group. Group identity, by definition, entails boundaries that in various ways exclude others. Often, the more naturally exclusive, the more prestigious and the more intensely fulfilling. The difference between a group of pick-up game regulars and an Olympic team come to mind. Both are groups, there are boundaries for both – but very different ones.

Otherness has many faces. It can be someone not of the family, or not of the larger tribe, someone poor or handicapped, someone who does not share our affinity or someone who is just otherwise not like “us.”


Q: In your work, you talk about “contemporary boundary questions.” What do you mean by that?

A: The boundaries between religious and secular Jews, between different kinds of religious Jews, between Jews and non-Jews, and between men, women, and others in-between. Contemporary boundary questions embrace the value of familiarity on the one hand and the duty to disturb it with difference on the other. Jewish sensibilities are communal but porous. They mark the difficulty of dealing with difference, and still obligate us to stretch toward difference anyway and then promise that the encounter will enrich us.


Q: What is the CLAL Diversity Project and what does your work entail at the various organizations of which you are a part?

A: I have worked at CLAL and now at Shalom Hartman Institute [of North America] to help Jewish leaders translate and apply the best of Jewish wisdom to the challenges of modern life in America. However, most of my time is dedicated to working with gay Orthodox Jews and their families. The CLAL Diversity Project began as a way to support these efforts first in 2001, when I and filmmaker Sandi Dubowski carried the film Trembling Before God, a film about gay Orthodox Jews, to over 500 screenings around the world and then with the development of intellectual resources culminating in a book, Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality and the Jewish Tradition.

But most recently, I am a founder and co-director of Eshel, a support, education, and advocacy organization for LGBT Jews from Orthodox communities. Eshel runs retreats and creates a support network for LGBT Jews and since 2012, and has run national and regional retreats for the parents of LGBT kids.


Q: What does it mean to you to be named among The Daily Beast’s “America’s Top 50 Rabbis?”

A: It’s very sweet encouragement. My mom and dad were proud. But in truth I don’t put too much stock in such measures of recognition. There are many unrecognized leaders out there doing amazing work. Moreover, while movement has occurred in many religious quarters, the Torah is still being used to shame and humiliate, to undermine and deplete the life energies of young Jews – one-quarter of whom are growing up Orthodox, according to the recent Pew study. Most of those young people feel hopeless; many succumb to depression and self-harm.

The real test of Eshel’s success will be measured by our impact on the larger community, on the availability of shuls, schools, and communities that offer us a way to plot a meaningful Jewish life.

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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