Steven Greenberg stepped out of the conventions of traditional religion when he became the first ordained rabbi to publicly announce his homosexuality along with his devotion to the Orthodox Jewish faith in 1999.
He is the author of “Wrestling With God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition,” a book in which he uses religious texts and personal experience to tackle the divergence between religion and homosexuality. He has also written several other articles about similar topics and has become an advocate for understanding and acceptance within the Jewish community.
Greenberg will speak at 7 p.m. Monday in Clark Lounge. The lecture is free and open to the public.
Staff writer Aaron Edwards spoke with Greenberg about his views on Judaism, his book, homosexuality and the role Greenberg plays in the issue.
Aaron Edwards: Why did you decide to become a rabbi?
Steven Greenberg: As an adolescent I was just searching for meaning. It sounds a little trite, but I was trying to figure out what life was about and turned to English literature and philosophy and then eventually to Judaism. I found an English rabbi and began studying with him. I was really swept away with the depth and richness of Biblical, Rabbinic and Medieval Jewish materials, [and] I just decided this was the community I wanted to be a part of.
AE: In your role as a rabbi, what do you teach others who come to you asking about the topic of homosexuality?
SG: There’s no one thing I say. It’s often geared toward what specifically the person coming to me needs to talk about. … I help them discover from within the traditional materials the possibility of living a good, rich life as a person of spiritual depth and moral integrity. So it’s got to be possible to live like that as a gay person.
AE: I read an article you wrote, “The Roots of Secular Humanistic Judaism,” and in the article you called the gay Orthodox identity a “communal purgatory.” What did you mean by that?
SG: You’re kind of stuck to the extent that you want to go deeper into your Orthodox identity [but] your gay identity withholds you so you find yourself neither here nor there. It’s very difficult to find a community that’s both religiously what you’re seeking but still accepts and respects you as a member when you’re openly gay.
AE: What prompted you to write your book, “Wrestling With God and Men?”
SG: It started with my article called “Gayness and God.” It was printed in 1995 in Tikkun Magazine under a pseudonym, Rabbi Yaakov Levado, and that name comes from Genesis when Jacob is wrestling with an angel. I chose a few words in that narrative as my name because it says, “And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him all night.” And Yaakov Levado [Jacob Alone in Hebrew] became like a name. That wrestling match was a really powerful image for me, and the loneliness prior to it also. … That for me kind of signaled all sorts of things in my own search. The book I began to write after the article was published, and I began to kind of get responses and believed there was a reason to write further.
AE: What kind of responses to your sexuality and to the book did you get from the Orthodox community?
SG: Mixed responses — some encouraging and some encouraging with disagreement. It’s going to take a while for people to read the book in the Orthodox world. It’s been read in many places, and slowly Orthodox Jews and even Orthodox rabbis are beginning to read the book. Now even more than before I know that there are Orthodox people who are coming out of the closet and giving the book to their family members. It’s being used by people in order to kind of make reconciliation among members of the same community and the same family.
AE: What are your thoughts on California’s Proposition 8?
SG: I think it’s the last graft of a desire to stop the trend happening all over America where Americans just don’t understand any longer why the government should be telling us which marriages are legitimate when there are churches and synagogues doing gay marriages. It’s delegitimizing those churches and synagogues that do them and the government can’t be in the business of discerning which churches and synagogues are the right ones and which are the wrong ones. That is the specific reason that we have separation of church and state.
AE: What do you hope to leave the Ithaca College community with after your lecture?
SG: The recognition that these aren’t only a bunch of verses, but they are also people, and therefore one has to first allow there to be a space for listening to the human testimony. Our sacred texts — because they appear in language and words — are readable in multiple ways, and we ought to be able to find a way to read these texts in such a fashion that still allows 3 to 7 percent of the population to live decent lives.
AE: What are your hopes for the relationship between religion and homosexuality?
SG: Eventually I’m hoping it’s boring. I’m hoping the people will say, “Boy, did we really give people a problem about that?”
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