"I'm a bit of a duck-billed platypus," said Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the author of Wrestling With God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, as a form of introduction. He then went on to share his personal odyssey as a gay, Orthodox rabbi — as well as his views on homosexuality and Torah — to an audience gathered last week at Gratz College.
The rabbi's talk was the last of the Shusterman Distinguished Scholar lectures for this academic year. Held in the college's Tuttleman Library, the event drew about 50 people to hear Greenberg discuss his personal and intellectual journey, and the focus of his scholarship.
Greenberg grew up in a Conservative family in Columbus, Ohio, but one rainy day he decided to stop in at the Orthodox synagogue two blocks from his house, instead of traveling to his usual synagogue two miles away.
"It was really boring," said Greenberg of this first experience at an Orthodox shul. But the British rabbi there invited him to stay for Shabbat lunch, and spoke in such a passionate way about the Torah that Greenberg said he was mesmerized.
"It was totally another world," said Greenberg. "I had grown up in a community where everything everyone said was 'nice,' " and no one had expressed this sort of enthusiasm about faith.
Greenberg went on to study with the rabbi, and even brought his friends along with him, he said, for what he described as intense, scholarly discussions on many topics.
"I was riveted by these conversations … about what it meant to be a human being," he said.
He became intensely involved with the Orthodox shul, and was immediately welcomed into a community he didn't want to leave.
Nevertheless, he went off to Yeshiva University in New York City, and at age 20, realized that he was attracted to another male student there, saying, "I knew that there was something dangerous inside me."
But the standard Orthodox prohibitions were the perfect cover for him, he noted. As his teen friends explored relationships with girls, he was able to hide behind his faith.
During his rabbinic training, he dated Orthodox women, but nothing ever developed.
"I was literally 35 years old, and I kept playing this game," he said. "Saying 'I am gay' would have put a cliff at my feet."
'A Scary Thing to Do'
Greenberg said he finally had to face up to the verse in Leviticus about the barbarity of homosexual practices that had been causing him so much pain.
"To confront that text was a pretty scary thing to do," he admitted. But when he delved a bit deeper, he realized that he didn't truly understand what the words meant.
"My willingness to be vulnerable to the text required it to be vulnerable to me," he said, and so he studied what the texts had to say on the subject.
He wrote an article under a pseudonym in 1993, and agreed to be interviewed for the film Trembling Before God, about homosexuality among Orthodox Jews, directed by Simcha Dubowski. In March of 1999, Greenberg came out publically.
He said he understands that it is difficult for some to be accepting of homosexuality without time to adjust. "I recognize that my own homophobia took 15 years to clear out. How can I make demands" upon others?
He also proposed three basic tenets for the acceptance of gay Jews within Orthodoxy: No humiliation of gays from the pulpit; gays must not use their synagogues as forums for advocacy; and Orthodox gays should not be put into situations where they have to lie about their identities.
"It's not about announcing that we're gay," said Greenberg. "It's about being real about who we are."