As the only openly gay Orthodox rabbi in the nation, Steven Greenberg has faced the same dilemma as some congregations — how to be open and welcoming to homosexuals while following the tenets of traditional Judaism.
The weekend of March 19-21, The Jewish Center in Princeton will host Greenberg as guest speaker during the annual Ellen M. Egger Shabbaton.
The weekend will feature sessions for religious-school teachers, teens, and adults as the Conservative congregation explores ways to make itself more welcoming to gays and lesbians.
“I will be doing a general exploration about how to welcome guests and strangers into the community,” said Greenberg in a phone interview from his Cincinnati home.
Using as a model the biblical story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming passing guests — several of whom turn out to be angels — Greenberg will also explore the religious challenges to accepting homosexuals.
After the Conservative movement moved in 2006 to permit the ordination of gay rabbis and cantors, The Jewish Center’s Rabbi Adam Feldman challenged congregants to face the issue.
“I want gays and lesbians to know that somebody cares about them, and if they have religious issues, I am a rabbi who will help them,” said Feldman. “I want young people who have grown up in this congregation and come out, wherever they are now, to know that this congregation cares about them and loves them.
“Third, I also want kids now growing up here to — in five, 10, 15 years — feel comfortable in their shul. I’ve heard too many stories from gays and lesbians who grew up and felt alienated from their shul because of their sexuality.”
In pressing for inclusion, Greenberg has had to confront the passage in Leviticus that Jewish tradition has long interpreted as an unequivocal condemnation of homosexual acts.
In his 2004 book, Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, Greenberg argues that the injunction in Leviticus can be interpreted as a rejection of coercive acts, not loving relationships between two people.
Greenberg, senior teaching fellow at CLAL-the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, is the founder and educational adviser of Jerusalem Open House, that city’s first gay and lesbian community center. He was also featured in the documentary Trembling Before God about observant gays and lesbians.
“Communities have to decide for themselves with their leadership what things mean and what to have a conversation about,” Greenberg said. “Every community has to think through its responsibility both to the Torah and other human beings and come up with a policy that works for them. The first step is to listen.”
While the Reform movement is “theoretically” open to gays and lesbians, some synagogues are more welcoming than others, said Greenberg. Conservative congregations grapple with the dilemma of being able to “legitimately choose to be welcoming or not accepting.”
Even among the Orthodox, Greenberg senses “subtle changes” and an openness unimaginable years earlier as shuls and “many more Orthodox rabbis are more compassionate and empathetic — not everywhere, but in many places.”
Nothing better illustrates this than a recent panel discussion at his alma mater, Yeshiva University, featuring a gay undergraduate and three recent grads.
The Jewish Center, said Feldman, “prides itself on being a welcoming and diverse community. This congregation has never been anti-gay, but I think the challenge here is that it’s just time to do more. I think there is an opportunity here to speak on a subject that gets us out of our comfort zone a little bit. It will get us all thinking about how we can be a mensch and be warm and caring, which will help us think about inclusiveness.”