New readings of Torah offer gay perspectives

New readings of Torah offer gay perspectives

For Montclair rabbi, chance to interpret a controversial verse

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi David Greenstein says he can see “a whole different landscape” of Torah interpretation.
Rabbi David Greenstein says he can see “a whole different landscape” of Torah interpretation.

A rabbi at a Montclair synagogue has contributed two essays to a new volume of Torah commentary sensitive to the concerns of gay Jews.

Rabbi David Greenstein of Congregation Shomrei Emunah offers a reinterpretation of verses that are perhaps the most difficult for gays and lesbians. In one essay, he revisits the Yom Kippur reading from Leviticus that seems to bluntly prohibit male homosexuality among other forbidden sex acts. In his second piece, he writes about the biblical census, which he uses as a springboard to discuss notions of community, inclusion, and diversity.

The book, Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, is being published this month by NYU Press. Its contributors include prominent advocates within the Jewish LGBT community, including Rabbi Steven Greenberg, said to be the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, as well as leading rabbis across the denominational landscape who are not gay but urge varying degrees of acceptance within their denominations.

The latter group of contributors include Greenstein; Conservative Rabbi Elliot Dorff, professor of Jewish theology at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles; and Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College.

The goal of the book is to bring a new set of voices to Torah, said Gregg Drinkwater, one of the book’s three editors.

“There are women’s commentaries and commentaries from major movements; there are Torah commentaries focused on social justice. This is the first time we are bringing voices to bear on issues of sex and gender specific to the Jewish community,” said Drinkwater in a phone interview. “We also want to show the ways in which the Torah speaks in affirmation and in an engaging and in-depth way to contemporary sexuality, gender, and LGBT issues.”

The volume was inspired by an on-line project of the same name that began in 2006 on the website of Jewish Mosaic: National Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity.

Greenstein views the book as a response to a critical issue.

“It’s the question of our queer brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, parents, and fellow members of the Jewish community — how should we relate to them, how should we incorporate them into the community, how can we validate them, or should we condemn them?” he said.

The Leviticus verse, 18:22 — “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is an abomination” — has long been interpreted as expressly forbidding male homosexuality. The traditional reading was reflected in a joint statement by the Rabbinical Council of America and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America in 2004: Leviticus 18 refers to the “sexual depravity practiced in ancient Egypt, which, as understood by the sages of blessed memory…, included the legitimization of same-sex marriages.”

But Greenstein, in one of the book’s four essays challenging traditional readings of the passage, suggests that the Hebrew can be read to mean something entirely different: He writes: “The prohibition is against two males forcing themselves on a woman.”

Greenstein, a member of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly and former rosh yeshiva of the nondenominational Academy for Jewish Religion, celebrates the ability of each generation to reinterpret Torah text.

“The options one has at any given time for interpretation are determined by their place in time and the society they live in and so on,” he said. “We know people who lived in Europe read the Torah differently from people in Spain and Islamic countries. We are always reading the Torah from the place we’re at. That doesn’t make it relative, just honest.”

The Torah’s sexual prohibitions, however, have not been challenged significantly, at least by scholars working from within the tradition, before the last few decades.

“The new time we live in has opened vistas of interpretation that were never available before,” he said. “The same words were not amenable to interpretation the way I interpreted them a generation ago or a thousand years ago.”

And new understandings of homosexuality invite new interpretations, he said.

“Rabbi Akiva couldn’t have made this interpretation,” he said, referring to the Jewish sage of the first century. “He did not understand the gay situation the way we do. His horizon of interpretation is not mine — thank God. I have been placed on a hilltop where I can see a whole different landscape.”

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