‘You can’t tell a person you can never have love’
Questions for Rabbi Steven Greenberg
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Ten years after the release of Trembling Before God, a documentary about Orthodox Judaism and homosexuality in which he is featured prominently, Rabbi Steven Greenberg thinks much has changed in the traditional communities. The first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, Greenberg points to a “growth of empathy” among Orthodox Jews and says that the “conversation is clearly different.”
Greenberg, a senior teaching fellow at CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, helped organize the first Orthodox Mental Health Conference on homosexuality. He won the prestigious Koret prize for his 2004 book, Wrestling with God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition.
Greenberg will speak at Mount Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph on Sunday, March 27, following a screening of Trembling Before God. The program, which is free and open to the public, begins at 7 p.m.
NJJN spoke with him by telephone.
NJJN: What, if anything, has changed in the 10 years since Trembling Before God came out?
Greenberg: A lot has changed. The movie has had a powerful impact. Gay Orthodox Jews have found that the portrayal of their story has allowed people to feel more comfortable. It has spurred more traditional Jews to feel justified coming out of the closet and telling their stories. In the 1970s and ’80s, gay people were seen as aggressive spoilers of the traditional family, of modesty and decency. The image of them was that they were intending to undermine certain kinds of norms — it was the man in his underwear, dancing on a float. That elicited from more religious people a disdain and an aggressive response.
But as gay people are portrayed in every frame leading different lives, they realized that not every gay person is like that. And for the Orthodox community, these people looked like them and sounded like them. There was a growth in empathy.
NJJN: In which part of the Orthodox community have you seen the biggest shift?
Greenberg: Modern Orthodoxy has become much more empathetic. But even the centrist and haredi [fervently Orthodox] communities now recognize that for the most part this is not a choice and they need a method for dealing with people that is more empathetic, more thoughtful.
NJJN: You make it sound like it’s now great to be Orthodox and gay.
Greenberg: No — it’s just better. There are still people who would rather homosexuality be portrayed as a rejectionist choice. And other people do believe only lifelong celibacy is within the parameters of religion and tradition. But I ask, how can you throw teens who are 18, 19, 20 into marriage when they haven’t figured out sex yet, or whether they are even straight? Willful blindness is still the norm in most places in the Orthodox Jewish community.
I would like to see more communities that think they know how to respond realize that maybe they don’t know, and that maybe they need to hear from a gay Orthodox Jew what it is like to live in that space. Exactly what halachic consequences emerge from hearing our stories is for the rabbis to determine. But first, we need the experience of gay Orthodox Jews not to be silenced.
NJJN: You are an Orthodox rabbi. How would you craft a halachic response?
Greenberg: Well, I wrote a book about that and it’s 330 pages long. In simple terms, it’s the ability of our tradition to reregulate the way it deploys values and Halacha when it understands facts differently. So if there’s not just one sexuality but at least two, you have to make room. You can’t tell a person you can never have intimacy or love or companionship. That’s not a choice for Jews, anyway.
NJJN: Have the responses to Trembling Before God changed over the years since it was released?
Greenberg: All kinds of Orthodox Jews found it compelling and moving, even troubling, while liberal Jews were puzzling over why people would stay Orthodox. The response has not changed that much. It might not be as shocking as it once was. The movie still carries a strong human message and tries not to demonize any people in the conversation and not give answers. The intention of the filmmaker was to break the hearts of the Orthodox Jewish establishment and get them, from a position of broken-heartedness, to rethink their responses.