Rabbi Steven Greenberg is an LGBTQ activist and advocate for Gay Orthodox Jewish people. Since coming out, Greenberg has challenged the notion that one cannot be an observant Jew and a member of the LGBTQ community. He has also done work with Jewish theology that frames Torah and the performance of mitzvot (religious laws concerning mindset and conduct) in ways that are more accepting of same-sex orientation and gender variation. His commitment to both the Gay and the Orthodox community, and his willingness to engage in dialogue, have made him an icon among LGBTQ people of faith.
Greenberg was raised in Columbus, Ohio in a family that was not overly observant. He was attracted, intellectually and spiritually, to the Orthodox Jewish community while still a teenager. In an article for The Guardian by Libby Brooks, Greenberg said,
I was blown away by belonging to this vertical intellectual community of [historic] lives, and then there was this horizontal present tense community of the synagogue. I became so happily a part of it that I decided I couldn’t ever leave… Believe it or not, orthodoxy for me was the most non-conformist, unconventional, counter-cultural choice. It was the choice for meaning against banal middle-class life, a choice for history against the flatness of American culture, a choice for thinking about the great questions of life and meaning as opposed to concerning oneself with rock bands and baseball scores.
Greenberg said he struggled with homosexual feelings while in the all-male environment of the yeshiva (Orthodox religious school). The prohibition against even touching a woman until marriage was a blessing for him, but the constant companionship of other men caused him great anguish. He sought advice from a respected rabbi:
Later, on one desperate occasion, beset with an increased awareness of my attraction to a fellow yeshiva student, I visited a sage, Rav Eliashuv, who lives in one of the most secluded right-wing Orthodox communities in Jerusalem… Speaking in Hebrew, I told him what, at the time, I felt was the truth. “Master, I am attracted to both men and women. What shall I do!” He responded, “My dear one, then you have twice the power of love. Use it carefully.” I was stunned. I sat in silence for a moment, waiting for more. “Is that all!” I asked. He smiled and said, “That is all. There is nothing more to say.”
Eventually, Greenberg would understand that bisexuality was not an option for him, but that would take him nearly fifteen years. He dated many women while in rabbinical school, with the goal of finding a wife. In one desperate attempt to catapult himself into marriage, he asked a woman from Miami with whom he had just begun a long-distance relationship to marry him and she agreed. The relationship, however, did not last.
In the beginning of the 1990s, Greenberg finally began to view himself as a Gay man. In 1993, he published an article in Tikkun under the pseudonym of “Rabbi Yaakov Levado” (Rabbi Jacob Alone) describing his situation as a person of deep faith, an Orthodox rabbi, and Gay. During the next six years, Greenberg slowly brought himself out of the closet. He helped a group of Jerusalem activists create the city’s GLBT Community Center, met filmmaker Sandi Simcha DuBowski, and agreed to appear in Trembling Before G-d, DuBowski’s documentary on Gay Orthodox Jews. In 1999, Greenberg finally came out publicly in an Israeli newspaper.
Reaction from the Orthodox community was not favorable, but for the most part, neither was he categorically condemned. One of his most strident detractors suggested he was not truly an Orthodox rabbi, but rather a Reform rabbi (Reform Judaism is not as strict concerning some of the mitzvot, and is more accepting of homosexuality):
But one rabbi said that to say that one is an orthodox rabbi and gay is like saying one is an orthodox rabbi who eats cheeseburgers [breaking the prohibition against consuming milk with meat] on Yom Kippur [the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar]… what I will say is that nobody jumps off a bridge, or takes Prozac or gets electric-shock therapy on account of a cheeseburger. To deprive a human being of love and companionship is not to deprive them of a cheeseburger.
Trembling Before G-d and Wrestling With God and Man
When Trembling Before G-d was released in 2001, Greenberg and DuBowski traveled to Orthodox communities around the world and engaged in frank discussions concerning LGBTQ Orthodox Jews. A second documentary, Trembling on the Road, details their journeys.
In 2005, Greenberg published Wrestling With God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition. He proposed a Queer theology that addresses prohibitions against homoerotic behavior between men within the broader context of love between men in scripture (such as the story of David and Jonathan) and rabbinic tradition. He also discussed the lack of women’s perspectives and issues in scriptures, and that, strictly speaking, there are no overt prohibitions against homoeroticism between women.
Folk Performance at Qualia
In 2003, Greenberg gave a presentation on issues he raised in Wrestling With God and Men during the Qualia Conference on Gay Folklife. The presentation was performance-oriented, featuring the transformation of the small auditorium space into a beit midrash (Hebrew: “house of learning”) in which the audience became students under the guidance of a rabbi.
Greenberg began with a reading from Bereshit (in the Christian Bible: Genesis) in Hebrew. He read aloud the text with the cadence of traditional Jewish scriptural recitation, smiled and closed his eyes as he recited, then translated the text into English using the same cadence. He then expounded on the text dealing with the creation of a man, and the choosing of a suitable mate or helper, pointing out that the Creator gave the man the right to choose his mate. He then further explained the implication that, by extension, all people have the right to choose who they love.
Alpert, Rebecca Trachtenberg et al. Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University, 2001.
Greenberg, Steven. Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 2004.
Ruttenberg, Danya. The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism. New York: New York University, 2009.
Shneer, David and Caryn Aviv. Queer Jews. New York: Routledge, 2002.