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Saturday, November 25

November 25, 1999 | 7:00 pm

Rabbi Steven Greenberg usually kept quiet through the gay jokes. After all, he had been in the closet in the Orthodox community for 20 years, so he was used to smiling through the ridicule, through tirades about same-sex marriage.

But not that day last year around the Shavuot table. His friend and teacher, also an Orthodox rabbi, held up a ketubah with an illustration of two men at the top and launched into a comedy routine about what the "reformers" were doing to sacred tradition.

Greenberg stood and ordered his teacher to sit down. "Those two people who are just cartoon figures to you actually in real life are human beings," he said, "and they probably looked long and hard and suffered a great deal to find love in their lives. And now the finding of that love is so precious, you can't imagine how precious it is. You don't understand how difficult it is to fight against a cultural weight of self-hatred. And likely you can't grasp this because no one has ever said to you, 'rabbi, I'm gay.' So let me be the first. Rabbi, I am gay."

Sitting in his brother's Long Beach backyard one gray morning last week, Greenberg imitates the faces at that Shavuot table, dropping his strong, clean-shaven jaw, furrowing his heavy gray brows, opening his bright brown eyes wide.

Then, as if uttering a punch line, he delivers the rabbi's response: "Stevie, have you gotten help?"

Now that Greenberg, 42, has made a very public point of being the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, this kind of story is a little less painful than it used to be. And it illustrates what he thinks needs to happen in the Orthodox community: He is convinced that if traditional Jews open their ears, and their hearts, to homosexuals, if they listen to the pain, loneliness, confusion and self-hatred that often comes along with being gay in the Orthodox community, they will be forced to rethink the rejection they have thus far offered up to the homosexuals among them.

Greenberg, a teaching fellow at the New York-based CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, is an intellectual, articulate and thorough in presenting his thinking.

He's been around long enough to know that he will not be considered Orthodox by most people who are. And he is not naive enough to believe that, in one decisive moment, he can convince the world that male homosexual sex is within the confines of halachic Judaism.

But he does believe he can open the door just wide enough so that homosexuality can become a legitimate topic for discussion. He believes his coming out will give others the strength to do the same. And once the personal testimony of their sons and nieces, brothers and best friends is heard, Greenberg says, the authorities who interpret halacha may be moved to creatively rethink the prohibitions that appear to be black and white.

Though to many this might appear to be a losing battle, Greenberg has a powerful weapon in his arsenal: his personal story, a compelling tale of fighting his own identity until he could no longer deny that being gay was an essential part of his soul, that it was the only way to bring love into his life.

'A Richness of 'Spirit'

Greenberg, who was in town as a scholar-in-residence at Beth Chaim Chadashim, a Westside synagogue for lesbians, gays and bisexuals, has no doubts about whether homosexuality is inborn or a chosen lifestyle.

"There's hardly a person in the West who would want to be gay if they were asked, because it's so not normative, so othering," he says. "The only reason you fight to accept yourself and challenge the norm is because you don't have many choices."

Though Greenberg can't pinpoint when he knew he was gay, he remembers his childhood and teenage years being spotted with confusing emotions and sensations. He detailed some of his journey in an article in Tikkun magazine in 1993, written under the pseudonym of Rabbi Yaakov Levado (Hebrew for "alone").

When he was about 15, Greenberg, whose family is Conservative, began studying with an Orthodox rabbi and found himself enthralled by the rich texts and traditions.

He attended Yeshiva University as an undergraduate and then as a rabbinical student. When he was 20, he studied at the prestigious Yeshiva Har Etzion outside of Jerusalem, where he was attracted to a fellow student. Concluding he was bisexual, Greenberg decided to approach Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashuv, a respected rav in Jerusalem.

"Rabbi," he told the elderly man, "I am attracted to both men and women."

To Greenberg's amazement, the rabbi responded, "You have twice the power of love. Use it carefully."

While Eliashuv's students recently responded to this story saying the rabbi never said such a thing, Greenberg says those students issued that response without asking the rabbi. And, he says, the words are deeply etched into his memory.

"A weight was lifted off me, to think that whatever this was, it was a richness of spirit," Greenberg says. "He wasn't permitting me to have sex with men, he was telling me that my desire was not ugly in and of itself."

Greenberg, who was ordained in 1983, did not admit he was gay until he was 28, and still he continued to date women for another seven years.

"I was still trying to make it work. I was so motivated for a family and children and a life -- for being part of the flow of humanity, which is so appealing," Greenberg says. "It's a center of real hurt in my life that it didn't work out that way. But that hurt doesn't justify a life of deep, deep self-deception and deception of others."

'If You're Gay, Get Out'

While living in Israel the past two years, Greenberg decided to come out publicly in the national daily newspaper, Ma'ariv. He timed the article to coincide with the early March opening of the Jerusalem Open House, the first community center for gays and lesbians in Jerusalem, which he helped found.

The center includes a clandestine support group for haredi youth, and a group calling itself the Orthodykes. In New York, the Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva Day School Alumni Association meets monthly.

Greenberg says many Orthodox youth who think they are gay are encouraged to marry anyway, at least to start a family, even if it ends in divorce. "The cruelty in that is unthinkable to me," Greenberg says incredulously.

Others are encouraged to hide their gayness or remain celibate, condemning them to a life of lovelessness, he laments. In some cases, gay youths are simply told to leave the family, for their presence in the community is just too jarring.

"The subliminal message is if you're gay, get out, for our benefit and for yours," Greenberg says.

But often families unwilling to abandon their children are willing to accept a compromised level of halachic observance, just as they sometimes are in other areas of halacha.

Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, says he, like most other rabbis, has counseled gay congregants and their families. He says he has listened with compassion, but makes clear that the halacha forbids homosexual sex. "They have to come to terms with the fact that not everything we want and desire is permitted," Muskin says.

Using an argument often heard in Orthodox circles, Muskin says he treats homosexuals as he would treat anyone who is violating a mitzvah. Muskin would certainly not expect an observant Jew to proudly proclaim that she cheats on her tax returns or regularly eats cheeseburgers.

But Greenberg says the cheeseburger analogy just doesn't work. "People can live deep, emotional, committed, loving, wonderful lives and not eat cheeseburgers,"he says, apparently having heard the argument one too many times. "But to tell a person that to be a member of this group you have to live a life without self-expression and love and commitment and intimacy and daily touching and caring and holding... that would be an unbearable burden for most people."

Torah's Puzzling Attitude

Greenberg is a few months away from completing a book that, along with telling his personal story, explores what he believes is the Torah's puzzling attitude toward homosexuality. Greenberg asserts that there is more to the discussion than the surface meaning of the verse in Leviticus 18: "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination."

While Greenberg is reluctant to lay out the specifics of his arguments without the benefit of several hours of background building up to his conclusions, he says that he is "attempting to demonstrate this verse is more interesting and ambiguous than a simple, superficial reading would suggest. This is what rabbis do when they confront a verse: find anomalies in order to enrich its meaning."

But, he says, rabbis will only be motivated to reinterpret the verse if the issues become personal, rather than abstract and foreign. "In this area I believe halacha is wrong, because its refusal to talk to people makes it fail to be authoritative. True halacha has to be open to listening to people," he says. And he is willing to be the first to talk.

"The story of a gay rabbi is the story of a person who had incredible, powerful motivation, personal and religious, to fight his sexual identity to the end. And the story of a 20-year struggle against my heart and my final decision that it is futile, helps portray how difficult it is for gay and lesbian people and makes clear why this is truly a humanitarian, and I would even say a Jewish, imperative."

For more information on Jerusalem Open House, go to www.poboxes.com/gayj or call Hagai El-Ad at (617) 247-8420.

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