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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, February 6, 2010

A more open Orthodoxy

By Janet I. Tu
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

SEATTLE Rabbi Steven Greenberg is not shy about proclaiming who he is, though it raises eyebrows.

He is, he says, the world's first openly gay Orthodox rabbi.

And since he came out in 1999, Greenberg has traveled the world, speaking at Jewish organizations, community groups and forums.

His aim: to get congregations to be more welcoming and understanding of gays and lesbians which sometimes means just helping them learn how to bring the topic up. Ultimately, he hopes the work he's doing can, over time, lead to changes in people's hearts, and to corresponding changes in Jewish theology and law.

"By addressing the realities of human life, Jewish law does move," Greenberg said. "It just moves slowly."

Greenberg, 53, doesn't lead a congregation, but instead works with a New York City-based Jewish educational center.

Among the three main streams of Judaism Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Reform Judaism has allowed the ordination of openly gay and lesbian clergy for about 20 years. Conservative Judaism has allowed that since 2006, though it's up to each synagogue whether to accept gay rabbis.

Orthodox Judaism does not ordain gay clergy and regards homosexual activity as prohibited under Jewish law. An Orthodox rabbi would be expected to uphold that law.

But there is no specific mechanism within Orthodoxy for rescinding the ordination of a rabbi who doesn't abide by Jewish law, and among the three main streams, Orthodox Judaism is the most decentralized.

Indeed, Yeshiva University, where Greenberg was ordained in 1983, has never rescinded his ordination, he said. It's highly unlikely, though, that any Orthodox congregation would accept an openly gay rabbi, Greenberg acknowledges.

Rabbi Moshe Kletenik, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the world's largest organization of Orthodox rabbis, said: "We care deeply about and have compassion for every member of our community and are sensitive to their struggles and challenges. On the other hand, we have a tradition to uphold that has guided our people meaningfully for thousands of years."

"While one can be sensitive to challenges, we cannot legitimize behavior that is prohibited," said Kletenik.

For his part, Greenberg remains committed to Orthodox Judaism.

He grew up in a Conservative Jewish family but became Orthodox at 15, after studying the Talmud with an Orthodox rabbi.

He became a rabbi, thinking he was bisexual and sufficiently attracted to women that he could meet and marry a woman. But 10 years after his ordination, he realized he was gay. He was not leading a congregation at the time, instead working as an educator at Clal The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, where he still works.

Still, "I was miserable," he said. "I just couldn't figure out how to live a life according to the (Jewish) law and in the community."

He struggled with the biblical verses condemning homosexual acts, eventually writing a book about that called "Wrestling with God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition." A few years ago, he was featured in a documentary film about gay Orthodox Jews, "Trembling Before G-d."