Friday, April 4, 2014

"Gay (Orthodox) Rabbi Discusses Religion, Tolerance" at UMD - by Elena Baurkot for The Diamondback

Photo by Marquise McKine
4/1/14- After beginning to identify as a gay man in 1999, Rabbi Steve Greenberg felt like a “duck-billed platypus” — it was an unthinkable scenario. 

However, the author and teacher learned to reconcile his religion and homosexuality, a topic he discussed last night in McKeldin Library’s Special Events Room in front of about 100 (150) people. 

Pitch Hillel, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s “Rise Above” and Hamsa sponsored the talk. Junior government and politics and Jewish studies major Caleb Koffler, one of the event’s hosts, said the goal of organizing the event was to create awareness, promote a dialogue and encourage understanding. 

“Our hope for this event is so that it serves as a springboard for further conversation about this issue,” he said. 

Religion was a large part of Greenberg’s life growing up. As a boy he would meet with a rabbi and a few of his friends once a week to discuss the Torah. He said he belonged to two communities, one of which consisted of people who shared meals and went to synagogue for Passover. The other was made up of friends and rabbis who discussed “a whole array of scenarios that were simply deep human questions about goodness and evil and right and wrong and they were being pulled apart by incredible minds of different generations,” Greenberg said. 

“I became orthodox because I simply could not imagine not living in these vertical and horizontal worlds that were so important to me,” Greenberg said. 

When he was 20, Greenberg realized he was attracted to men; however, he falsely assumed for 15 years that he was bisexual, and suffered from depression because of it. He said he didn’t realize a man might not be attracted to women. 

“I presumed because all men are attracted to women, I was attracted to both,” he said. Greenberg asked a rabbi, “Master, I am attracted to both men and women; what should I do?” to which the rabbi replied, “You have twice the power of love — use it carefully.” 

“I was so thrilled — twice the power of love — ‘I’ll be a really great rabbi,’ I thought,” Greenberg said. 

It took 15 years for Greenberg to admit he was gay because he thought doing so meant giving up the life he had always envisioned himself living. 

“Every single future that I had ever imagined for myself, they were all straight — happily married with a lovely woman — and the very notion that that wouldn’t happen and something else would happen meant that I simply had no future to imagine at all,” he said. 

Greenberg eventually realized he was gay, became a rabbi and now has a three-year-old daughter. But he has met some resistance from colleagues who requested that he not talk about his sexuality because of a perceived bias. 

“I thought, it’s interesting that straight guys weren’t biased and the gay guy was,” Greenberg said. “Everybody comes from a particular set of experiences and circumstances, and you need to be up front about where you are before you offer your arguments.”

Greenberg said that the Torah says nothing about lesbian relationships and “if the Torah says nothing about lesbian relationships, then the first thing you know about homosexuality — homo means same — then you know that sameness is not the problem.” The real problem in the Torah is with anal sex, he said. 

“Prohibition of sex between men is really problematic of power and humiliation and degradation — sex between men in the ancient world was seen as an act of violence and humiliation,” he said. 

However, Greenberg said many rabbis who interpret the Torah’s verses prohibiting gay relations often struggle to fully understand their meaning because they have not heard the stories of gay people who read the Torah. 

“If they haven’t heard the stories from the people who bear this verse on their shoulders every day, whose minds and bodies and spirits have been crushed by these verses, how do they know what the verse means?” he said.

Sophomore computer science major Ezra Schwartz said Greenberg’s take on Judaism and homosexuality was  unfamiliar to him. 

“I was a little bit surprised by how he sort of reinterpreted the text of the Bible, which prohibits homosexuality. I thought it was interesting,” he said. 

Molly Bernstein, a senior Arabic studies and government and politics major, said talks like Greenberg’s are necessary to create a larger dialogue about acceptance. 

“It’s a really important conversation for this community to have because it’s such a large Jewish community,” she said. “It’s important to think about how to be inclusive in different ways.”

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