The Roots of Secular Humanistic Judaism

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September 1, 2000
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Steven Greenberg

Seven years ago I wrote an anonymous article called “Gayness and God.” Then I was the closeted Rabbi Yaakov Levado. Today I am, as far as I know, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi. While I have been out to family and friends for nearly a decade, last March I decided that it was time to come out publicly. I sat on pins and needles for a month waiting for the onslaught of attack and criticism. To my surprise, there was no public outcry. There were a few mean quotes here and there, but taken together the response ranged from cautious understanding to outright applause. Old friends and acquaintances, colleagues, and students came forward to offer their support and encouragement. In retrospect, the paralyzing terror that I suffered for more than twenty years had been a paper tiger.

A number of factors have made my coming out rather painless. First, in conscious and unconscious ways I engineered a life that would be clear of the worst dangers. I am not a pulpit rabbi in an Orthodox synagogue. Second, I was not outed; I outed myself. Coming out was the culmination of two years of thinking and activism. As well, the public outing was only the most recent (and perhaps most dramatic) moment in a very long and painstaking process.

The response from the Orthodox community has been remarkably restrained. Most of the Orthodox leadership was respectful in their disagreement. Many felt little reason to respond because once a rabbi makes such a declaration, in their minds, he is simply no longer Orthodox. Such was indicated in Rabbi Moshe Tendler’s Forward article, “To say that one is a gay Orthodox rabbi is like saying that one is Orthodox and eats pork on Yom Kippur. You are not an Orthodox rabbi, you are a Reform rabbi.”

From a number of my colleagues I have received a yasher koah! but don’t quote me on that. A number of frum gays have thanked me for giving them the courage to come out to their family and friends. The fact is, I have not gotten a single phone call, email, or letter since coming out last year that was abusive or hateful. And since coming out, I am for the first time, partnered with an absolutely wonderful guy. We have not yet figured out how two gay Orthodox men are supposed to put a life together. Gay life, even coupled monogamous gay life, does not yet mix so well with contemporary Orthodox society. We attend a synagogue where it is fairly well known that we are a couple. The rabbi has been very accepting, but we were encouraged by some members to keep our relationship “private.”

For most Orthodox gays, the risks of coming out in the community are formidable. The greatest fear is that we will lose the closeness and comfort family offers. It is terrifying to imagine seeing the same disgust that one felt about oneself in the eyes of loved ones. Will we lose their love or their respect? Will friends and family members look at us differently? Will we cause them anguish? This is multiplied considerably in large multi-generational, close-knit families. In very religious homes there are worries that siblings will be rejected as marriage partners when the news gets out. As for myself, I had largely inchoate fears of humiliation.

Why did I do it? Because I had finally grown tired of the evasion and deception. I was ready to get on with life, and being in the closet was getting in the way of finding a partner. The two years I spent in Jerusalem had helped me to decide that it was a religious duty to stand up and say the truth, to live with integrity. Orthodox life had been a radical choice for me from the start. When I became observant at the age of fifteen, Orthodox Judaism felt like a perfect counterculture for me, a spiritual rebellion against a deadening secular mundaneness. I found in Jewish history models for my life. Neither Abraham nor Moses was conformist. Both became revolutionary leaders willing to stand up to social consensus and even at times to challenge God’s decisions. As a people who celebrate freedom by inducing children to ask questions, we are not likely to recommend a quiet conformism.

How could a people known for unrelenting inquiry become so patently conformist and risk-aversive? Could it be that when the modern world offered personal freedom from religious dictates, all forms of personal freedom, even those with religious underpinnings, were deemed dangerous? Perhaps it is built into struggles of minority culture. Might there be something about the work to remain Orthodox when most Jews have not, to retain a detailed array of ritual and spiritual observances in the midst of the largely secular world, that has made us shy to be different from each other? We are to be different from “them,” from the non-Jews and most importantly from the non-Orthodox Jews, but not from others who are Orthodox.

Thinking about it now, I was able to come out because I had my own criteria of belonging, of being faithful to the tradition and remaining Orthodox. My years in yeshiva gave me tools for understanding my predicament. From the beginning, my love of learning was grounded in the Talmud’s unrelenting multiplication of possibilities, its interpretive freedom, and its struggle to understand competing human values.

Risk is easier when one has the resources of intellectual and social independence. People living in insular Orthodox worlds with no way to make religious sense of their experience and no friendship circle of support will not feel capable of making a leap into an abyss. It was easier for me to risk the communal purgatory of gay Orthodox identity because I travel in various supportive circles.

A few months ago, a young man I was counseling complained that it wasn’t fair. For him to get on with life in the matter-of-fact way that all his siblings and friends have done demands from him incredible courage. I agreed with him. So it is. Taking the risk to simply be, when you are gay, is always an act of bravery.

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Rabbi Steven Greenberg is a Senior Teaching Fellow at CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He received his rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University. Rabbi Greenberg spent two years as a Jerusalem Fellow, developing curriculum for KOLOT, a new organization that empowers Israeli economic, political, educational, and cultural leaders to meet the challenges of contemporary Israeli society. He also serves as the educational advisor of the Jerusalem Open House, a gay and lesbian community center advancing the cause of social tolerance in the Holy City.

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