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New Hope For Gay Orthodox Jews
Mon, 09/30/2013 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Steven Greenberg
Rabbi Steven Greenberg

The holidays are over. Through the fasting and food, the succession of pageant, discomfort, reconciliation and exultation, a single moment continues to stands out. Every year for more than 30 years I have found the Yom Kippur afternoon service Torah reading unnerving — and this year I did not.

Among the verses from Leviticus about incest, adultery and bestiality read at Mincha, there is a single verse that every year would still send a chill down my spine. “And with a male you shall not lie the lyings of a woman, it is an abomination.” Hearing it would bring back my own memories of pain, huddled in a corner of the shul sobbing with my talit over my head. On Yom Kippur especially, the verse would bring to mind the many vulnerable and frightened gay teenagers hearing it.
This year I felt a new sense of resilience and hope born of a broader cultural shift. A few months ago the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, marking the end of a cultural accusation and the beginning of a new conversation in America, and in my Orthodox community as well.

This year, the leading American Orthodox rabbinic organization, the Rabbinic Council of America (RCA), finally rejected reparative therapy. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, urged the Orthodox world to tone down its strident rhetoric on homosexuality. A young Orthodox rabbi, Shmuly Yanklowitz, publicly identified himself as an LGBT ally, and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Los Angeles wrote that, given that homosexuality is likely a “feature of the human condition,” gay people “should not any longer have to pay the psychological, emotional and even physical price for our theological comfort.”

These shifts have not occurred in a vacuum. Gay Jews have been capturing the attention of the Orthodox community by their courage. An openly gay student, Amram Altzman, successfully pressed Ramaz Yeshivah High School to support his bid for a club that serves as the school’s GSA (gay-straight alliance). Gidon Feen, a student at the Cooper Yeshiva of Memphis, publicly came out of the closet at his graduation after party. 

In the past coming out meant leaving the Orthodox community, or at the very least, not making your circumstances a topic of conversation. Your family might have you home for holidays, but not with your partner; you might be welcome to your rabbi’s house for Shabbat meals, as long as you share nothing about your life.  More and more, young people are asking family members for both honest communication and loving embrace. They are feeling that it is their right to stay within Orthodox communities and be open about who they are, and they are seeking rabbis and communities that will avail them of that right.

But what is especially different this year is that our allies are changing the face of the Orthodox world.
Gay people are roughly, by conservative estimates, 5 percent of any population. If every gay person has five relatives who might be ready to speak up for him or her, the force for change grows exponentially to 30 percent. Add five friends and the number grows to more than half. For this reason, allies of all sorts are important. Supportive straight friends are key to high school students, making coming out a much less harrowing ordeal.    Gavriel Goldstein, a straight friend who helped Gidon through the coming out process, wrote about it in a touching piece that he posted on his blog   

( When siblings move through embarrassment and confusion to alliance, they can be a powerful source of support and encouragement. When parents get over their own fear and guilt and recognize their kids for who they are, they become compelling forces for pragmatic change. 

Eshel, a national Orthodox LGBT support education organization that I helped to found, ran a conference for Orthodox parents of LGBT children in April this year. It was a moving and transformative event that gave them courage. One parent walked out of shul when his rabbi began a sharply worded sermon against the Boy Scouts of America for their “capitulation to rising gay tolerance.” To his surprise, his protest was taken up by five of his friends who joined him in this expression of frustration.

Another attending couple, Kenneth and Jeannie Prager, got permission from their Orthodox rabbi to lead an hour and a half discussion on their experience of being parents of a lesbian daughter. As a result an ad hoc group of members formed to move the shul towards a clearer policy of welcome.

While it is the rabbi’s job to determine halacha, the role of allies is to place before the rabbi the human elements that hang in the balance. A mother can explain that the rabbi's rejection of her eldest son is destroying the religious life of her younger two sons, who no longer have faith in a tradition that is actively harming their big brother. What allies of all sorts can do is call us all to fully bear our responsibility for the well-being of the LGBT kids who have been erased, if not deeply wounded, in Orthodox institutions that can and should do better.

What made listening to the afternoon Torah reading this past Yom Kippur very different was a growing feeling that the work of the past decade has brought us to a tipping point, not with regard to halacha, per se, but with regard to the young people who are just beginning to navigate being gay in the Orthodox world, and who will no longer assume that these two identities are utterly incompatible.

In the words of Rabbi Kanefsky, “The reality of sexual orientation can and should bring us to a place in which we can accept our friends and children and siblings for who they are, grant them the dignity and respect that any person deserves, and love them as our own.” n

Rabbi Steven Greenberg is a co-director of Eshel, an organization working toward the integration of Orthodox LGBT Jews into their families and communities. Eshel is launching the Orthodox Allies Roundtable (OAR) to mobilize family members and friends to respectfully urge their religious leaders to be responsible to LGBT people (

gay, GSA, Orthodox Jews, Steven Greenberg

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"Thinking Clearly" says: ". . . love cannot negate any wrongdoing. For based on your [Rekal's] logic all the negative commandments could or should, from your viewpoint, be allowed.

While his objection has merit if taken literally, one problem with it is that authentic love doesn't drive one to do wrong [Corinthians 13]. That being the case, in principle there is no conflict between homosexual love, if it's authentic, and the negative commandments.

The $64 question is: Is there such a thing as "authentic homosexual love"? "Thinking Clearly" simply assumes that there is not. Except he begs the question. Isn't whether homosexuality is a sin or not the very point in dispute? in other words, "Thinking Clearly" assumes that which he's obliged to prove?

Interestingly, "Thinking Clearly" relies on passages in the Torah and Old Testament, for example, Leviticus, to make his case against homosexuality. In other words, he has surrendered his rational faculty to an external authority. But the Old Testament admonishes us to reason together. And that's just what I intend to do.

The Torah and Old Testament are not to be interpreted blindly. Only a prophet speaks directly the will of God. The rest of us must hash the meaning of things out on our own using reasoning. So someone quoting this or that passage from some revered document to make his case against homosexuality is not nor should not be of itself compelling.

As a matter of fact, recent exegesis of the clobber passages in Leviticus and Romans by Christian scholars of ancient languages pulls the rug out from under religious homophobes who too long have used them as a justification for stigmatizing, persecuting, and killing homosexuals.

No longer can homophobes deploy those scriptures unchallenged to justify their calling committed homosexual relationships an abomination. The case is now as strong against the traditional homophobic interpretation of the clobber passages as the case for it. Did I say "as strong"? I mean to say, "stronger."

Lastly, if the orthodoxish rabbis belonging to the Rabbinical Council of America have altered the direction of their thinking on the subject of homosexuality, tacitly condemning themselves for the position they took in the past on it, that same-sex attraction is socially acquired and therefore curable [the assumption of the now thoroughly discredited reparative therapy hoax], which they now no longer think, then what other change in their thinking are they going to surprise us with in the future on the selfsame subject? Or are they finished thinking?

You Torah-loving and Leviticus-loving homophobes look out. I sense a gale coming that will blow you right off your feet and away. All I have to say is, good riddance.

Plain and simple. No matter what this "rabbi" writes and feels, no matter how cogently he or others may argue or present their case, there is no human being who can change, manipulate, or interpret authentic halacha to make male intercourse or certain other sexual activities allowable. To do so is a complete distortion of the Torah.

We all want to be accepted. This is one topic which should--and unequivocally must be-- taboo, because it cannot be reconciled with Torah and halacha. We may want to be heard, we may be looking for that "life raft of savior", but no honest thinking person or 'rabbi' can, in good faith, give a heter to this deviant lifestyle. It is warped and impeded from the get-go. It is so antithetical to everything holy that we believe in, how can anyone believe otherwise?

If you choose to live this way k'neged Torah, don't "come out" and look for acceptance from anyone, especially family and friends. You are putting them in an unnecessary and extremely difficult position, much like needing to choose between life and death if only 1 of 2 people could be saved.

Torah and gaiety don't mix, that's just a simple fact. Would you "come out" and go public with your social security number, bank accounts, annual salary, or other sensitive information? No rational thinking person would. Just be smart and keep your choice private, should you choose to live this way.

And yes, I also suffer from this affliction. But to flaunt it and make it a public issue by trying to gain acceptance is a Chilul Hashem and terribly wrong. And at the end of the day, after searching for acceptance and all the heterim, solace, warmth and false hope offered by 'rabbis' such as these and others, everyone has to answer and account for their actions. We all one day will be the star of the show after 120. There will be a final judgement day for all of us. Do you honestly and sincerely believe that the Creator will buy into all of this narishkeit and falsehood after we know He is one who despises zimah, sheker and sexual impropriety? Heaven help us if you do!

You seem relatively intelligent. Why not subscribe to the Journal of American Medicine? I have for years and many years ago it was proved postmortem that there are physiological differences between homosexual and heterosexual men, (women were not studied at the time). At most homosexuality might be considered a birth defect. I am gay and have known I was "different" from very early childhood. In the deepest recesses of my heart I know I am living as the person God intended me to be and not to do so would be a sin. God certainly would not deny a person with Downs Syndrome the Kingdom of Heaven because of an extra chromosome, nor would He a homosexual.

In 2008 the battle in California over legalizing gay marriage first provoked me to investigate the topic. Before that time I was a knee-jerk Christian, too trusting in the arm of my leaders' flesh. I intended to read the pros of gay marriage online in order to refute the arguments for it and defend my religious leaders' assumptions on homosexuality and gay marriage. But as I went from link to link I found that the case for gay marriage was logically and scientifically much stronger than the case against it, which was hopelessly mired in unthinking scripture quoting and/or a mindless appeal to tradition and/or just plain misinformation or gross ignorance. Do homophobes ever read? I made for the first time in my life an immediate 180-degree turn in the direction of my views on a subject.

The only logically reputable argument I found for banning gay marriage was the LDS leaders' argument, which I got off of a television news program, not the Internet, which is that legalizing gay marriage would lead to a generation of moral morons who would not defend liberty. Their argument boiled down to protecting liberty. Now, this is a reputable argument. Unfortunately, it's a factual, not a logical, argument. As such it's reliability rests on whether it is, indeed, a fact that a country that legalizes gay marriage threatens the liberty of its citizens by its future generations becoming moral morons. Gay marriage has not been legalized long enough in Spain, Denmark, Argentina, and so on, for that factual prediction to be tested. We'll have to wait at least a generation to find out what happens. So far no measurable effect one way or the other on the morals of the people has been detected in the countries that have legalized gay marriage.

However, if it turns out to be true, and liberty is threatened, then an argument from preemption [self-defense] would justify outlawing gay marriage, all other things being equal. The problem is that all other things are seldom equal, and every event or circumstance has an infinity of relations leading up to it and from it. Deciphering which are relevant to the purpose at hand would not be easy. Supposing a future generation of a country that legalized gay marriage became moral morons. How would you demonstrate a causal correlation? Hume warns against confusing conjunction for correlation. In any event, until then the argument for gay marriage is obviously logically and scientifically stronger than against it.

As well, the argument for gay marriage is based on the fact that all men are endowed with equal rights, among which is the right of adults to enter into voluntary contracts, including a marriage contract. The legitimate function of government is not social engineering through determining the terms of a contract a priori, fostering some and forbidding others. Government is justified only in being a posteriori an arbiter of contract disputes. What I'm trying to say is that sanctioning contracts is not a legitimate function of government. Settling disputes impartially is.

Religious leaders cannot quote Jesus to justify their homophobia because in the three years of His ministry, though homosexuality was rampant in the Roman world at that time, He wisely passed over the subject in total silence, which I think has implications unfriendly to the homophobes among us. What did He know about the subject that the vocal homophobes since didn't and still don't? It was the apostate Catholic Church hierarchy who began the jihad against homosexuals and homosexuality in Europe. That should be a warning.

When I read that 10% of the male population of most mammalian and fowl species is born homosexual, e.g., penguins, dolphins, elephants, horses, lions, etc., and when I read that the same 10% homosexual figure was the self-attribution of men of NYC in 1901 in a survey, and again in 2001, 100 years later, when the same survey was taken, 10% of the male population of NYC declaring themselves to be homosexuals, I realized that homosexuality is a constant of nature, that male penguins and lions cannot be socialized to be homosexual, that after 100 years of dramatic changes and liberalization of sexual mores in America, the number of men who say they're homosexual has not increased a single percentage point, as you'd think it would, again, all indicating we have on our hands a constant of nature. That's when I said to myself, in response to all the homophobia in the Orthodox Jew and fundamentalist Christian religious communities, "Enough is enough."

God created 10% of the male population of mammalian and fowl species as homosexuals. And He didn't create them to be reviled and persecuted, to be clobbered by Biblical passages that for thousands of years have been wildly misinterpreted. Thinking Clearly, I suggest you read some of the Christian exegesis on Genesis and Leviticus and see if there is any merit in rejecting your traditional Jew interpretation of scriptures that have been used to condemn homosexuality as such. Scholars are now reinterpreting the same passages I'm sure you have in mind as not condemning a committed homosexual relationship but rather ritual uncleanliness, sexual practices of idol worshipers, male temple prostitution, and so on. The reinterpretation of Genesis and Leviticus is based on identifying the original vocabulary used.

I know personally the weight of the burden you're carrying on your shoulders. I feel it because it used to be my burden. No more. I'm much older and wiser. When I was a young man I was radical in my assumptions. And they were, I now know, based on ignorance and too great a trust in religious leaders who were homophobes who themselves now confess their own ignorance on the subject. I'm waiting for them to ask for forgiveness, but not holding my breath. I've discovered a completely new interpretation of the story of Sodom and Gommorah, one which goes further than all other reinterpretations, much more radical than speculation the sin of Sodom was merely lack of hospitality to travelers. My discovery turns the traditional interpretation on its head and once and for all takes away from homophobes in the Orthodox Jew and fundamentalist Christian communities at least one weapon they've been wielding for centuries to clobber homosexuals with.

You need to lift the weight off your shoulders. I think I can help you do that. Submit a reply if you like. I'll look for it.

Do you know nothing of humanity or love or kindness which is also in the Torah and overrides everything - I may not accept your contorted words of maligned deference but that does not give me the right to judge you - I reserve that right to something else

love does not "override everything"; if it did, we'd similarly eliminate any ban on intermarriage and the various intra-family relationships which are similarly prohibited.

love "overrides everything" in story books.

While you are correct that humanity, love and kindness are an inherent part of the Torah, it is NOT an overriding factor as you so suggest. It IS part of a merciful approach we strive to offer the world, and hope and pray for from G-d. But unlike 'rabbi' avi weiss and others of that ilk, love and kindness does not allow anything to go and be permitted. Indeed, this is a very silly approach taken by those who are in desperate need of doing what they want.

Think about it. Love cannot negate any wrong doing, for based on your logic, all the negative commandments could, or should from your viewpoint, be allowed. This is obviously not the case as we see clearly delineated in the Torah the various punishments meted out for an array of sins, including KORAIS for mishkav zachor. Love will not mitigate this, so please stop trying to convince yourself otherwise.

Thinking and acting based on this silliness is the act of a foolish person who wants to bypass the system with a seemingly easy loophole. Sexual impropriety is on a high level and cannot be bypassed, no matter what the reason you find for it may be. The only case which was allowed after certain restrictions was a Yefas Toar. Short of that, you're out of luck.

You may not want like or want to accept this fact, so you dream on of "love conquering all". It doesn't -- and it won't give license for any type of behavior banned or shunned by the Torah. Plain and simple.

While we all would love a free ticket, there is none. Everyone earns their just rewards and as well their just punishments, hopefully sprinkled together with love and mercy by our Creator after 120. To live in a fantasy world of "anything goes" because of love....well, that is living in a delusion of love!

I find the article by Rabbi Greenberg
to be a distortion of the Orthodox Rabbis
actually said and did. The position of
both Rabbi Helfgot and the RCA in
general is to criticize the inflammatory
rhetoric within the Orthodox community,
to deal honestly and compassionately with
same sex attraction and to end abusive
treatment such as reparative therapy.
It is not however, to declare same sex
intimacy as permissible, thereby radically
altering Halacha. To do effectively is to
leave Orthodox Judaism. Essentially,
same sex intimacy is the same as any
other violation of Halacha, be Kashrut or
One of the problem shown is the op-ed
article is that there supporters of gay marriage
who can not accept the right of those to believe
that same sex intimacy is sinful. Tolerance
should be a two way street.


I choose to interpret the command for man to not lie with a man as a women very literally. If a heterosexual male uses another male for sexual relief, he is lying with him as a woman.

I assume that a homosexual male is not imagining his partner to be a woman, but lying with another male. And I argue we can and should choose to interpret this as outside the scope of the commandment.

As a 72 year old gay Jew, whose life experience Rabbi Greenberg would likely understand, I am disappointed in his writing. Yes, Orthodoxy is beginning to wake up to the harm it inflicts on young and old gay Jews, and young and old parents and relatives of gay Jews. Yet, Rabbi Greenberg appears to find some solace and hope in this while permitting Leviticus in synagogue to continue to inflict the same degree of harm. I am happy he is less unnerved. His writing, however, does nothing to stop ritual homophobia. Perhaps, as a teacher, he can tell us how to do that.

'A man shall not lie with a man as with a woman...' Nothing said now, nor EVER about 'a woman shall not lie with a woman as with a man...' Yet the rabbis and others concluded via the two Levitical verses which address homosexuality to be condemning all homosexuality. They were obviously wrong. If this Torah verse merely said a man shall not lie with a man, then this verse would be condemning male homosexuality. However it does not say that, it says... as with a woman. However this is what most gay men do. That is the top/botton role play, which is man/woman roles. If, as I've heard is the case with Rabbi Greenberg, one eschews sodomy or anal sex then I do not believe one is violating this commandment. I certainly do not need and would never trust any rabbi (or other religious leader) to interpret this or any other Torah law for me. I can read and think for myself. Besides their track record of being the leaders of 6 million dead followers speaks for itself and is the last straw.

you're projecting
most rabbinic authorities are silent on female homosexuality for a number of reasons.

I find this article to be so encouraging! To be honest, I had a somewhat disheartening day, and reading this helped turned it around.

Proper reparative therapy works!

you have no idea of the pain that the words hurt

That's an interesting comment for two reasons.

Number 1, you are not gay. Because you're not gay, you lack the insight into what it is like for gay people to hide their true selves in the Orthodox Jewish community. You absolutely cannot imagine the shame, deep depression, self-hatred, and suicidal thoughts these people endure daily. Suicide rates are much higher for gay Orthodox Jews who are struggling with being gay in their community. As a Jew, you should be concerned with the increase in suicide rate among this population.

Number 2, If you really believe "proper reparative therapy" works, allow me to refer you to read about Dr. Spitzer. As an introduction, perhaps you should read this article - it talks about Dr. Spitzer who spent his entire career doing conversion therapy.

Although you may disagree with me, I would encourage you to read more about the depression and suffering that gay Orthodox Jews go through everyday. Reading the word 'suffering' does not begin to describe the irreparable pain the Orthodox Jewish community has caused the gay Orthodox Jews. The Orthodox community has turned a blind eye to their own gay population. "Let's pretend they don't exist, and maybe they will go away" kind of attitude is common in this community......The Orthodox community at large should be deeply ashamed of themselves for this.

Gay Orthodox Jews desperately want a place in the Orthodox world. They don't want to be a spectacle, they don't want their fellow Orthodox Jews gossiping about them behind their backs - they simply want a place to practice Judaism in the Orthodox community. Last time I checked, every Jew deserves a place in, and has a basic right to be part of the Jewish community.


Lastly, to those Gay or Lesbian Orthodox Jews who might be reading this post, there is hope to live a happy life being who you truly are inside. You're not alone in this struggle.