As the gay rights movement has developed and restructured our secular and Jewish worlds, we have witnessed a change in perception regarding gay rights among North Americans. With realistic (and non-stereotypical) gay characters and couples abounding on TV shows, the legalization of gay marriage in the state of New York, and the Conservative movement’s ordination of the first openly gay rabbi in 2011, it comes as no surprise that the Orthodox Jewish community has begun to wrestle with the seeming paradox of open homosexuality in Orthodox practice. While the debate is not new (the 2001 provocative documentary, Trembling Before God certainly attests to this), we must thank Rabbi Steven Greenberg, an openly gay Orthodox rabbi, for his dedication to shaking up the protocol regarding gays in the Orthodox world. His advocacy, both through his words and actions, has pushed the bounds of Halacha (Jewish law).
Rabbi Greenberg’s recent article, “A Place for Gays in Orthodoxy,” in the Jewish Daily Forward, specifically articulates the steps necessary to allow for Orthodox Judaism to make room for gays in the Orthodox community. His words are particularly potent, as they speak to the struggles of gay individuals, both Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Rabbi Greenberg explains:
I was recently told in a single New York City psychiatric clinic there is a suicide attempt by a gay Orthodox person yearly. Sadly, the healthiest of these young people, having read the tea leaves years earlier, decide that they will have no life in the Orthodox world and are no longer frum by the time their parents find out.
Though Rabbi Greenberg does demand Orthodox rabbis to begin to reevaluate their Halachic interpretation of homosexuality, he more importantly calls for actions that can immediately affect the lives of gay individuals dealing with communal rejection. To ensure that gay Orthodox Jews do not desert the movement for more accepting communities, Orthodox Judaism should follow in the footsteps of their sister movements and take ownership of a “welcoming” mindset. It cannot be just the Orthodox family’s acceptance of the gay family member. It cannot be just Rabbi Greenberg and a few Orthodox rabbis who secretly articulate the profound conundrums they face. Instead, “communal expectations,” which can degrade the dignity of gay community members, must be eliminated.
Rabbi Greenberg bravely calls for bold action: Orthodox Judaism must allow gay participation, whether in the synagogue service, on boards, or in informal gatherings. While he admits that it is far-fetched to expect any Orthodox commitment ceremonies, like the one he performed in November 2011, Orthodox communities can (and in a handful of cases, already do!) open their tents to gay individuals, couples, and families. Providing a welcoming community for gay Orthodox Jews will ensure that they are treated as any other Jew, born to express his “‘physical and psychic being.’”
While there is no doubt much progress to be made, we at the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) commend Rabbi Greenberg for his bravery. The 100 signatures censuring his officiating of the same-sex commitment ceremony cannot be dismissed. There will surely be more backlash and hand-wringing on the part of Orthodox leaders in the years to come. However, the Orthodox community is making progress, beginning to open its doors, and may slowly be taking in the message of inclusion. We at JOI hope this happens sooner, rather than later.