By the time Rabbi Steven Greenberg came to speak to the Hadar fellows on Wednesday for our shiur klali, I was relatively certain that I could give his life story. The night before, a few of the fellows and I had watched Trembling Before God, the 2001 documentary about the hidden lives of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews, which featured R’ Greenberg. In addition, we watched the extended interview with him that was included in the Trembling extras. During Sukkot I had also read R’ Greenberg’s book, Wrestling With God and Men, so I was well-schooled (perhaps creepily so?) in the life of R’ Greenberg by the time he came to speak. When he walked into the room, I had a moment of mental confusion, when my mind tried to reconcile the actual person sitting in front of me with the person I knew existed theoretically. I was having a movie star moment.
And then he began to speak about his life, both things I had heard, and new stories. It was very moving to be able to hear about his religious journey, and the turns it took as R’ Greenberg began to acknowledge his homosexuality, and to know that instead of sitting in front of a screen, we could actually interact with him. The topic of homosexuality and Judaism is one that my mind struggles with, as someone who believes that the issue of gay rights is the civil rights issue of my generation, and yet who has thrown her lot in with observant Judaism—which includes That Text (in my less generous moments, that title includes asterisks of profanity). When I listened to R’ Greenberg speak, I wasn’t just thinking about how halachic-based Judaism could honestly accept homosexuality, but the need for living within a halachic system that is moral. And while I feel frustration—at myself, at the universe—when I can’t accept a particular line of reasoning given by R’ Greenberg, I still have to acknowledge that the way in which I think about homosexuality in general, and homosexuality within Judaism in particular, is so different than the way I would have thought about it ten years earlier. As frustrating as the Jewish universe can be on this subject, R’ Greenberg’s willingness to talk, to open himself up for questioning and for judgment, has done so much in nudging people’s minds open. And as anyone who grew up on the Orthodox spectrum can tell you, that’s big.
R’ Greenberg ended with what is now my favorite drash. When God created the world, God performed each particular task on each of the first six days, and saw that it was good. The first mistake that God made, that God could not pronounce as “good,” and instead saw that “it was not good,” was Adam being alone. And before woman was created, God proceeded to (figuratively) throw animals at Adam so Adam could test all of them out. While God can handle everything in the universe, and create it to perfection, when it comes to the human heart, God needs a little help, as the human being must search for who to love.
And, in the end, it all comes down to love.