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Gay Orthodox rabbi offers message of inclusion

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Steven Greenberg decided to become a religiously observant Jew when he was about 15 years old, and decided to become an Orthodox rabbi when he was 20.

Those were relatively quick decisions to make.

The decision to come out as a gay Orthodox rabbi took a little longer.

Greenberg finally took that step 16 years after being ordained at Yeshiva University's theological seminary, coming out in an article he wrote for the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv. At the time, Greenberg was working at CLAL, the New York-based National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, where he is now director of diversity projects and a senior teaching fellow.

"I finally decided to say the truth," he said. "I realized that God knows me as I am and loves me."

Since coming out, Greenberg has become widely known as the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi.

He spoke about that unique status, as well as several other topics, when he was in Winnipeg recently as a guest of the University of Manitoba Judaic studies program, local synagogues and Limmud. Limmud is the city's annual Jewish learning and cultural conference.

Ben Baader, co-ordinator of the U of M Judaic studies program, helped arrange for Greenberg's visit. He was familiar with the rabbi from his involvement with Eshel, an organization established to help Orthodox LGBT Jews maintain their observance and connect to welcoming and accepting religious communities. Greenberg is a director of the organization.

"He is an important scholarly voice on issues of sexuality and Judaism," Baader said.

Greenberg's university talks reflected that expertise, examining rabbinic interpretations of the sex and sexuality found in the Bible and same-sex love in traditional Jewish culture.

At the Limmud gathering, he spoke about the search for a unique marital ritual for gay Jews, and homosexuality and Halacha. Halacha is the collective body of religious laws.

Baader also arranged for the rabbi to speak during the Sabbath at congregation Herzlia -- Adas Yeshurun, a local Orthodox synagogue.

"The rabbi's talk was less about the theological or Jewish legal perspective and more about how to create a more welcoming community," said Rabbi Ari Ellis, Herzlia's spiritual leader.

"We were thrilled to have the rabbi come and those who came learned a lot from his personal stories and challenges."

Greenberg writes and speaks extensively about his experiences as an Orthodox gay rabbi, and is constantly challenging Jewish communities and congregations across North America to become more hospitable, inclusive and accepting of GLBT community members.

He did this most eloquently in his book, Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, and in the 2001 award-winning documentary film, Trembling Before God.

In that film, which recounts the spiritual and emotional challenges confronted by Orthodox Jewish homosexual men and women, Greenberg expands eloquently on the personal angst he felt every time he read Leviticus 18:22. That verse, which has traditionally been interpreted as a prohibition against sexual relations between men, is read on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish religion.

"I realized that my willingness to be vulnerable to the text required the text to be vulnerable to me and everybody like me," Greenberg said in the film. "I realized the people who decide what this verse means had never heard my story, never heard our stories, and if they did they would no longer be so certain about what that verse means."

Greenberg became a rabbi because of his love of Torah study and his desire to impart the Torah's wisdom to contemporary Jews.

By standing up and speaking out as an openly gay Orthodox rabbi, he does that on a constant basis. He may be imparting the Torah's wisdom in a way the ancient rabbis could not have imagined, but he does it in a way that inspires GLBT observant Jews to remain comfortable in their orthodoxy, and accepted and embraced by their congregations and communities.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 J12

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