Same-sex rights proponents suffered an unusual loss this week when a federal judge in Louisiana upheld the state’s ban on gay marriage, bucking a domino-like chain of favorable rulings on the issue. Overall, 21 states have toppled bans since the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013–a trend that reflects a remarkable shift in pubic opinion. In general, Jews have been at the forefront of this shift: More than 80 percent of Jewish Americans now support gay marriage, according to a recent survey by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute.
But while Jewish Reform circles have long supported gay rights, the same is far from true in the Orthodox world. In the past three decades, the dominant Orthodox understanding of homosexuality has undergone a dramatic shift of its own: from rebellion against God, to mental illness, to at least one Orthodox rabbi calling homosexuality merely “a feature of the human condition.” Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, co-founder of Eshel and author of Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, explains the shift and its relation to changing American attitudes to Moment. –Rachel E. Gross.
Did you expect the dramatic attitude shift in America toward gay rights?
It’s a remarkable cultural transformation. I would not have imagined that attitudes would have changed this quickly. It’s true that the Orthodox world is still lagging painfully behind. But it’s moving. And moving, I think, in really impressive ways.
How has the change been understood in the Orthodox Jewish community?
We’ve gone from homosexuality being a demonic evil, to an sinful proclivity, to curable illness and finally to an aspect of the human condition. In the early 1970s there was little understanding of homosexuality as a phenomenon. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a broadly accepted contemporary Orthodox halachic decisor of the period, constructed a very dark portrayal of homosexuality. For him, there was no such thing as a human sexual desire of this sort; same-sex desire was a regressive viciousness, an active rebellion against God, humanity and nature to destroy civilization.
Later Orthodox authorities, especially as people began to come out to them, rejected the demonic view. Homosexual desire was deemed unfortunate, rather than vicious, but acting upon it was still sharply prohibited. It was a short distance from this view to explain same-sex desire as a curable mental illness. Following in the footsteps of some in the Christian community in the 1980s, the Jewish community created “reparative therapy” programs of various sorts. It took nearly 20 years for the Orthodox community to face the facts, but finally in December of 2012 the Rabbinical Council America removed all reference to such programs and effectively rejected reparative therapy, which had been a cornerstone of their approach to the challenges of homosexuality.
Presently, most Orthodox environments are split between moving carefully toward empathy and decidedly not toward embrace. There is a growing sense in the Orthodox community that homosexuality is just the way some of us are made. This realization has been best expressed best by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky in Los Angeles, who wrote in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal last year “that it is likely that homosexuality is a feature of the human condition” and that as such we shouldn’t make gay and lesbian people pay the emotional and physical prices for our theological comfort. Few Orthodox rabbis are brave enough to say this or write it publicly, but many of Kanefsky’s colleagues agree with him in theory and some are, without fanfare or announcement, already constructing policy on the foundations of such a sensibility.
That kind of transformation occurred in 45 years. That arc is quite dramatic. And it’s still in motion.
What do you attribute this dramatic shift to?
People have come out at a younger age, shared their stories, and their families and friends see them living decent lives in partnership. It doesn’t look like either the shadowy gay world of the 1950s or the rather orgiastic frames of the Pride Parades. The movement is toned down, and people are getting on with real lives rather than defining their sexuality as either a critique or a rejection of other norms. What’s also happening is young people are finding partners and making families. So the picture of the threatening gay person is being replaced by the lovely couple across the street raising two kids.
In your opinion, what should be the role of the Orthodox community?
On issues like this, the Orthodox community doesn’t lead. We tend to be hesitant to jump on new trends at first blush. We’re an interesting testing ground for new ideas because we move so slowly; the incremental shifts can be assessed, each on their own. The Orthodox community’s job is to slow down the process of change in order to understand the implications of what change might mean.
As a religiously conservative lot, we tend to highlight fear and potential loss more than opportunity. Change is scary. We’re not wrong in claiming that there are prices to pay for grand moves that shift cultural resources in a flash. Orthodoxy as a culture can help us to pay attention to the unintended consequences that every normative change entails. As a community, we remain aware that everything is connected. The freedom of expression that LGBT people rightly desire may well have consequences that we cannot now know. While the justice of the change we seek may be overriding, paying moral attention requires a broad consideration of how any shift in norms will impact upon us all.
What are some of the negatives?
There are costs to moving slowly. Lots of people’s lives are put on hold. People feel bad about themselves because the community can’t acknowledge who they are. Increasingly, people are leaving the fold, walking away from religious life altogether because people feel that no reasonable life, no hope for love and companionship, no place of embrace and understanding has been offered them. More and more young people attracted to the communal and intellectual and spiritual elan of traditional Judaism are rejecting it because of its treatment of gay people. As I said in my book, I believe that avoiding the issue of sexuality and gender at this moment of history will prove disastrous. It will, in the words of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the celebrated Israeli Orthodox thinker, “endanger the very continuation of Torah and mitzvah Judaism in our world.”
Is it difficult to remain a part of a community that in some ways rejects you?
I’m Orthodox and I’m a pluralist. There are no perfect communities. Every belonging in our world is a mixture of excellences and weaknesses. We all choose the Jewish contexts, shuls, schools, movements by the excellences that we cherish and by the weaknesses that we can deal with. I chose the Orthodox community because its excellences for me are incredibly rich and its weaknesses I can strive to fix, and in the interim, live with.
Rabbi Steven Greenberg is a senior teaching fellow at The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL); founder and co-director of Eshel, an Orthodox LGBT support, education and advocacy organization; and serves on the faculty of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He lives with his partner Steven Goldstein and his daughter Amalia in Boston.