Author Archives: Rabbi Steve Greenberg

Rabbi Steve Greenberg

About Rabbi Steve Greenberg

In 1999, Rabbi Steve Greenberg became the first out Orthodox rabbi. Five years later, Rabbi Greenberg published the award-winning "Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition." He also appears in the documentary "Trembling Before G-d."

Purim: Inside Out

is about concealment. More specifically, it is about movement from the covert to the overt. There is a sustained tension between what characters are and what they seem to be that moves the plot forward. It is the careful unraveling of disguises that makes for salvation.

Purim performance at the Jewish Theatre in Warszawa, Poland. March 2009.
The major characters are all Marranos disguised in costume. They all struggle to manage a powerful public persona while hiding an inner secret that, if revealed, would seem to undo them. By the end, everyone is unmasked.

King Ahashverosh, according to tradition, was not of royal blood; he had married into Persian royalty. Vashti was the true Persian princess and, because she refuses to take off her royal robes, she is banished or killed. She is the only one who refuses to dress up — or in this case down — as something she is not. Ahashverosh has risen to royal power, but he is not royal material. He is a foolish, pompous lush dressed in royal robes. He is also terrified of being challenged or used – and that is exactly what happens anyway.

Esther and Mordecai are closet Jews. Each is fearful of the consequences of being found out. Mordecai warns Esther not to reveal her identity. The people perceive Esther as a lovely Persian woman who has become a Persian queen. Mordecai is a statesman who is known in the king’s court. He does not flaunt his Jewish identity.

Haman is the scoundrel who, like Esther, is in the right place at the right time. Like the king, he rises to power without any merit. His secrets are his bloated ego and his hunger for royal power. Haman conceals all this from the king, including his irrational hatred of Mordecai.

The turn in the plot occurs when Mordecai is forced to choose between his inner and outer identities. Is he a Jew or a Persian noble? If he refuses to bow down to Haman, he will almost certainly lose his status among the Persian elite. If he bows, be understands that he will lose his inner Jewish self. In this moment of reckoning, Mordecai recognizes himself as a Jew and refuses to bow. The story isn’t clear as to how Mordecai’s secret if found out. Someone tells someone who tells Haman that this rude fellow is a Jew, and Haman begins his plot to avenge himself of Mordecai and his people.

Parashat Aharei Mot and Parashat Kedoshim: You Shall Be Holy


Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Rabbi Steve Greenberg deciphers deeper meaning in what appear to be the Levitical prohibitions of homosexuality.

Creative Common/GeminiSpaceshipPilot

Creative Common/GeminiSpaceshipPilot

The paired Torah portions of Aharei Mot and Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27) are, in gay Jewish terms, the “scene of the crime.” In these two portions are the two verses that are traditionally understood to excoriate gay male sex. In 1969 they were, as well, my bar mitzvah portion. At the age of 13 I had no idea that this double parasha would come to mean so much to me. By the time Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 came to have their full caustic power on my life, I was a closeted Orthodox rabbi living in Riverdale, New York, and involved in my first gay relationship. The high wire anxiety of this time led me to a showdown of sorts. I needed to make some sense of my life in light of these verses in order to continue in good faith, not only as an Orthodox rabbi, but as a committed Jew. (more…)

The Real Sin of Sodom

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Rabbi Steve Greenberg re-examines the real sin of the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and considers the modern-day implications of their misdeeds.

Jerusalem Gay Pride. Wiki Commons/Guy Yitzhaki

Jerusalem Gay Pride. Wiki Commons/Guy Yitzhaki

This week [in 2006], daily riots erupted in Jerusalem’s streets as the Haredi (“Ultra-Orthodox”) community violently protested the upcoming Jerusalem Gay Pride march, scheduled for November 10. Haredi youths pelted police officers with large stones, blocks, bottles, angle irons, and wood planks. Posters lined the streets promising the payment of thousands of shekels to any zealot who would kill a “sodomite” marching in the parade. The riots were so intense that it became necessary for Haredi rabbinic leaders to come to the scene with megaphones and encourage the crowds to disperse. In another act of intolerance, the Edah Haredit, a right-wing Haredi rabbinical court, pronounced a rabbinic curse – a
pulsa danura
– on those organizing the march and against the policemen defending the marchers. (more…)

Balance Of Power

Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

Parashat Shoftim is about power. It tells how a holy people is also a people of realpolitik living out its life on the land. In ancient Israel, there were two formal institutions of governance, the executive branch and the priestly order, each with certain built-in limits of power.

A king is needed to focus and direct the state, particularly during wartime. The king’s powers are limited by the scroll of the teaching. He is commanded to make a copy of the Torah scroll for himself and keep it with him always. The teaching serves as a general constitutional framework, but there are three explicit rules that apply specifically to the king. He must not have many wives, many horses, or much gold and silver. The political, military and economic power of the king is thus limited functionally and symbolically.

The Temple serves as the locus for another leadership force. The priests and Levites manage the Temple, conduct its sacrifices, instruct the people in the details of worship and ritual purity, provide musical accompaniment, and organize the festivals. They are the preservers of sacred memory.

Their power too is limited. They are not to receive a portion when the land is divided between the tribes. They are to eat of contributions, tithes and special offerings of the people. Those charged with the task of preserving sacred memory cannot be burdened with the toil of making a living from the land. But they are also deprived of the access to power that the land entails. They, unlike their people, are not of the land and are consequently freer perhaps to dream, less shackled to horizontal limits. As it says, "They shall have no portion among their brother tribes; the Lord is their portion" (Deuteronomy 18:2).

Scouting For Self-Confidence

The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Before entering the land of Canaan to conquer it, the people want to investigate. Twelve tribal princes are chosen to spy out the land. It seems like a reasonable request. It makes sense to send scouts ahead to prepare for the conquest. The Israelites need to know which approach is best, where the concentrations of people are, and which cities are well fortified. But is that the intent here? A military action should be covert. It would require a couple of good soldiers, not a contingent of twelve princes.

Something else is happening here. It is evident in Moses’ address to the spies. They are to report whether the land is good or bad, fat or lean. These aren’t a tactician’s questions. These are questions one might ask a real estate agent when viewing a property. This entourage is scouting the land to see if it’s beautiful enough, if it’s safe enough.

It’s not the land that is being tested here. It is the people and their sense of adequacy. What the spies reveal has little to do with the land and much to do with themselves. It comes across clearly when they describe the inhabitants of the land: “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:33). These princes of Israel are presumably most self-possessed and confident of the lot, the least affected by the degradations of Egyptian slavery. Yet even these leaders fail to see themselves as more than insects. The power of self-hatred ingrained in one’s youth is not easily overcome.

Truly self-hating people assume that God hates them, too. Moses later says that the people cried in their tents saying that God “hates us… [God] brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to wipe us out” (Deuteronomy 1:27). Only a people certain of God’s love, confident of their innate worthiness and strength, can enter the land of the covenant.

Fairness In The Marketplace

The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

"When you sell property to your neighbor or buy property from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another." (Leviticus 25:14)

The Hebrew for wronging is ona’ah, which in other contexts seems to mean the exploitation of a weaker party by a stronger. The rabbis apply this verse to a common "wronging" in business, deceptive overcharge. The limit of overcharge deemed legitimate is one-sixth the market value. For example, if a jeweler deliberately raised the price of an object with a clear market value so the overcharge was over one-sixth the market designated price, then the sale can be invalidated.

Ona’ah protects the seller as well. If a mistake occurred, and the seller sold an object for more than one-sixth below the designated market price, then he has the right, within a certain time limit, to void the sale and recover the object.

If you announce up front that you are overcharging, then it’s not ona’ah. Ona’ah only applies to an overcharge when the buyer or the seller, unaware of the market price, is unknowingly duped. When disclosed, any price is fair. However, if the commodity in question is a basic life necessity, then even if the overcharge is disclosed it is deemed ona’ah and is recoverable.

Ona’ah teaches that business ought not prey upon the naivete of a buyer. The less the buyer knows about the product and its fair value, the greater the danger the seller will violate ona’ah. On a larger scale, ona’ah might require a public policy of full disclosure of the market prices of basic commodities. At the very least, it affirms that consumer awareness and equal access to market information are central to the fairness of the marketplace.

Reminders Of Love

Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

The Joseph story, full of abrupt turns and starts, deceptive intrigues, and dramatic reversals, arrives at its climax with Judah coming forward to address Joseph. Benjamin, who has been caught red-handed with a sacred divining cup, must remain a slave in Egypt. The brothers are given permission to return to their father.

The re-enactment of the sale of Joseph is complete. If they return without Benjamin, the horror will be repeated. If the brothers go home, the covenantal family will no doubt be ripped apart beyond repair. Jacob will die of grief. Joseph will have gambled everything and lost.

Joseph’s Leadership

Paradoxically, it is Joseph’s leadership that enraged them, that catapulted him into power, and that manipulated them into this dangerous situation. Joseph can no longer do anything to save them or the covenant that they share. Now they need a redeemer, a leader who in the midst of confusion and guilt can still speak. "And Judah came forward" (Genesis 44:18).

Judah argues that to punish Benjamin, the beloved child, is to punish Jacob as well. His appeal is emotional and personal. Judah then reverses "Am I my brother’s keeper" through a self-sacrificing act of protection, offering to take Benjamin’s place. Unaware that Joseph is his brother, Judah cuts through the clouds of despair and reminds Joseph of his father’s love.

Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev says that Joseph is like God in this scene and Judah represents Israel. There are times when confusion and pain obscure the mission of the people. But the true leader reminds us and God that we are the beloved chosen children. Although the blows of our erratic history have disoriented us and, at times we deeply misunderstood our role, like Judah, we will be ready for a new reconciliation with God, each other and our destiny.