Thursday, January 20, 2011
Openly gay Orthodox rabbi to speak at Blue Bell synagogue
Steven Greenberg, an openly gay Orthodox rabbi, will be part of a weekend dedicated to learning about becoming more inclusive at Tiferet Bet Israel.
Set for Jan. 28 to 30, the Blue Bell congregation, located at 1920 Skippack Pike, will host "Opening Our Tent ... Wider: A Shabbaton Dedicated to Welcoming and Understanding."
The weekend's main speaker will be Greenberg, who has made waves in Judaism during the past decade with his work to integrate homosexuality and the Jewish community.
Now based in Cincinnati, Greenberg has been a rabbi since 1983. In 1999, he openly addressed his homosexuality, becoming the first openly gay ordained Orthodox rabbi.
Since then, he has become an active speaker and writer on issues of faith and sexuality. He appeared in the 2001 documentary "Trembling Before G-d," which told the stories of gay and lesbian Jews, and he wrote 2004's "Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition."
Greenberg said he decided to speak out about his sexuality to address the ongoing problems gays and lesbians within the Jewish community were facing.
"It shouldn't be too surprising that the reality of the traditional Orthodox Jewish communities is that people who are gay, lesbian or transgender have been seen as outsiders, as threats," he said in a recent phone interview. "My aim was to demonstrate the possibility of a form of Jewish life that would not exclude gay and lesbian people from it."
He said gay people within the community had few options.
"The standard expectation was that if you were gay you where either silent about it or you left," he said, noting the same thing happened with other religious communities. "The option of getting on with your life with neither exile nor silence was not really available."
Greenberg said since he has come out, he has met with a variety of responses. While some rabbis have been "somewhat mean-spirited," others have been "incredibly gracious," he said.
He said during the past five years, more and more rabbis have become empathetic, and while some are still resistant, more congregations have become welcoming to gays and lesbians.
Greenberg said through all of his work, he hopes to show people how to view Judaism in a way that is open to gay, lesbian and transgender people.
"My aim is to demonstrate that there's a credible reading of the Hebrew Bible that makes room for us, that allows communities and families to offer a decent life for a lesbian or a gay kid for whom the hetero-normative life plan just won't work," he said. "The inability of a religion to offer a credible life trajectory for gay and lesbian people diminishes its claim to being a powerful vision for humanity and instead makes it into an exclusive club for straight folks."
Greenberg will bring that message to Tiferet Bet Israel next weekend, as he discusses a variety of issues.
The event begins at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 28 with a congregational Shabbat dinner, for which reservations are required. Following that is a Kabbalat Shabbat service, which is open to the public, at 8 p.m. The service will begin with Greenberg addressing teenagers, followed by him sharing his personal story.
The next day, Greenberg will lead a discussion about "welcoming the stranger" at 9:30a.m. There then will be a lunch, followed by a teaching by Greenberg aimed at adults.
The weekend will conclude when Greenberg meets with members of the congregation's religious school Jan. 30.
"I'm going to talk about what we all need to do to make our schools, our camps, our synagogues safe for the young person who may feel hopeless," Greenberg said. "It's time everybody, including people who are on the right politically, recognizes that their rhetoric leads young people to believe their lives are not worth living. We really all need to take responsibility for shaping a world so that a 16-year-old has hope that life can be good."
Greenberg acknowledges issues that introduce difference can be hard, but he hopes a lecture series such as this one at Tiferet Bet Israel could help pave the way for more accepting communities.
"I want to admit that difference is hard for everybody, and nonetheless, it's still our obligation to be a loving and caring community and to push against our fears, to do the hard work to welcome in all different types of people," he said. "I want our places of worship to be places of refuge and not places of humiliation and rejection."