Wrestling with God and Men:
Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition
By Steven Greenberg
University of Wisconsin Press, 264 pages, $35.
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Queer Theory and the Jewish Question
Edited by Daniel Boyarin, Daniel Itzkovitz and Ann Pellegrini
Columbia University Press,
464 pages, $24.50
* * *
Imagine learning that, because of how you were born, God hates you. Imagine being raised in a traditional religious world, where obeying God is the primary value, and then, just as you were becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, coming to realize that you are incapable of doing so. Over the next several years, you try your hardest: You fight against the urge, repress it, deny it, even try to change it with aversion therapy. You can’t tell anyone, because even to reveal the truth would cast you out of the community. But, in private, you try, and try and try — and fail. What would you do?
Until recently, the only alternatives in the traditional Jewish world were to lie, to die or to leave. As they have throughout history, many gay Jews conceal their identities and marry people of the opposite sex. Today, they fill chatrooms and listservs with their private struggles. Many others cannot cope, and choose to end their lives. Although statistics for the Jewish community are not available, studies show that 30% of gay youth attempt suicide by the age of 16. About 276,000 American teenagers try to kill themselves every year, and it is estimated that a third of these attempts are related to homosexuality.
Many gay Jews leave behind the Orthodox world, or Judaism entirely, after experiencing what’s sometimes called a “Huck Finn moment.” In Mark Twain’s novel, a turning point occurs when Huck decides he’d rather help Jim, the runaway slave, even though he’s been taught he’ll go to hell as a consequence. “Well, I guess I’ll go to hell then,” Huck says, and follows his conscience instead of his religion.
Gay Orthodox rabbi Steve Greenberg is unsatisfied with these alternatives. His new book, “Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition” refuses to lie, die or leave. The book was born of Greenberg’s own years-long struggle as an Orthodox rabbi with a secret. When he did finally admit to himself and others that he was gay, he told the Forward, “I realized I would have to leave the rabbinate or make sense of it.”
He chose to stay, and “Wrestling with God and Men” is the result. The book is divided into four parts. The first discusses homosexuality in sacred Jewish texts — chiefly the prohibitions in Leviticus. The second addresses evidence of homosexuality in Jewish history, from David and Jonathan to homoerotic tales of the rabbis to medieval gay love poetry. The heart of the book tries to understand the meaning of the Leviticus prohibitions, and in the concluding chapters, Greenberg — recognizing that few Orthodox rabbis will accept the interpretations he has offered — suggests a basis for mutual respect and recognition between the Orthodox community and its gay and lesbian members.
Leviticus 18:22 states: “And with a male you shall not lie the lyings of a woman: it is a toevah.” Contrary to popular belief, Greenberg demonstrates that the verse is extremely unclear. The “lyings of a woman” is a unique phrase, echoed only one other time in the Bible, and a redundant one; the verse could simply say “You shall not lie with a man.” (The Hebrew word for “lie,” shachav, is unambiguously sexual.) The word “toevah,” rendered “abomination” by the Christian world, is actually closer in meaning to the word “taboo”: a practice done by other groups, but precisely for that reason, not done by us. (Elsewhere in the Torah, for example, we learn of practices that are toevah for Egypt, but not for Israel.) And, as it was for many centuries of Jewish discourse, lesbianism is not mentioned at all.
Yet even with these ambiguities, how does Greenberg reconcile the apparent prohibition of some forms of same-sex behavior with his own gay identity?
First, Greenberg claims that avoiding the issue is false consciousness. “I don’t want to get around Leviticus. I want to get into Leviticus, to find out what it really means,” he said. He recognizes that traditional interpretations of the verse expand it to prohibit all forms of homosexual behavior between men. But one Yom Kippur, when Greenberg deliberately took the aliyah containing the verse in question, he realized that “these verses have never been understood, because gay and lesbian people haven’t been at the table to interpret them and give their testimony. These verses are not known.” Therefore, his project is not one of apologetics — why it’s okay to be a gay Jew — but hermeneutics: trying to understand what a verse means, now that those who have been silenced are silent no longer.
The “new information” offered by formerly silenced gay and lesbian Jews is critical. If it is false consciousness for gay religious Jews to ignore Leviticus, it is also false consciousness for interpreters of Leviticus to ignore gay Jews. Clearly, God makes some people gay. What, then, is the meaning of the verse?
In fact, “Wrestling with God and Men” offers two answers to this question, one that Greenberg believes to be true, and another that he believes to be acceptable to those who don’t agree with him. Drawing on traditional sources as well as historical ones, Greenberg claims that, ultimately, Leviticus 18:22 is about violence and degradation. In the ancient world, people were divided sexually into penetrators and people who were penetrated. To be in the latter category was to be demeaned; in most cultures, it included only women, slaves and non-adult boys. In typical fashion, ancient Judaism extended the sphere of moral consideration, and said that no man should be “womanized.” Greenberg observes that the verse really says “V’et zachar” which is better rendered “And to a man you shall not lie…” rather than “And with a man.” In this reading, penetration is something done to a person, not with them, and it is a form of humiliation. What the verse says, in effect, is “Don’t make a woman of a man.”
Greenberg’s reading has several attractive features. First, it makes linguistic sense of an otherwise puzzling verse. Second, it situates Leviticus 18 within an understanding of sexuality that can be found throughout ancient texts. (Effectively, Greenberg says the verse is about misogyny, not homophobia.) Third, and most importantly, it meets Leviticus 18 on its own terms, and understands it in light of categories that were absolutely critical for ancient Judaism, and yet are absolutely foreign to contemporary, loving, same-sex relationships. In fact, only a narrow band of homosexual activity is prohibited by Leviticus 18 – perhaps none, if “the lyings of the woman” refers solely to degradation and not to anatomy. And ultimately, just as straight couples are not interrogated by their Orthodox communities about how they observe the laws of family purity, so gay couples need not be interrogated about their interpretation of this particular verse. They can be both honest and accepted.
To be sure, Greenberg also addresses various other rationales that have been offered for the prohibition — reproduction, category confusion, idolatry — but he says that these all fail to explain the verse’s wording and meaning. (Notably, Greenberg does not address the argument that “homosexuality is unnatural,” even though it was a fundamental point in a noted Conservative movement responsum. In his interview with the Forward, Greenberg called the category “not Jewish,” noting that “plenty of sins are natural, and plenty of commandments are unnatural” and observing that no traditional rabbinic treatments of homosexuality used the term to describe it.) In any case, he claims that he is not seeking a rationale. He is seeking the truth, in a way that is impossible to accomplish when the facts of sexuality are suppressed.
At the same time, Greenberg is very pragmatic. He recognizes that few Orthodox rabbis will accept his interpretation, and fewer still would agree to change Jewish law on the basis of it. Thus, having spent 100 pages developing and proving his argument, Greenberg abandons it for the last portion of “Wrestling with God and Men,” turning to a legal compromise that he argues would allow gay people and Orthodox people to co-exist. Essentially, the compromise places gays and lesbians
under the category of oness, or duress. They are like obsessive-compulsives who can’t help themselves, and whose sin is therefore virtually excused.
Critically, Greenberg does not suggest gay people have this view of themselves. “I want to open up the possibility of remaining in the community,” he said in the interview. “And that means, I have to accept compromise. It’s all right for an Orthodox rabbi to have a limited perspective of me, as long as he doesn’t expect me to have that perspective of myself.”
Coexistence, not immediate legal change, is the goal. In Greenberg’s view, “hearts and minds change first. The law is the last thing to change in a social movement.” And for that to happen, gay people need to find a way to accept the Jewish tradition (hence Greenberg’s “real” reading) and Jewish traditionalists need to find a way to accept gay people (hence the compromise). Greenberg says that gay people should not expect advocacy from Orthodox communities. But his ultimate goal is that “a 16-year-old gay Orthodox kid has a life-trajectory that’s pretty good. No humiliation, and no lying.”
Greenberg recognizes that “for many Jews, homosexuality is not on the line; Judaism is.” I was one of those Jews myself, and for me, “Wrestling with God and Men” is not a sufficient answer. Greenberg says that he himself remains Orthodox because it is “a spiritual and moral ground from which to contend with life’s myriad possibilities, a disciplined and balanced way to live a great life in the midst of inevitable uncertainty.” But so are other forms of Judaism, and other forms of life, that don’t involve being regarded as an obsessive-compulsive (at best) by one’s community. In my own life, I found I didn’t have to choose between God and self-acceptance. When I had my own Huck Finn moment, I found that as soon as I was willing to go to hell, God was willing to go with me.
This, ultimately, is the greatest flaw with “Wrestling with God and Men”: It contains only slivers of the deep spirituality that Greenberg himself possesses. Indeed, the heartbreaking letter from a gay Orthodox man that Greenberg reprints in the book’s introduction contains more spiritual essence than any of the legal or textual arguments. “I would love to ‘love a woman’… Whether [homosexuality] is genetic or socially acquired makes no difference to me. I hate it and myself for feeling this way and am beginning to lose the battle.” The man writes of failed conversion therapy (“nothing but mental torture”), of depression (“Outside of work, I rarely leave home anymore”), and of despair (“I’m running out of options”). Like the voices in the 2001 film “Trembling Before G-d” — and Greenberg’s was one of them — this letter, like many others I have seen that resemble it, is filled with the Jewish struggle for Godliness. It also proves that we must be reading the verse wrong. How could a loving God want this?
Conversely, “Wrestling with God and Men” contains little in the way of what distinctive contributions gays and lesbians have made and can make to the Jewish people. For a book subtitled “Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition,” it is overwhelmingly focused on the negative. Non-Orthodox gay Jewish icons (Tony Kushner, Harvey Milk) are absent, and one is given the impression that gay Jews want little more than mere acceptance. This may be how traditional Jewish readers see the essence of gay Jewish identity, and such readers are Greenberg’s primary audience. Today, though, following the footsteps of non-Jewish writers like Toby Johnston (“Gay Perspective”) and Mark Thompson (“Gay Soul”), many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Jews are not asking to be treated just like everyone else –– they are discovering what unique gifts they bring to the Jewish world.
Coincidentally, “Wrestling with God and Men” is being published almost simultaneously with “Queer Theory and the Jewish Question,” an anthology of writing on the intersection between queer and Jewish identities. That anthology observes how the West has long analogized non-heterosexuality and non-Christianity, and how, today, the two identities productively interact — from Barbra Streisand’s filmic cross-dressing to Proust, Ansky and Dickens. Queer theory and Jewishness are both modes of difference, of resistance to domination; all the more a pity that so few who write on sexuality in the traditional Jewish world seem even to have read “Epistemology of the Closet” or other classics, let alone the new work in “Queer Theory and the Jewish Question.” As for Greenberg, he notes that Judaism loves difference — God is blessed as the One who varies creatures — and that difference is more than pluralism. But his book rarely goes beyond a plea to be accepted.
In fairness, acceptance is still so far from reality in most Orthodox circles that Greenberg’s book is both noble and necessary. It is, by far, the most comprehensive treatment of homosexuality within the Jewish legal tradition, and a convincing halachic argument. Greenberg did not set out to do more. Yet on the Jewish spiritual path, these legal jots and tittles are mere dances of the One. We know that God wants love because God loves. And when everything is God — the angel as well as his opponent — all the tortured wrestling is seen for what it truly is: a loving embrace of the Knower and the Known.