Episcopalian Bishop V. Gene Robinson has a special attachment to the biblical story of Exodus. Indeed, Robinson holds a Passover Seder every year to commemorate the liberation of the Hebrews — as well as his own liberation.
“I have drawn such comfort from that story,” said Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal priest to ever become a bishop in his church.
His election last year as bishop of New Hampshire has caused international controversy and threatens to split apart both the Episcopal Church in the United States and the worldwide Anglican Communion. But in a calm and earnest voice, the 56-year-old Robinson told a small gathering at the 92nd Street Y in New York City last week about the meaning of Exodus in his life.
Robinson shared the stage with Steven Greenberg, perhaps the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi and a senior teaching fellow at the Manhattan-based CLAL—The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. In recent months, Robinson and Greenberg have spoken together before small groups around the country to share their personal stories and to discuss the relationship between homosexuality and Scripture.
“I know what it’s like to be a slave in Egypt,” said Robinson, a short, thin, bespectacled man wearing his purple clerical tunic.
The bishop said he also understands the desire of many ancient Israelites to run back to Egypt out of fear, their spending 40 years in the desert and their belief in a Promised Land.
These realizations come as a result of his journey as the son of dirt-poor tobacco sharecroppers belonging to a fundamentalist Christian sect; to hiding his childhood discovery that he was homosexual; to his marriage, resulting in two children; to a teary-eyed divorce 13 years later, when the couple gave their wedding rings back to each other in an unusual church ceremony that was “one of the most healing moments of grace in my life.”
“I do the Seder every year because that’s my story and I’m not going to give it up,” said Robinson, who has been in a committed relationship with his partner, Mark Andrew, for the past 17 years.
Robinson said he resented what he called “the scapegoating of the gay community” during the current presidential campaign season, terming it a distraction from serious issues facing the nation and the world, including hunger, the global AIDS crisis, the economy and the war in Iraq.
“How self-absorbed can we be, to be fighting over this when people are dying everywhere?” Robinson said. He added: “We have allowed the conservative religious right to take our Bible hostage, and I think it’s time we took it back. God is always bigger than whatever box we put him in. That’s what my life is about; that’s what this fight is about.”
Regarding the roiling gay marriage issue, both men called for the clergy to get out of the business of acting as agents for the state in performing marriages, thus separating civil unions from religious ceremonies.
Robinson said new terminology is needed for the word “marriage” to distinguish between a civil union legally recognized by the government and the religious service.
Greenberg, sporting a graying mop top, rimless glasses and a gray suit offset by an overlong yellow-patterned tie, focused on explaining his interpretations of the Torah passages about homosexuality.
A thin 48-year old man from the “flat, suburban Midwestern world” of Columbus, Ohio, he is the author of a new book, “Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition” (University of Wisconsin Press).
Greenberg argued that Leviticus 18:22 — “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence” — is not about banning gay relationships, but about forbidding the humiliation or degradation of another man. He said the biblical verse must be taken in context, recognizing the age and society in which it was written.
Greenberg said ultimately the religious battle over homosexuality is between traditionalists who believe that God’s revelation has ended so there is only one correct interpretation of Scripture, and those who believe that revelation is ongoing, and God hides multiple possible interpretations in every biblical verse. “I believe God’s revelation is continuing,” Greenberg said.
Raised in a Conservative Jewish family, Greenberg told the audience he became attracted to Orthodoxy during his teen years. But it was another unexpected attraction, to a man, while he was studying at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Jerusalem in 1977 that frightened him.
This fear caused Greenberg to seek the counsel of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, leader of the Lithuanian Charedi world. Tweaking the truth, Greenberg told the rabbi he was attracted to both men and women. “What do I do?” he asked the sage.
Greenberg said Eliashiv told him: “You have twice the power of love. There is nothing else to do.” While he wasn’t asking permission to be with men, the answer provided some comfort to Greenberg, who received his rabbinical ordination from the Yeshiva University-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.
For the next decade after his discussion with Eliashiv, Greenberg struggled. He dated many women and once even become engaged.
In 1995, on Yom Kippur afternoon, he asked to recite the blessing over the Torah scroll when it came time to chant the controversial passage in Leviticus.
The passage, he said, always had made him cry, pitting his religious beliefs against his true self. But this time he did not weep. After 20 years, Greenberg said, he was out of tears. Instead he felt calm and had an epiphany:
He suddenly understood that the verse is “unknowable” until gays who have suffered because of it are heard from.
“Until we hear the testimony of the people, whose bodies and spirits have been most affected by this verse, then we can’t know in a final way what the meaning of the verse is,” he said.
In 1999, during a fellowship in Jerusalem, Greenberg came out as a gay man.
While in Israel he founded a gay men’s study group, Jerusalem’s first gay and lesbian community center. He also collaborated with Sandi Simcha DuBowski director of “Trembling Before G-d,” the award-winning documentary film about Orthodox gay Jews. The two traveled around the world with the film.
Last week Greenberg said that he is encouraged that elements of the Orthodox community are slowly becoming more open and accepting of gay couples. “It’s moving little by little,” he said.
The rabbi said that he and his partner of five years, Steve Goldstein, have been invited to join several Manhattan Orthodox synagogues.
While “it’s very hard to take the temperature of hundreds of congregations across the country, my sense is that rabbis have been approached by family members of people who are gay, so this is no longer a theoretical issue,” Greenberg said. “This is something inside the community, and as that grows people find ways to make room, and there is greater calm about how to deal with these circumstances.”