A conversation with Steven Greenberg, a rabbi, presenting his book Wrestling with God and Men at the Jewish Book Week, London.
James Alison: Good afternoon. I am here to present to you Rabbi Steve Greenberg who many of you will have seen in glorious celluloid for not his first but one of his first appearances in this country. You were here last year. Is that right, Steve?
Rabbi Steven Greenberg: On a tour, with Trembling Before G-d.
James Alison: My name is James Alison. I am a Catholic priest and a theologian. I can scarcely tell you what a matter of love it is for me to be able to present Steve on this occasion, and what an honour it is. I knew about this book, I think from about three years ago in its gestation and I was eagerly awaiting its coming out. Even my very, very high hopes for it were way behind the reality. I’m absolutely thrilled with what wonderful material Steve has put in our hands to enable us (and this is one of the subjects I want to ask him about) to negotiate one of the really difficult issues of change and reality in our religious traditions. That I think is what we are going to be talking about.
First of all, I would like to ask Steve just to give a couple of quick definitions so as to help those of us who are not entirely au fait with some of the dimensions of the Jewish tradition or religious language. One of the terms that comes up an awful lot in this book is (and I will pronounce this badly) halachah and for those of us who are not embedded in that tradition, I’d like to ask Steve to give first of all a quick description of what is understood by the world in which halachah is operative.
Steven Greenberg: First I want to begin by saying that I began this process almost ten years ago. This is the world launch of my book and the fact that it is a book, well I actually kind of feel like I’ve given birth. It’s a very odd and humbling time for me in my life and I just want to thank you for being my very first book audience in what I imagine to be a kind of very tumultuous year. I also want to begin by thanking James for taking on this task. James and I are kind of kindred spirits, struggling in each of our traditions for both very close reading of text and a close reading of human experience and not shirking the attempt to read them both together. So I am honoured by the fact that he is here.
I want to respond to his question with regard to halachah. I am sure many of you know that the fundamental orthodox communal conviction is that Jewish law is the ordering of both personal and communal life of the Jewish community. Halachah is translated as ‘Jewish law’. It actually comes from the word lalechet which means ‘to walk’. Halachah means ‘walking’ and in a way it is about how the text grows legs and walks. Texts can sit in a place and can inspire, but the question is: How do they enter practice? And how do they enter practice in a concerted, communal way? This was in an effort by rabbis for over a period of 300 years before the Common Era until about 500-800 years after the Common Era to kind of orchestrate what became known as the halachah, a kind of integrated system of detailed responsibility for daily Jewish life.
Embedded in the halachah are kinds of crystalline values. Every time you have a Jewish law, what you have is a form of meaning turned into action. So I am a lover of that kind of commitment, both personally and communally. To translate the sacred revelation into action and to do it through the aegis of a kind of systemic work of the rabbis and post-rabbinic period.
So that is for me the halachah. What is also important, though, to recognise is that it wasn’t a static system. In other words, it all didn’t arrive in its completed work but actually was a living, breathing, engaging system all throughout the rabbinic period and even throughout the Middle Ages as well. So I see the halachah still as dynamic and, in regard to that, still responsible for interpreting and understanding new experience. So kind of my larger frame of halachah includes a kind of responsiveness to every moment of Jewish history. I think that’s also kind of quite traditional as well. There is a rabbinic commitment from the 400s that in a debate between an older and a newer authority, the newer authority tends to bear more weight. It’s because the halachah needs to be mediated by a present tense authority because a present tense authority knows the generation well.
So, that’s my kind of introduction to halachah and I’m looking forward to our conversation. James is going to begin with a number of questions to get me out and speaking about what I’ve written, and then I hope to be able to hear from you.
James Alison: The first question I’d like to ask you is: you and I have both been presented on this occasion as ‘radical’. My guess is that that’s not a word you’re entirely happy with. Or am I wrong? If you had been writing your own blurb for presenting yourself, how would you have chosen to describe yourself?
Steven Greenberg: How? I don’t think I’m doing anything so radical. I actually think that I’m just attempting to focus the tradition’s attention on a testimony. You know, you have a chicken and there’s a problem with the chicken. Say, a glass of milk fell on the chicken! Whatever, something happened with the chicken. So the Jewish lady calls up and says, “Rabbi, I’ve a problem with the chicken.” So the rabbi says, “Ok, firstly who are you? Where do you live?”
The rabbi wants to know when is this chicken being served and how quickly do you need an answer and can you go to the store and get another chicken or the meal happening very soon, and is it almost Shabbos. How poor or wealthy are you? Meaning that the rabbi doesn’t ask that question: he listens for it. How expensive is this going to be for you to replace the chicken? He gets all the questions: not about the chicken but about the lady!
Then he says, “Ok. Now tell me about the chicken.”
So, until you hear the testimony of the human beings engaged in the halachic debate (and it is halachics in this story), you cannot actually claim to be responding halachically because the halachah is not a mechanical system. It actually matters if the woman is wealthy or if the meal is happening in 30 minutes or not. So, because of that, if I would say: Well, what’s really missing from the halachic debate is actual rabbis really hearing the testimony of gay and lesbian people, really hearing that testimony – then it doesn’t seem radical at all. It seems like the system is kind of actually not quite working as well as it should. It’s afraid to work as well as it should. I want to kind of make sure it works.
James Alison: That’s exactly what I consider myself as doing. I don’t consider myself radical at all. Exactly the same.
One of the really striking and interesting things, I think, for all of us in this debate, whether of Jewish or Christian tradition, is your reading and handling of the famous text in Leviticus. Now I’m going to tell you: I popped a little surprise to Steve just before we came in so he hasn’t really had time to cope with it yet. One of the passages in the Torah that he doesn’t deal with is a passage which I’m about to read to you, in English, so it’s to give him a chance to read it in Hebrew and prepare his answer. This is from II Samuel. How do you refer to II Samuel?
Steven Greenberg: Shmuel Bet.
James Alison: Shmuel Bet. Ok. Listen to this and those of you who haven’t heard it before think of an American prison.
“And it came to pass after this, that the king of the children of Ammon died, and Hanun his son reigned in his stead. Then said David, I will show kindness unto Hanun the son of Nahash, as his father showed kindness unto me. And David sent to comfort him by the hand of his servants for his father. And David’s servants came into the land of the children of Ammon. And the princes of the children of Ammon said unto Hanun their lord, Thinkest thou that David doth honour thy father, that he hath sent comforters unto thee? has not David rather sent his servants unto thee to search the city and to spy it out and to overthrow it? Wherefore Hanun took David’s servants and shaved off one-half of their beards and cut off their garments in the middle, even to the buttocks, and sent them away. When they told it unto David, he sent to meet them, because the men were greatly ashamed: and the king said, Tarry at Jericho until your beards be grown, and then return.”
Now, Steve’s reading of Leviticus, and it is not a surprise, interprets Leviticus as condemning the sort of anal penetration that was accompanied by humiliation and violence. One of the texts he doesn’t mention is this. I wanted to ask him how he copes with King David agreeing with him.
[Both men laugh.]
Steven Greenberg: Well, of course, I rejoice. The truth is that the cultural history of sexuality has to be really taken seriously in order to begin to make sense of the prohibition in Leviticus. This text is a beautiful resource for demonstrating what is shaming about an exposed buttock because clearly what Hanun is trying to do is to shame them. Well, it’s interesting. How do you shame men? I mean, it is interesting. How do you shame a man? Well, the best way to shame a man is to cut off half his beard, make him a half-man that way, and to kind of give the impression that the man was anally penetrated by exposing the backside and sending him away without any cover.
Now this is a biblical text. There is a rabbinic text just like this. There were four arrogant kings whose crime, says the Midrash, was that they called themselves god. Nebuchadnezzar, Chadom [?], Pharoah. Their crime was that they claimed that, as a king, they were like god. The punishment, says the Midrash, was yiba’alu kenashim, “they were penetrated like women”: each of these kings was penetrated like women. So you hear the same rhetoric.
In other words, the punishment for hubris is to be catapulted from the category of male to the category of female and, how do you do that? oh, well, anally penetrate men. In other words, it’s not then so difficult to understand what the verse of Leviticus is concerned about.
It’s not about homosexuality. There’s no mention in the Torah of lesbian relationships once in regard to prohibition. And there is only one act that is prohibited from Leviticus: that is anal penetration between men. No surprise that anal penetration between men could not be anything other than an act of degradation and humiliation between men. You see the evidence of it here and the evidence of it in the Midrash as well.
Which means to say ve-et zachar lo tishcav mishkevei isha to’eiva he, “and a male you shall not lie with [penetrate] in the manner of lyings of women: it is an abomination” is no doubt grounded in an imagination of sex between men which could not be anything other than humiliation.
The other evidence I bring to the story is that the word mishkevei, “lyings”: the “lyings of women” is a very strange phrase. It doesn’t appear anywhere in Torah, the “lyings of women”. But the word “lyings of”, mishkevei, does appear. It only appears once. It appears when Reuven, the son of Jacob and Leah, rapes Bilha, Rachel’s handmaiden. And he does this because when Rachel dies, Jacob, instead of moving his bed into the tent of Leah, his mother, moves his bed into the tent of Bilha, Rachel’s handmaiden. And, in rage, he rapes Rachel’s handmaiden.
So the word mishkevei, in the text, is kind of reminding us of that kind of appropriative sex which is about taking, which is about humiliating. Ok? So, given that frame, it shouldn’t be very difficult to imagine what the Torah is calling an abomination.
The committed, loving relationship between men is simply not on the table in a culture where intercourse is marked always as an act of hierarchy and power-making. Why is that true? Why is intercourse always, in an ancient world, constructed this way? Even when it’s loving, it’s always still about marking power. And that’s because the relationship between women and men is fixed in a hierarchy. So the intercourse that connects them remakes that hierarchy all the time.
You know the story of Lilith, the famous story of Lilith? This is a mythic woman who was created out of the earth before Eve. It’s a Jewish legend. So, what does she insist?
These are Lilith’s words: “I refuse to be beneath you,” clearly in sexual relations. Adam says, “You were meant to be beneath me and I above.”
She says, “I was from the earth. We are equal.”
He says: “You were meant to be beneath me and I above.”
And she flies away.
In other words, Lilith might have been open to side by side relations, but she refused to always be beneath because she was equal. So we already get an understanding of how intercourse was shaped by the gender order. And until the gender order becomes non-toxic, until it is not absolute that men are above and women are below, that being a woman is shaming, until that happens intercourse will always be an act of marking power. And when it happens between men, humiliating and debasing.
So then the possibility of transformation occurs when the text might be calling us all to create the kind of sexual relations that aren’t humiliating and, in order to do that, we have to transform the place of women in the world and create an equality of the value of men and women. And with that side by side frame of loving, with the communication and not domination, then what would happen between men would hardly be any more problematic then what would happen between men and women.
Now that is my most radical read in Leviticus but what I do want to do, if James will let me just continue here, is to say: What do I do for the orthodox community that will likely find this reading to be too radical a surgery? The methodologies I use were used by rabbis of the Talmud and are uncommon if ever used in even mediaeval and modern Jewish jurisprudence. So: How do I legitimate using methodologies like this? What’s my purpose in it if it won’t actually meet orthodox frames? And what do I do for the orthodox gay and lesbian person?
So my first response is, in order to kind of explain myself: You know, the reason I offer this is to provide gay and lesbian people a way to connect to a loving God and to continue learning Torah and keeping mitzvoth. Because, unless we have a way to read that verse that is fully confirming of who we are, what happens is that we feel utterly rejected and have very little motive to identify with the community service to God, and with continued learning and continued observance. If the game of our participation requires that we hate ourselves, or demean ourselves, or internalise this ugly picture of ourselves and then we can keep the other 612 laws, the bargain doesn’t get offered really. No-one would really want to participate in a religious community where God is the enemy.
So I want to find a way to read the text that offers reconciliation with God and Torah so that we can continue reading and loving Torah. However, I recognise that orthodox rabbis and communities will not be able to go there. So the last chapters of the book accept that that interpretation I just gave you will not fly. And then I move into what I would say is the more prosaic structure of the book, which is that I construct the conversation between a young man named Joshua and an orthodox rabbi. They both agree to disagree.
They both agree to enter into a conversation where the rabbi isn’t obligated to give up on his halachic norms and Joshua is not obligated to give up on his sense of self. And they enter into a conversation where they explore each other’s subjective worlds. In that chapter I try to come up with a way for Joshua and the rabbi to understand each other better and to come up with a pragmatic way: while disagreeing on the reasons agreeing on a policy.
Disagreeing on the rationales but agreeing on a policy to welcome gay and lesbian people into the congregation.
At the very end of the book I have a very short chapter called ‘Welcoming Synagogues’ where I have three principles of what a welcoming, orthodox synagogue, a traditional synagogue, would be. (And I presume that our rabbi and Joshua have agreed.) A welcoming synagogue would involve the congregation, the rabbi and the gay and lesbian people in a kind of covenantal conversation and they would all agree to these three things:
(1) The rabbi, and I presume the congregants, wouldn’t humiliate or degrade homosexuals from the pulpit. Meaning that there would be a commitment that public castigation of homosexuality or homosexuals from the pulpit helps nobody. It doesn’t stop gay people from being gay and it doesn’t stop straight people from becoming gay. It helps nobody in any way. It is simply abusive. So, no humiliation. No attack of homosexuality or homosexuals from the pulpit.
(2) Gay and lesbian people enter into a religious community that is not finished in its understanding, in its adjudication of this issue and therefore gay and lesbian people accept that the synagogue is not a proper venue or platform for advocacy. Meaning that the synagogue will not join us in our fight as a synagogue for political and social liberation. And we accept that the synagogue may not accept us as family memberships and the synagogue may not publicly take sides on the issues of gay liberation. Why? Because the synagogue and the Jewish community have not fully adjudicated the question and it is unfair to ask them to join in on one or another side of this cultural and religious conflict. Therefore, we participate in the community for its religious values and for its learning and for its camaraderie and community. But we don’t expect the synagogue as a synagogue to support us in our social and political acts.
(3) We don’t have to lie. Joshua can come in with his partner and when Mrs Schwartz says, “Oh Joshua, have I got a girl for you!” he says, “Thank you Mrs Schwartz but let me introduce you to my partner Joe.” That honesty is a fundamental to participation. People have to understand that the suffering that we have gone through makes it impossible for us to belong anywhere where the bargain is silence. We can tolerate many things. I can tolerate not being invited to the Grossmans for Shabbos lunch because they can’t handle me and my partner. It is perfectly fine. In fact, lots of people don’t get invited to somebody else’s house on Shabbos because they don’t like them! I don’t need the congregation to welcome us. I don’t need an active declaration that the gay couple can go anywhere. I just need one thing: I need to be able to say the truth. It’s cost me too much. I lied for fifteen years of my life: an incredibly painful period. I will not lie ever again.
So: no humiliation; no advocacy; no lying.
James Alison: One of the many treasures of this book, one of the reasons why I am convinced that this will be a bestseller as well amongst Christian lay people, is that it deals with issues that we don’t normally deal with and that actually, irrespective of whether we are religious or not, we don’t have the language to deal with, in both a very beautiful and a very rich way. And I think that one of the brilliant points here is the way you deal with abomination. You actually make a positive case for the use of the language of abomination, which I think is marvellous because it is only if people have something to latch revulsion, fear, anger onto, that they are going to be able to move on without thinking that someone is pulling a fast one.
What I would like to ask you to do: I’ll just have to get you all to read this book. It’s for people from an enlightened culture. It’s kind of counter-intuitive, severely counter-intuitive. But actually I think tremendously important.
How, in practice, as you travel around (and this is the book launch that you’ve been travelling with, speaking in synagogues on issues relating to this … ) how in practice can you put ways of helping people to negotiate senses of abomination? I don’t know if that is comprehensible.
Steven Greenberg: Right. This is actually a very, very important key of the book for me. I was once asked to help a group in Detroit. They were creating a curriculum for gay and lesbian inclusion. So they had what I call ‘cotton candy Torah’. Cotton candy Torah, and I am being a little bit flip, is: Love thy neighbour as thyself; Don’t judge people until you’re in their place. You know, it was cotton candy Torah because it treated homosexuality as if it were an obvious parallel to race and that all we needed to do was to accept that it was discriminatory and wrong to treat people differently on the foundation of sexual orientation. It was a highly liberal curriculum designed to basically take template of civil rights and put it directly onto the issue of homosexuality.
I said, “You’ve made it too easy and in doing so you’ve actually really made it hard for people to fully work out the issues because they will shake their heads, Yes, yes, yes, and will do no work. It’s much harder work than you describe.” They didn’t understand what I was after.
So I said to them, “Ok. Try this text: it’s in the Midrash, in Gemara. A man and a woman have a baby and the woman dies in childbirth and the man is stuck with a child that he can’t afford to nurse. He doesn’t have any means of purchasing a wetnurse. A miracle happens and he grows two breasts and Reb Yaakov is elated and says, ‘What a righteous man this must have been for God to perform such a miracle.’ And Abaya says, ‘What a wicked man this must have been for God to contort his body in this way.’”
Wow. This is amazing. So, let’s imagine a man with breasts. Ok. Is this wonderful? Is this a wonderment? Or is this monstrous? You can claim that a man with breasts is wonderment to you but, let’s be honest, everybody has got monstrous. We’ve all had an experience with otherness that struck as monstrous. Whether it’s a transgender person; whether it’s a person who’s ill; or a person who’s in a wheelchair, a paraplegic; a person who’s stuttering; a person who is blind. I mean, you know, you can come up with a whole array of ‘othernesses’ that terrify us and what do we do with that? Well, how do we translate feelings about monstrosity and make them move slowly towards wonderment?
So the hard work of not translating this as merely an issue of rights but recognising that in homosexuality people experience abominations. They experience terror, for various reasons. Sometimes personal, sometimes not..[…]…. Often they don’t believe us. Why? They can’t imagine themselves desiring a same-sex partner. It’s terrifying, because our gender is like fixed in ways to identity and self that is very nervous for us. The culture makes it clear. A man is not to behave like a woman: a woman not like a man. And how we manage this can strike up a chorus of monstrosities that we want to stay away from. I want to face the abomination and ask how we make sure that we don’t allow the fear of abomination to become an oppression.
That can be a way to kind of be oppression. And, hopefully, in a kind of more honest engagement with this question, we would come to ask ourselves: What about the boundary between masculinity and femininity? It scares us.
There’s a text of the Maharal that’s actually on this. The Maharal says that cannibalism and homosexuality are similar. They are both about eating oneself up alive. What’s interesting is that a moral theorist, a legal theorist, has kind of claimed a relationship between them as well. He says that the reason cannibalism is a problem is because it marks a boundary between the animal and the human because, ordinarily, what’s wrong? The person is dead. Basically, eating dead flesh is not going to harm the dead person. He’s dead. It’s going to help me. What’s the problem of cannibalism? And so, what he claims is the problem is that it is a moral abomination. That it is revolting. Why? Animals eat people and if I eat a person I become an animal. And becoming undefined as a person, defined as an animal, in a culture that thinks that that boundary is very important is terrifying. It’s terrifying. And that is why all these stories about people together in a boat who eat someone, and they experience guilt and shame. Why? Because to eat another person’s flesh, the experience is moral abomination even though, on some level, we can understand that the moral problem qua moral qua benefit, cost, benefit, etc. is not huge. It’s the belonging to humanity that gets polluted.
Now, here is the question. What’s the problem with homosexuality? Well, it’s the belonging to masculinity and femininity in absolute ways that gets threatened. That’s the abomination. The question is: when we ask about our moral abominations, what are the lines that are really important for us? And are we willing, is the question, to hold on to moral abomination when all we are protecting is perfect masculinity and perfect femininity? When we are protecting the difference between animal and human, we can actual I think share a great deal. But if we are protecting only the perfect belonging of masculinity and femininity to two separate categories, and that the moral abomination is that imperfect belonging, might we begin to rethink our categories?
James Alison: One of the things that happens with abomination when it is not kept in its proper place, as it were, is that it gets projected onto the person who is challenging what its proper place should be. Have you actually found that happening to you? Have you found people suddenly cancelling appearances and things like that?
Steven Greenberg: Well, all you have to do is to open up the Jewish papers to see. A very talented and courageous young rabbi invited me to his orthodox synagogue in Leeds, Rabbi David Sedley. His board, after a controversy, emerged and Rabbi David Levy attacked him for it. He was told that I wasn’t permitted to speak in his synagogue according to the order of the Board of the Synagogue and he promptly decided that his leadership was not being respected and he was ready to leave the shul. So it’s been quite a challenging and difficult time for him. The event is still taking place, but it’s taking place initially in his home and now so many people have signed up that two of the members of the congregation have split the cost of renting a space and we have space for a hundred people and it seems that we’re going to need to move to a bigger space. So much for the attempted censorship.
What I would say is this: Other people will have to speak about what is dangerous about what I am saying because I, for the life of me, can’t figure it out. I am trying to find a way for gay and lesbian people to remain committed to the tradition and not feel shamed in the process. And I am perfectly willing to be disagreed with, despite that. And I am willing to be told that my use of sources is improper and I’m willing to engage in a conversation with anybody about this. I simply want to put the question on the table from a position of really having experienced this from inside.
And what can I say? The Jewish community is a place where open and free conversation, debate and thought is kind of like a sine qua non for religious life. It seems that God loves questions more than answers. It seems that the Talmud is filled with more questions than answers. It seems to me that if the fundamental teaching on Pesach is to teach our children to ask questions, I just kind of don’t get the fear. And I hope that young rabbis who are courageous and willing to entertain all sorts of questions in the UK aren’t all drained away by senior leadership who are afraid. Because for me, I mean, whether I speak is somewhat immaterial. What is important is that the vitality of the UK Jewish community can’t be held hostage by a handful of people who are afraid to talk. And I urge you to find ways in your community to let the tradition deal with absolutely everything: to fear no conversation; to love disagreement and to embrace difference of all kinds because it is exactly that kind of rich religious open unbounded willingness to engage both reality and contemporary society, grounded in traditional resources, which is going to inspire people to stay connected to this tradition, rather than a frame that already has answered all the questions.
James Alison: There is clearly something of a springtime going on because there is another book just appearing by Rabbi Rappaport on Judaism and Homosexuality with a foreword by the Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Sacks. So the discussion is happening and I think that next year it would be really interesting when people have had a chance to read both books and to have Rabbi Rappaport and Rabbi Greenberg engaging back and forth …
Steven Greenberg: Can I jump in for one second? The manuscript was only given to me two days ago and I read it so I just want to make two comments about Rabbi Rappaport’s work.
(1) Rabbi Rappaport is a courageous and wonderful and compassionate man and I am truly grateful for his work. He more than any orthodox leader truly gets the subjective experience and suffering of the people he has counselled for years and this book is a testament to a man whose heart is very big and who doesn’t walk away from tough questions. And it is not easy to do what he’s done and I am very, very excited that he has.
His solutions are limited from my vantage point but of course, you know, that’s not surprising. His fundamental response to the question is that gay and lesbian people are possessed by a noxious gentile spirit which makes them, if they are practising homosexuals, makes them incapable of doing better and should be given a certain amount of compassion for being tinokot shenishbu bein hagoyim, children who were captured by gentiles, meaning captured by a gentile spirit that doesn’t allow them to fully engage with tradition.
While there is clearly work, … [inaudible] … people to internalise that, it’s kind of demeaning and rings false. But I have to say once again that I honour orthodox rabbis who will go as far as they can go with the halachicprocess for the moment and will welcome gay and lesbian people into their communities with no presumption that they are active vicious sinners. At very least, you know, “nebbuch, they can’t be much better” and I tell you that that is a huge upgrade. A huge upgrade! So while it is not felicitous for me, I’m still incredibly encouraged by the book and I encourage you all to read it.
James Alison: … Let’s have some short questions.
Questioner 1: I saw Trembling Before G-dand I was incredibly impressed. I was trying to think of other areas where orthodoxy has moved on because we have learned about how people work. One area that I found was the question of deaf witnesses. It used to be the case that deaf witnesses were not allowed to be witnesses because it was presumed that they didn’t have the intelligence to be witnesses. And then things changed and deaf witnesses were allowed to be witnesses. Is that a valid example for maybe the realisation that there was no such thing as a loving relationship between gays?
Secondly, can you think of any other examples which you would regard as parallels?
Steven Greenberg: That’s a marvellous example but this is a harder challenge. That is a bit too benign to help. It demonstrates the potential but the challenges are greater. The potential is this: a deaf mute in the rabbinic period was just simply unable to communicate in any way or learn language and without language there was very minimal thought. So clearly a person was assumed to be an imbecile. But as soon as deaf people were able to find various ways of constructing speech in a contemporary world, then all of a sudden deaf people are people. And so they are not imbeciles and so they can actually do all the things that full persons do, which is to bear witness, marry and take responsibilities for contracts and all that stuff. So we basically demonstrate that simply the rabbis didn’t understand the truth of a particular character
…. The challenge of creating what I would call, say, nishtanu hatevaim, that nature has changed and therefore what we recognise, in a way the existence of a new archetype, that is I think one of the ways that the halachah will rightly go. But it’s going to be a challenging creative process to get that to happen.
One frame by which one could theorise is to say (and I suggest this in the book): how many genders are there? We would think, two. Right? Except that the rabbis have these dizzy chapters in Bikkurim where they realise that there are hermaphrodites in the world. (Actually also on the page of the morning paper.) And according to at least one rabbinic position, a hermaphrodite is a min bifnei atzmo. It’s a third gender. Now, what a remarkable idea: that the Torah functions completely with a notion of two genders and the rabbis invent a third gender. Like, how could the rabbis invent a gender that’s not in the Torah? And the answer is that they discovered it! They said, “Oh, look at this! A person with both genitalia. Wow.” And so they recognised that reality is revelatory and they, in noting it, now have to actually create halachic frames by which a new gender is managed by the system.
Well, what if we always thought that there was one sexuality and we have discovered now that there are two, or at least two. And in discovering there are two sexualities, then we are now going to have to return back to the template and figure out how two sexualities get managed and understood by the Torah and Gemara.
Questioner 2: While you were speaking I was struck that it is not just of the relations between men and men but between men and women, this power imbalance. And I think it is interesting that in the Christian community they are currently polarised about the acceptance or otherwise of homosexuality and the position of women. I believe in Israel women weren’t allowed to read prayers at the Wailing Wall and are separated and the question is extremely offensive to women and that seems to be a sort of permanent contentious issue.
I wanted to go back to what you were talking about, the codification of the law. At what point was it, as it were, rigidly stopped? Do the orthodox (and how do they justify that) not realise that people can go on commenting, taking in all the discoveries, psychological and anthropological. At what point, and why, did it stop being formulated?
Steven Greenberg: It’s a claim that it’s stopped. It got constrained. I don’t think it’s stopped. But it did get constrained. It got constrained because of modernity. Modernity was a ‘detergent’ that threatened the very commitment to the tradition because it historicised everything and undermined faith principles that had been fixed in communities; disempowered the authorities of communities and replaced it with an authority in the state. Modernity offered opportunities for cultural expansion into the wider world and therefore dislocated people, Jewish people, from their intellectual and spiritual roots. And so the defensive posture for many communities was one of holding on, because everything was up for grabs. And so new information got tagged as threatening because much of the new information was.
What has shifted is that history is kind of debunked as the solution to all human enquiry. We now actually see more deeply into the way people attack society, sociology, religion, work and post-modernism has made it possible for some of the assumptions of modernity in themselves to kind of have to be re-thought. And so that is why I think renewed commitment to the tradition has actually become a piece of culture. When I was raised, I was raised on the notion in the Conservative synagogue that the Torah was written by four schools of Bible authors, J., E., P. and D., and it totally undermined as a child my faith that the Torah was worth much: it was basically written by a bunch of old men in Mesopotamia.
I had to become 15 and discover the power of the study of Torahexperientially and discover God through the experience of learning and through the experience of celebration and through the experience of nature. And then affirm that it didn’t matter to me how this text was put together or what its history was. It was word for word the word of God for me. And I just stopped caring about the provable or improvable frames of its writing. God has many servants.
It stopped. But this is a way later frame for commitment. What really occurred in the orthodox world in the modern frame was just a shock to the system. So many creative forces throughout Jewish history had been shut down by that. Most of the codification process itself has the tendency to shut down creativity. So it’s a more complicated thing too.
I do want to say though that I think actually orthodoxy, even today, still embodies an enormous amount of creativity: an enormous amount of halachic creativity. It’s just that on the issue of women and on the issue of homosexuality, it’s at sticking point. A real severe sticking point.
One more point: the book is really in the end quite a feminist book. I’m often finding myself in the theatre when Trembling [Before G-d] would show that it’s telling people that homophobia is one small room in the larger hotel of misogyny. I really do believe that is true because if we stop hating (and I don’t mean that in a personal way) and stop demeaning femininity, then homosexuality won’t be so much a problem. And my aim as an orthodox thinker is to not only move on homosexuality, but clearly move on the issues of empowerment and presence of women in the Jewish world and in the orthodox world. I am part of a group called The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Association in America and this is a piece of the work that I am tackling here.
Questioner 3: … … subsequent to the film: the woman who was prying, and how are they today? And where are they in the world? And have their families come to terms with things?
Steven Greenberg: Sure. Those of you who may not know the film, Trembling Before G-d now has a DVD version and the DVD includes many things that are not in the film, i.e. 40 minutes of the film’s travel in the world and what happened to communities when they saw it, and interviews with me, with the film-maker and with other rabbis: with longer interviews with the rabbis in the film. Very quickly, because this could take an awfully long time, because everybody gets transformed: the truth is, see the DVD and you’ll hear many of those stories. I will tell you that Michelle, who is the woman who travels through the carnival and who got married and divorced, well she lost 130 lbs. She looks like wonderful! She’s found a partner and she is unbelievably happy.
Who else can I tell you about? Israel met his father. It wasn’t actually a very wonderful meeting. That was the guy in Chicago. No, no, no. He’s in New York. Israel is the older gentleman, the one whose father didn’t want to see him. What is interesting about Israel, though, is that finally, after his father died, his sister invited him to a simchah for the first time in 20 years and his sister’s fifth son kind of walked around the simchah with him and kind of embraced him and now visits him, calls him Uncle Israel and his partner Uncle Carl and brings his children to visit Israel. It’s the first time a family member has kind of embraced him. This family member, by the way, saw Trembling Before G-d, the first film he has ever seen in his life. He’s a chareidi guy and he said, “I love the film, Uncle Israel, and I’m very proud of you.”
So, in families, the film is doing great things to kind of spark reconciliation.
James Alison: We are meant to be out of here by 3 pm as there is another meeting coming on so I think there is a place where we can go and get our copies of the books, get them signed, first editions: they’re going to be valuable! Hold on to them and start spreading them! Thank you very much, Steve.
This transcript was originally published on the Jewish Book Week website, http://jewishbookweek.com
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