Rabbi Steven Greenberg in Portland

This post explores some of the issues around Judaism, homosexuality, and gender raised by Rabbi Steven Greenberg at his brunch appearance in Portland. This is not a transcript of the talk, but rather a reflection on its main points.

Rabbi Greenberg begins by discussing lesbianism in the Jewish tradition. Traditional rabbis tend to avoid the subject because it is a "doubled alienness" and because it is seemingly less of a biblical challenge than male homosexuality. The result is the perception that male homosexuality, rather than homosexuality itself, is an issue in Judaism. ...

Rabbi Greenberg opens up the issue of gender differences within the G&L community and invites guests to suggest some common differences between lesbians and gay men. ...

"Lesbian Relations" handout is passed around ...

RSG: The HRC worked for many years, doing important work, but never addressed the question of religion - because religion was never seen as a potential ally. Then they hired Harry Knox ...

How can the gay Jewish community reach beyond the victim identity? Can we offer some insights from our own experience that are relevant for the non-Jewish world?

Lesbianism: "Doubled alienness" and the lesser challenge. Almost inevitably, discussions on homosexuality and Judaism begin with the topic of male homosexuality, which is explicitly prohibited by the Torah (Leviticus 18:24 and 20:13). By comparison, lesbianism appears to be a "lesser challenge" scripturally speaking, and therefore gets less attention. Rabbi Greenberg challenged this approach, opening the talk with a discussion of lebianism. Lesbians, he noted, experience the "doubled alienness" of being both homosexual in a heterosexual culture and female in a male-dominated culture. The general rabbinic reticence around the subject, he said, owed in large part to the difficulty of finding solid legal ground to declare lesbianism forbidden.

"I did not have sex with that woman!" Is lesbian sex sex? Don't laugh, it was a real question for the Rabbis. Talmudic sources disagreed as to the degree to which a sexual encounter between women could be counted as "sex" for purposes of establishing infidelity or eligibility to marry a man of the priestly caste (kohanim).

Lesbians and gay men. For political reasons, it's natural for lesbians and gay men to join together in LGBT organizations. But, Rabbi Greenberg observed, in real life they form separate communities. Greenberg suggested that recognizing the differences between gay men and lesbians (which, after all, are a subset of the differences between men and women) is an important step toward building a truly cohesive community.

Traditional religion as an ally. "The Human Rights Campaign did important work with governments for many years, but they never worked with churches because they didn't see religion as a potential ally. Then they hired Harry Knox ... " Traditionally religious people and secularists often have an adversarial relationship (as was made evident by one very argumentative non-religious guest).

Beyond the victim identity: finding our voice. Rabbi Greenberg asserted that the generosity necessary to dialog with people very different from ourselves is exactly what is asked of the queer community today. We delude ourselves, he said, if we deny that there are some people whose "otherness" makes us uncomfortable; the challenge is to learn what these people come to teach us. Regarding the gay community, Rabbi Greenberg envisioned a future where we can look "beyond our victim status" and find lessons in our own experience that will be meaningful to the world at large.

Gender and power. Drawing on the legend of Lilith, whose "sin" was her refusal to take a subordinate sexual postition to Adam, Greenberg explored the ways in which "top" and "bottom" sexual positions (in both heterosexual and homosexual acts) have been read as indicators of power relationships. The equation "bottom = submissive = female" has profound and far-reaching implications.