It’s a Thursday evening at Washington DC’s “Historic 6th and I Synagogue,” the rabbi is standing under the chupah, a traditional Jewish wedding canopy, as the two newlyweds, Yoni Bock and Ron Kaplan, tie the knot before some two-hundred guests. Recognizing the unique — and controversial — moment, the rabbi’s voice notably cracks when near the end he states, “By the power invested in me by the District of Columbia, I now pronounce you married.”
As the couple vow to never forget Jerusalem, as is traditionally done before the breaking of the glass, it is highly likely that Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly-gay rabbi ordained by the Orthodox movement, won’t forget this moment either.
That was back in 2011, when a number of same-sex couples — many of them Jewish —got married in areas that legalized gay and lesbian unions, in the US. However, this was the first time in history that a same-sex union was officiated by a rabbi who holds Orthodox ordination. The movement maintains a strict interpretation of Jewish law, including the biblical verse found in Leviticus 18 which refers to a man lying with another man as an abomination.
Rabbi Greenberg is no stranger to controversy. When, at the age of 20, Steven Greenberg discussed his attraction to men as well as women for the first time, his religious counsellor offered a surprising and optimistic interpretation of his predicament. “He told me: ‘You have twice the power of love. Use it carefully.’ I left the meeting thinking everything was going to be fine.” Shortly after his ordination, he publicly came out shortly, making him the first openly gay practicing Orthodox rabbi.
While he was warmly received by many, his book, “Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition,” led him to be shunned by some in the Orthodox community and even by some gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews who felt his views did not align with Orthodox readings of Jewish law.
He gained even further notoriety following his role in the 2001 documentary by an American filmmaker, Trembling Before G-d, which portrays a group of people who face a profound dilemma – how to reconcile their passionate love of Judaism and the Divine with the drastic Biblical prohibitions that forbid homosexuality.
Trembling Before G-d was unprecedented because it was the first of its kind to shatter assumptions about faith, sexuality, and religious fundamentalism with in the Jewish community. As the film unfolds, we meet a range of complex individuals — some hidden, some out — from the world’s first openly gay Orthodox rabbi to closeted, married Hasidic gays and lesbians to those abandoned by religious families to Orthodox lesbian high-school sweethearts.
At the 2001 Sundance Film Festival premier of Trembling Before G-d, director Sandi Simcha DuBowski and Rabbi Greenberg held the first-ever Shabbat, koshering a kitchen of a local restaurant in Park City, Utah. With fire, wine and spices, they and 75 guests, including 60 film executives, programmers, filmmakers, local community members and actress Tilda Swinton, invoked the traditional 2,000 year-old Jewish blessing of human creativity… Trembling Before G-d was the beginning of a much-needed global conversation and a movement set to powerfully connect the message of the film with Faith communities across the board.
Over 200,000 people have participated in more than 800 Trembling Before G-d screenings all over the world, which were followed by face-to-face discussions about religion and sexuality involving a diverse array of faiths, races, Jewish denominations, ages, and sexual orientations. Roman Catholic theologians, Orthodox Jewish psychotherapists, African American Protestants, Hasidic rabbis, Evangelicals involved in reparative therapy, Buddhists, and many others joined these discussions. Everyone explored, sometimes for the first time, how gay and lesbian people within very traditional communities might begin to find resources within these traditions to help steer a course through questions of sexual identity, ethics, and religious authority.
Director Simcha DuBowski organised screenings in hundreds of synagogues, which led families who had disowned their LGBT children to open up lines of communication again. People came out for the first time and who had been alienated from their Jewish communities reconnected.
Over seventeen Orthodox synagogues in the US, Canada, and UK invited Trembling Before G-d to be screened in synagogues. Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, the open Orthodox seminary, an alternative to Yeshiva University, included Trembling Before G-d in their pastoral training. With a seed grant from Steven Spielberg, the creators of the film have set up the Trembling Before G-d Orthodox Education Project, to teach Orthodox educators and rabbis about homosexuality. Over 2000 principals, educators and school counselors have attended screenings within Israel’s religious school system. The film has now been seen by an estimated 8 million people worldwide.
The ripple effect of this global phenomenon was felt throughout the world in countries as far as Mexico, South Africa UK, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Ukraine, Czech Republic, and Hungary. What was once beyond the pale became discussed and even embraced in the mainstream of the community. Trembling Before G-d created a tipping point across the Jewish world.
And while some memebers of the Orthodox community may feel that marrying same-sex couples is a step that crosses a line of no return for Rabbi Greenberg, I’ll leave the last word to Rabbi Greenberg:
“People blame religion for homophobia, but a pre-modern Jewish rabbi would say that this is one sin among many. The taboo of homosexuality is actually quite contemporary, but it tends to mobilise religions in its service. If you look in many religions you find a complex and rich history of engagement with issues of sexuality and desire.
If you’re told that religion is the problem, and if you’re rejected from the religious environment, then the response has been to reject religion and religious communities. But increasingly people are insisting on not abandoning those communities and marking them as unchangeable, but instead forcing them to become real visions for humanity rather than clubs for heterosexuals. And when people accept that homosexuality is not a choice, but a part of the self, then the challenge becomes a deeply moral one: Are these institutions willing to be unafraid of addressing the realities of the human condition?“
If for some reason you don’t have Trembling Before G-d in your DVD collection, follow this link and it to you Must-See movie list.