Adam and Steve and Lillith and Eve

Sunday, January 27, 2008

  • Rabbi Steven Greenberg

    Rabbi Steven Greenberg

There's a comic taped to the kitchen door at Curry in a Hurry. Eve and God are chatting; Eve complains she is bored and wants a mate. God consents, but with a list of conditions: Adam will lie, cheat, and be vain. "What's the catch?" asks Eve. "As I said he'll be proud, arrogant and self-admiring," says God, "so you'll have to let him believe that I made him first. And it will have to be our little secret........ you know, woman to woman."

This is just one in a long list of re-interpretations of the Judeo-Christian creation story – it's been used and re-read by slightly angsty feminist songwriters, and alluded to by at least one turquoise-heavy 70s movie.

The story of Adam and Eve forms one of the roots of North American cultural fabric. As an atheist with a social justice bent, I've always been pretty interested in poking holes in this fabric—but I also have an underlying fascination with the ways in which believers embody these stories, reconcile them with their lived experience.

Adam and Steve, a lecture-style talk featuring Steven Greenberg, delved into the "impossible paradox" of committing to live an Orthodox way of life as a self-accepting homosexual male. Greenberg, the author of Wrestling With God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, has been exploring this paradox for years.

He began by outlining the binary of silence or exile that has traditionally characterized a gay individual's relationship with their faith; "people are deciding not to silent," he said, "and not to leave."

Greenberg then used his personal history as a bounding point for the discussion. He began studying with an Orthodox Rabbi at the age of 15, and eventually became Orthodox. Five years later, studying in Israel, he realized he was powerfully sexually attracted to another male student.

For years after Greenberg became a Rabbi in the States, Yom Kippur was a sore point for him. One verse from Leviticus, read every Yom Kippur, hit home: "Ye shall not lie with a man… it is an abomination."

Rabbi Greenberg decided one Yom Kippur that if he was vulnerable to the text, that meant that the text had to be vulnerable to him—to his experiences, as well as those of other Orthodox gays and lesbians. He decided not to walk away from the conflict, but to walk directly into it.

Greenberg began by unravelling the generally-accepted reasons for proscription against homosexuality in the Judeo-Christian tradition: the sexual act will not lead to procreation, and homosexual unions undermine the traditional idea of marriage. Sex for Jews, he said, needs only to be relational in order to be legitimate—it needs to bind two people together, not work to produce a third. The second reason, which Greenberg identified as "more Protestant than Jewish," can be debunked like so: "heterosexual" marriages are only threatened by homosexual unions when homosexual people are forced into them.

Greenberg reframed homophobia in the Judeo-Christian as "one small room in a hotel of misogyny." Being penetrated has typically meant being rendered feminine, the receiver. Being feminized is still understood as an insult—a coach tells a young boy he throws like a girl; a man dressed as a woman is classified as "funny", it is acceptable to address a room of people using the term "guys" but not the term "girls." Patriarchy, asserted Greenberg, is the fuel for homophobia.

Greenberg shared the story of Lillith to illustrate the point (Lilith has been identified by some as the "first woman"; she has also, funnily enough, wormed her way into many slightly angsty feminist songs). Lilith came from the earth like Adam; their partnership was severed after one simple conversation:

"I refuse to be on the bottom," said Lilith.

"I insist on being on the top," said Adam.

Greenberg laughed: "Lilith just wanted to switch it up a bit," he said, "she asserted her equality, and then she flew away."

The Rabbi also spoke to the re-figuring of the marriage tradition in the Jewish faith. In some ceremonies, the man "acquires" a woman; which means that he is essentially assuming her as chattel, and claiming, with the ring, unique and exclusive sexual rights to her body. Greenberg has been called upon as a Rabbit to help seek a different way to define a commitment between two caring individuals (heterosexual or homosexual); a commitment ceremony that will see both individuals as mutual partners in a relationship.

The Rabbi also proudly identified himself as a vocal proponent of the legalization of gay marriage in Canada, calling the legal recognition of homosexual unions "the single most important thing to set the bar for equality."

And I agree. But, rebellious and a post-structuralist by nature, the Rabbi and I may see things slightly differently. I am not willing to exclude the possibility of loving, non-monogamous relationships, for one.

In all, it's probably more important to recognize the intersections and the possibilities for understanding.

I went to the Eccles Centre Sunday morning with the idea that Greenberg would talk about the ways in which he'd reconciled the two halves of his self—and left with the understanding that religious texts are permeable and vulnerable to the same ethical and compassionate questions that guide my own spiritual quests.

For more information about Wrestling With God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, or to buy the book, visit wrestlingwithgodandmen.com

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