In a sign of how sensitive the issue of homosexuality is within traditional Judaism, a young, traditional congregation in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is losing the backing of its supporting religious institution because it invited an openly gay Orthodox rabbi to give sermons during Rosh HaShanah, The Jewish Week has learned.
Days before Rosh HaShanah, the Union for Traditional Judaism, a breakaway group from the Conservative movement, delivered an ultimatum to The Montauk Minyan: either rescind its invitation to the rabbi or lose their support.
The move stunned minyan organizers, who started scrambling to find a Torah scroll to borrow, since at first it seemed that the UTJ might immediately retrieve the one it was lending them.
The minyan had long been working on hosting Rabbi Steven Greenberg, say members. Rabbi Greenberg is a Yeshiva University-ordained rabbi who came out publicly as gay in 1999 and is author of “Wrestling with God and Man: Homosexuality and the Jewish Tradition,” which was published earlier this year. He is also one of the featured speakers in “Trembling Before G-d,” the documentary film about gays in the Orthodox world, which has opened dialogue on the topic in even the most traditional quarters.
Inviting him to speak at the Montauk Minyan “was not at all an ideological statement, but it was a sense of Park Slope being a diverse, open community, and he’s that kind of Orthodox rabbi,” said member Daniel Septimus.
“The point of it wasn’t to be the first Orthodox minyan to have an openly gay Orthodox rabbi. To us, it was about that there was an interesting, renowned, liberal Orthodox rabbi who was available for Rosh HaShanah.”
The Montauk Minyan, named for the private club in which it first rented space, though it rarely meets there today, is located in Park Slope, which is widely considered one of the city’s most comfortable neighborhoods for gays and lesbians.
According to Septimus, there are no openly gay members of the Montauk Minyan, which has about 25 people attend the Shabbat services it holds every other week, and had about twice that many people attend on Rosh HaShanah.
Nor did Rabbi Greenberg speak about anything related to his sexuality, say those who attended. His sermons focused on the themes of the holiday. “Rabbi Greenberg didn’t say anything at all controversial unless someone thinks introspection and teshuva [repentance] are controversial,” said minyan member Marcy Behrmann Frank.
According to Rabbi Ronald Price, UTJ’s executive director, the organization felt that it had no choice when it learned that Rabbi Greenberg would be serving in a rabbinic capacity.
“This has been done with a very heavy heart. I would love to be able to find a way out of this, but there is no other way,” Rabbi Price said.
To the UTJ, homosexual behavior is incompatible with rabbinic religious leadership.
“This is not the kind of thing that any of us want to do or could have imagined. This is the first time in my career I’ve ever had to tell people that they would not be able to be part of our organization. We see ourselves as being as inclusive as possible within the halachic rubric.
“What we can’t do is put someone up in a religious leadership position who takes a stand which is outside the framework altogether of halachic Judaism, as much as he would like to be within it,” Rabbi Price added.
The UTJ, a Teaneck-based organization, was established following the Conservative movement’s decision to ordain women as rabbis, which led a group of opponents to create what they hoped would become a new movement. In its two decades, the Union and its rabbinic ordination program have remained small, and it now describes itself as a “transdenominational education and outreach organization.”
It has, on occasion, supported new Jewish prayer groups and presently backs one in Hoboken, N.J., and one in Vancouver, British Columbia, said Rabbi Price.
The Montauk Minyan received support from UTJ from its start in 2002. The arrangement has always been informal, say minyan organizers, with no conditions stipulated.
Early on, UTJ provided the minyan with money to advertise services and to rent space in Park Slope’s Montauk Club. Before the Minyan obtained its own tax ID number, so direct contributions could be deducted by donors, UTJ agreed to allow contributions to be funneled through its offices.
Financial support ended some time ago, but UTJ has more recently been lending the minyan prayer books and a Torah scroll.
This imbroglio began a week before Rosh HaShanah, when Rabbi Price got wind of a controversy brewing among his board members who had seen a display ad that the Minyan placed in The Jewish Week, advertising their upcoming High Holy Day services, featuring Rabbi Greenberg’s presence for Rosh HaShanah.
It prompted a whirlwind of discussion on the UTJ’s online bulletin board, www.utj.org.
The UTJ quickly decided that the minyan would have to rescind the invitation to Rabbi Greenberg, or it would rescind its support of the minyan. From their perspective, Rabbi Greenberg’s involvement was tantamount to providing rabbinic leadership, though his involvement was limited to giving sermons, and did not include leading prayers.
“UTJ never told us before what we can and can’t do, so how can they come to us a week before Rosh HaShanah with this request?” said minyan member Septimus. “We were always very thankful for their support. But if we invited speakers we didn’t ask their permission.”
The issue seemed to turn on the question of what involvement constitutes “rabbinic leadership.”
“We didn’t necessarily view it as if we put Rabbi Greenberg in a position of rabbinic leadership,” said Septimus.
In the view of Rabbi Greenberg, “I’m not the rabbi of the synagogue and was not asked to speak about the issue of homosexuality. I’m not their “posek,” their religious authority. I was the speaker for Rosh HaShanah,” he told The Jewish Week.
“I may be an unusual rabbi because of the book; however, I’m a rabbi. I teach many things, and this was simply another of the many rabbinic tasks which I choose to do.”
Some at UTJ suggested to Montauk Minyan leaders, who bill their community as “traditional-progressive,” that if they had invited Rabbi Greenberg to speak during a weekday and invited someone else to rebut his views, for instance, that it wouldn’t have presented them with the same problem.
“I don’t know what the purpose of having someone rebut would be, because he didn’t speak about anything controversial,” said Behrmann Frank.
“I am disappointed by the UTJ’s decision,” she said. “The minyan would be well served to have some halachic guidance. We’re a halachic minyan, but none of us are really Torah scholars or halachic decisors, so it is important for us to have that kind of support. The UTJ was a good match and it’s disappointing that that was the action that they took.”