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Trembling Before G-d

Trembling Before G-d

A new film examines the dichotomy of the Orthodox homosexual.

by

Orthodox Jewish homosexuals are the subject of a documentary film that achieved darlinghood at a number of film festivals over the past year and has now been similarly well-received at its New York debut. Many audiences and reviewers have found "Trembling Before G-d"'s portrayal of the anguish faced by Jews, who want to remain Orthodox but see themselves as homosexual, to be compelling.

And on one level the film might well be regarded as a tribute to the determination of heartfelt Jews who, despite the catastrophic clash of their desires and their faith, nevertheless find themselves simply unable to abandon the latter. The Jewish soul is indeed a hardy, holy thing.

Unfortunately, though, "Trembling" seems to have other intents as well. While it never baldly advocates the case for broader societal acceptance of homosexuality or for the abandonment of elements of the Jewish religious tradition, those causes are subtly evident in the stark, simplistic picture the film presents of sincere, conflicted and victimized men and women confronted by a largely stern and stubborn cadre of rabbis.

That picture is both incomplete and distorted. For starters, the film refuses to even allow for the possibility that men and women with homosexual predilections might -- with great effort, to be sure -- achieve successful and happy marriages to members of the opposite sex.

He didn't seem to be interested in meeting any Jews who were in the process of change.

Though he interviewed hundreds of subjects for the project, producer Sandi Simcha DuBowski claims to have been unable to find any such people. Therapist Adam Jessel, though, writing in the Jerusalem Post, says there are many, and recounts how he attended a screening of the film with precisely such a person -- a man, it turned out, who was actually interviewed by DuBowski but whose experience was not included in the film. Jessel also quotes another man who reported that DuBowski, with whom he spoke by phone, "told me he doesn't believe in change. He didn't seem to be interested in meeting any Jews who were in the process of change either."

Such change is more common that most people realize. An organization -- JONAH (Jonahhelp@aol.com) -- has been helping Jews, both Orthodox and otherwise, who wish to overcome homosexual orientations, and has met with considerable success. Neither it nor any of its clients are featured or mentioned in "Trembling."

ACTIONS, NOT ORIENTATION

What is more, and even more important, is that while the film thoroughly portrays the challenges faced by its subjects, it simply does not allow Judaism to make its case. Several prominent Orthodox rabbis were interviewed at length by DuBowski, but only short excerpts are included in the film.

One of those rabbis, Rabbi Aharon Feldman, currently the dean of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, says that the film fails to convey the deep compassion with which thoughtful Orthodox Jews regard those who are challenged with a homosexual orientation. The film, he asserts, "makes us appear to be narrow and bigoted" when, in fact, "it is compassion, albeit without condoning" that accurately describes Orthodoxy's attitude toward homosexuality.

'Compassion without condoning' describes Orthodoxy's attitude toward homosexuality.

That attitude reflects the fact that no sexual orientation itself is condemned by the Torah. Axiomatic to Jewish law is that only acts and willful attitudes (like nurturing desires that are wrong) can be prohibited, not inherent proclivities. Behavior, though, in every area of human life and endeavor, is carefully delineated by Jewish religious law. That is Judaism. And controlling behavior, even -- no, especially -- when difficult, is precisely what the Torah asks of its adherents.

That's not, however, the film's attitude, which is better summed up by one of its subjects, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, billed as "the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi." Addressing the Torah's strong prohibition of male homosexual acts, he suggests to the camera, without elaboration: "There are other ways of reading the Torah." What Rabbi Greenberg apparently believes is that elements of the Jewish religious tradition are negotiable, that the Torah, like a Hollywood script, can be sent back for a rewrite. That approach can be called many things, but "Orthodox" is not among them.

DuBowski has told the press that his experiences in making his film have made him more religious, that he has experienced Shabbat for the first time and laid tefillin. Such Jewish growth is no small thing, and is a true tribute to the man. May he continue to grow as a Jew, and to learn more about Jewish ideals and observance. And may he also come to understand why his film, whether or not it is a critical success, misleads.

Because "Trembling Before G-d" wrongly answers the most important Jewish question imaginable: Is Judaism about what we'd like God to do to accommodate us, or about what we are honored, exalted and sanctified to do to obey Him?

Published: October 27, 2001


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Visitor Comments: 53

(53) Anonymous, May 1, 2013 5:52 PM

a glimpse on halachic interpretations on Homosexuality

There are many orthodox halachic opinons which say that being a lesbian is not against the Torah.It may be a rabbinic law. Lesbianism is not menitoned in the written torah. It is a grey area.

(52) Heretic, November 20, 2012 7:16 PM

This article is intellectually dishonest.

""it is compassion, albeit without condoning" that accurately describes Orthodoxy's attitude toward homosexuality." - why? If it's morally abhorrent, why don't you despise of homosexuals? It certainly doesn't seem morally righteous to be compassionate to a mass-murderer. This is indicative of a cognitive dissonance. You know full well that there isn't any moral problem with homosexuality. Would the behaviour of the 'God Hates Fags' movement, not be more appropriate? Furthermore, given the number of emotional traumas that 'reparative treatment' has caused, it seems incredibly uncompassionate to encourage this treatment. '"There are other ways of reading the Torah." What Rabbi Greenberg apparently believes is that elements of the Jewish religious tradition are negotiable, that the Torah, like a Hollywood script, can be sent back for a rewrite.' - that is a blatant misreading of Rabbi Greenberg. He is specifically not saying that it should be 'rewritten', he is saying it should be 're-read'. You can argue that it shouldn't be interpreted differently, to be sure, but that is a much more subtle and difficult case to argue. Why, though, do you quote Rabbi Greenberg and then immediately and obviously straw-man the quote? There are two possibilities for this: 1) That you have genuinely misunderstood what he's saying. And given that he isn't making a particularly difficult argument, undermining your intellectual ability, and therefore the integrity of all of the premises in this article. 2) You have an agenda that accepts that intellectual honesty can be sacrificed in the name of rhetoric. That is an unacceptable agenda, especially on such difficult moral questions.

(51) Zvi, April 23, 2007 3:38 PM

Some points of Contention

I do not believe that your article is entirely consistent nor fair to certain individuals. This issue is very difficult, most especially for homosexuals themselves within the frum world and as such the answer is not so simplistic as you imply. Changing ones sexual orientation is dubious at best, working perhaps only for those with strong and commandeering force of will. For the most part it doesn't work and leads to heartache and suffering within the marriages that subsequently form. Rabbi Feldman who you quote doesn't seem to believe it is possible himself if you read his letter to a homosexual baal Teshuva.

(50) Anonymous, October 29, 2006 2:04 PM

compassion but reservations

I see there have been many many posted comments and if anyone else is still reading this I wanted to put my feelings on board. I think a central problem here is that we judge Judaism as insensitive when really it is theses specific rabbis themselves who might be insensitive, and truthfully, as hurtful as this is to say, the emes is that although they are wrong, absolutely wrong in their approach on how to deal with those of us who have inclinations not condoned by Judaism, these rabbis are all too human-to err is human. Whenever new issues come up, it is extremely crucial to see how things will turn out- as we all know- you never get another chance to make a first impression- and its unfortunate, because after a few years, things have changed, but people may still see bigotry where it has been or is attempting to be erased.
As I was taught by many of my rabbis, the issue here is that a person with a homosexual tendency has a huge huge nisayon. period. he's not evil, he or she is not bad, not gross, not anything of the sort- Hashem "just" gave them a big test, and the least He is asking of them is to pull through- When I say this I say, although I cannot really compare apples and oranges, people with mental illnesses as schitzophrenia, etc. are also treated shockingly- the only difference is that outsiders are much more able to see schitzophrenia as NOT being "someone's fault" as homosexuality is not.
But the point needs to be clearly stated- there are those who are experimenting, or did experiment, and who could "change" by virtue of the fact that this homomsexual tendency wasn't something they felt all their life. and it is to THESE people, i believe, that the rabbis say-wait a second, you're missing out, don't tell yourself but im soo different, rather realize that some times you can experiment and still be heterosexual and you could help end your own misery. Still, it seems unfortunate, Hashem made this world in such a way that there ARE people who CANNOT change that, and its hard, extremely hard. I really feel for you out there, the secrecy you must live in, the hurt you feel day to day, and the feeling, maybe worst of all, that you're not as good in the eyes of Hashem. but that isn't true, and in truth, and im not mincing words, for those of you who are trying at all costs to remain frum, even with all the hurt and pain inside, i mamesh have the highest respect for you. Because its almost as though Hashem is asking you to curb your sensual desires which is a big part of a person's life, and to fight it, I cannot even imagine- we say that for every minute a person holds himself back from saying a word of lashon hara, his reward is so great a malach can't even fathom it. dare i say, how much more so is the reward you get for fighting yourself and trying to cope with the agony, every second of every day. May Hashem bless you with much needed siyata dishmaya, and may He somehow give you the needed comfort and power to help you live the most satisfactory life you can.
With much revered respect, a concerned bas yisrael.

(49) RafiSimcha, October 9, 2006 4:05 PM

Oppressed of the Oppressed

Being gay is the ultimate exile - galut. Being gay is not a "choice," it is a hard-wired affliction. Being gay is knowing that one is outside of the human race - peering through the lattices 'meitzitz min ha charakim" into the straight world, the world of "normal people."

Sensitive Jews do see that gay people are suffering, suffering with a compounding of the old Jewish problem of exile. Gay people are not "gay," and "Trembling" tells that truth.

The love-need that is homosexuality is an existential problem that faces everyone - the unsolvable dilemma of merging with other. As we learn from the succah, all shelter is a fleeting metaphor - all love-hunger is G-d hunger. Giving full expression to homosexual needs does not solve them any more than does giving full expression to heterosexual needs. There is always the veil, always the "peering through the lattice" of the Song of Songs.

Gay love usually means loving someone who is not available, and who rebuffs tender emotion with cruel indifference. For a gay person who loves Torah, the cruelty is compounded by strict interpretation. The special challenge facing a gay Jew is like the German Jew of the 1930's. Do you wear the yellow star, or do you stop being Jewish? Do you fake a straight marriage, and not wear the yellow star of your authentic self?

For most, the solution is to hide the yellow star of gayness and take part in the normal world. Some are bravely trying to be their authentic selves and still fit in.

"Bittul ha yesh," one of the goals of Chasidus, means "nullification of what I have," surrender of personal ego needs in the face of the Throne of Glory. Gay Jews need to "get it out of their systems," if they can - without tormenting themselves with guilt, and then get on with serving G-d and bringing unity to Klal Yisroel. Someone will complain no matter what you do - so just do your best and let the dogs bark while the caravan passes.

A broken heart is one of the foundations of prayer. The ashes are the holiest part of the offering. By these standards, a Gay Jew is more ready to pray than anyone. Pray for these special souls, that they might find a way to come into the succah, to find shelter under the wings of Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu. Pray for the breaking hearts of sensitive young men and women who love Torah all the more because they can only see it through the lattices, because their body chemistry is wired differently.

The people who are "converts," who were gay and made the transition to comfortable straightness, should be acknowledged as well. Often gay people do deny that this is possible, and that's unhealthy, too. That's a form of "gay orthodoxy" that IS a problem. These "converts" are probably the highest souls, having nullified themselves for Avodat Hashem - but only if they aren't lying to themSELVES and are not secretly miserable. There should be a movie about them.

Thank You, Sandi, for this movie, which shows the true feelings and torment of Gay and Lesbian Jews. For those who feel the topic was not fully covered, get the DVD and see the rest of the material that couldn't fit into a movie-length production.


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