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.
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 ([email protected]) - 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."
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
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
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 is 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?