Thursday, January 27, 2011

Trembling Before G-d: Secrets of the Soul

Trembling Before G-d is a documentary about gay Orthodox Jews attempting to reconcile their sexuality with their faith.  The parallels between the Orthodox Jewish experience and the Mormon experience are striking, and I would recommend that every gay Mormon see this film.  It speaks directly to the types of conflicts that many gay and lesbian Mormons – wherever they may be on the spectrum of “activity” and/or belief – have experienced and do experience.

(Note: This is the first of what I contemplate will be a regular feature on my blog, i.e., a movie review of a film that explores issues relating to homosexuality and/or Mormonism and/or Life.  I know reviews will be available elsewhere with respect to the films I discuss.  What I hope to add is a more in-depth exploration of issues that are of unique relevance to those who peruse this blog.)

The film follows the lives of several gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews and includes interviews with rabbis and psychotherapists about Orthodox attitudes towards homosexuality.  It won several awards, including the Teddy Award for Best Documentary Film at the 2001 Berlin Film Festival, as well as Best Documentary at the 2001 Chicago International Film Festival and the 2003 GLAAD Media Awards.  It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and a Grand Jury Award for Outstanding Documentary Feature at the 2001 L.A. Outfest.

The director of the film, Sandi Simcha DuBowski, is gay and came from a Conservative Jewish background.  He became interested at age 24 in the subject of homosexuality within Orthodox Jewish communities and spent the next five years of his life meeting hundreds of homosexual Jews in several countries around the world.  Only a few of these persons, however, agreed to be filmed due to fears of being ostracized.

“Sometimes you choose films,” DuBowski wrote, “[and] sometimes films choose you. I began “Trembling Before G-d” out of curiosity, a desire to explore the Orthodox world. I do not think I ever anticipated that such intense and challenging six years would follow and that the film would set me on a path of spiritual awakening and greater religious observance … I spent the next five years criss-crossing the globe even just trying to locate people and spent thousands of hours becoming part of the simchas (joys) and pain of the incredible Orthodox and formerly Orthodox gays and lesbians I had the privilege of meeting and sharing my life.

“[The effort to find and interview Orthodox gays] took incredible effort - dozens of screenings in living rooms, innumerable flyers, newspaper ads, TV/print coverage, word-of-mouth, email forwarding, non-stop networking in person and over the Internet. As I met more and more Hasidic and Orthodox gays and lesbians, some thrown out of yeshivas for being gay, others forced into heterosexual marriages, a number disowned and abandoned by their families, it became clear that my level of responsibility and accountability to this deeply hidden community had to be paramount. It was clear that this film could be a vehicle not just of personal exploration, but a powerful catalyst for the birth of a community that would gain mass public voice for the first time ...”

The film weaves its story around a dozen or so gay Jews, rabbis and Jewish psychologists. Some of these are:

David.  One of the main gay “characters” is David, an observant Orthodox Jewish doctor from Los Angeles who has spent a decade trying to reconcile his homosexuality with Judaism.  On the advice of a respected rabbi, he went to therapy and complied with numerous bizarre forms of treatment, including wearing a rubber band around his wrist and flicking it every time he had a “undesirable” thought about a man.  He was told he could change, and he initially believed it.  Finally, however, he gave up and accepted the fact that he would never change. 

David could not, however, reconcile his deep Orthodox faith and his homosexuality with Orthodox Jewish law as interpreted and enforced by rabbis.  “I don’t want to be a less-than Jew because I’m gay,” he says.  One of the most poignant moments in the film is when he re-visits the rabbi to whom he first came out 20 years previously and is told he must live a life of celibacy.  David cries as he sits across the table from the rabbi for whom he has had tremendous respect.  Later, he affirms, “I want to know that I can have a relationship Hashem completely, including this [gay] part of my being.”  Then, wistfully, “I am tremendously hopeful [that things will change].  Otherwise, why hang on to Orthodoxy?  Why not chuck the whole thing.”  (Is this resonating with anyone?)

Malka and Leah.  "Malka" and "Leah" are two observant Orthodox lesbians who have lived together for ten years.  They speak frankly about their lives and discuss, among other things, their fears that they may not end up in heaven together.  Malka’s family rejected her outright when she came out to them; but her father, who is a rabbi, was told by another rabbi that he could not turn his back on his daughter.  As a result, Malka’s father and mother make perfunctory phone calls to their daughter, which always has the effect of reducing Malka to tears because she knows they are doing it to fulfill their own sense of duty, rather than out of love for her.

Shlomo Ashkenazy is a gay psychotherapist whose comments are featured periodically throughout the film.  “The sad truth,” he states toward the beginning of the film, “is that many Orthodox gay people are badly damaged.  They’ve suffered so many years of torment, self-doubt and depression and low self-esteem.  How can you [as a gay Orthodox Jew] make a case for asking people to accept you when you don’t accept yourself?” 

Mark.  Mark is the son of an ultra-orthodox rabbi in England.  He started to come out when he was 15 and was sent to Israel by his parents because “there are no homosexuals in Israel.”  “Big mistake!” comments Mark, as that is when and where he came completely out.  He was thrown out of seven yeshivas (religious schools) for homosexual activity across England and Israel, contracted AIDS and lost, for a time, his desire to live his Orthodox faith.  As he is interviewed in the documentary, however, we see him regain this desire. 

At one point in the film, Mark asks plaintively, “Why did G-d give me homosexuality?” He later states, “I miss being with people who have fear of Hashem [God] … I’ve lost all my Torah, and I’ve got to seek it again.”  Toward the end of the film, he prepares to celebrate Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, with other gay Jewish men.  Clearly ill, he becomes philosophical as he contemplates his existence:  “[Hashem] has given me a soul … Just being a Jew is such a nice present to receive … Just being Jewish.”

Naomi Mark is another therapist interviewed for the documentary.  Early in the film, she laments that by giving gay Orthodox kids a message that they either must conform or leave, “we lose them.  Either they cease to be Orthodox, or we lose them by suicide, or they lose their soul; they live a lie that distorts them internally.”  (Sound familiar?)  Toward the end of the film, as she reflects on homosexuality, Orthodoxy and on how little we actually know about the purpose of life and Heshiva’s design, she concludes by saying, “There’s more to this than we could ever possibly understand.”

Steve Greenberg is reportedly the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi in the United States and was interviewed for the film.  He speaks of meeting with parents of children who have come out and saying to them, “There are other ways to read the Torah [than those to which we are accustomed].  Let’s learn.”  In another segment, Greenberg speaks of gay relationships and recites Hashem’s observation that it is not good for man to be alone.  “Human loneliness is the first problem,” Greenberg comments.  “It was the first fly in the ointment of creation.”  [I have to respect a religion that actually embraces the great philosophical questions of life!]  Speaking of his own (relatively recent) partnership, Greenberg states almost euphorically that, because of this relationship, “I am finally seeing myself more “real-ly” than I ever have before.

Toward the end of the film, in discussing the “traditional” Orthodox approach to homosexuality, Greenberg advances what seems to me to be a classic (but definitely un-Orthodox) approach to the traditional Judeo-Christian attitude towards being gay:  “The demonstration that human beings can influence even Hashem is all over the Torah. G-d wishes to learn from his conversations with human beings.  That’s what the covenant is all about!  The whole engagement is not bout G-d’s control, but about G-d’s love!  … It’s not Judaism if it’s not responsive to the human condition.”  Wow!  To quote Joseph Smith, “This is good doctrine. It tastes good.”

Israel.  Israel is a 58-year-old New Yorker who decided he couldn't be gay and Orthodox, and turned his back on his religion many years before, though not before his family forced him into electroshock therapy to try to cure him. “How can you be queer and Orthodox at the same time,” he asks.  “I see a logical contradiction there.  It can’t be.  In order to retain my sanity and selfhood, I had to leave.  I had to throw everything away [even though] … my whole spirit comes out of that background.” 

We watch Israel as he goes into the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhoods of New York.  At one point, he recites from memory the prayer his father – from whom he has been estranged for over 25 years – used to sing on the Shabbat.  At another point, he gives vent to the deep-seated anger he feels at being cast out of a community that believes that it is the custodian of the true Torah.  “I know how to live my faith!” he angrily declares with raised fist, asserting that the God that his father and those like him worship (and who have condemned and excluded gays) is not the God that redeemed Israel out of Egypt.

There are other persons interviewed in the film: gays, rabbis and therapists. There are many other memorable and thought-provoking comments that resonated with me as I watched the documentary.  But perhaps the aspect of the film that engaged me the most was the tremendous respect and reverence, shared by all those who were interviewed, for and toward not only the awful mystery and majesty of Hashem – which infuses every aspect of Orthodox life – but also for the mystery of this thing that is called homosexuality.  This respect for the awe-full-ness of God and for the large questions of life is an aspect of Judaism that has always appealed to me.

I will conclude this little essay with comments from a real movie reviewer, Jim Fouratt, who reviewed the film for LGNY:  “I frankly had little interest in learning why gays and lesbians wanted to stay within one of the most specifically homophobic religious traditions, and I went to see it out of duty rather than desire. I was wrong. The film is about the longing for a relationship with G-D and an unwillingness to let go of the rituals of union with G-D and community … Artistic values alone would merit recommending this film … The journey, the closet, the fear, the rapture are what the film documents. No easy answers are given. In the best tradition of documentaries, the film places the questions right in the lap of the viewer.”

Blessed are you, Hashem, Our G-d
King of the Universe
Knower of Secrets
~ Jewish Prayer


  1. Now try being a gay Jew who became a straight Mormon (or so I thought) and who has emerged a queer Saint. :)

    Regarding "the mystery of this thing that is called homosexuality", I am reminded of a story I heard about six years ago (when I was coming down the mountain from a Journey into Manhood weekend). It turns out that one of the Orthodox (or observant) Jews told us that a rabbi was asked what to do about a certain young man who had the ability and desire to love a man, sexual longings and all. His response: "young man, you have been given a gift to love in a unique way. Treat it with great care. That's all I have to say" At least, through my own tears, that's how I heard it.

  2. As one who has significant Jewish blood in her ancestry, I look forward to viewing this film. (My great-grandfather, several times removed was the first Jew who joined the LDS Church. He was a contemporary of Joseph Smith and was teaching the prophet German so that the Book of Mormon could be translated. Sadly, the prophet was assassinated before that could happen and the translations was done by John Taylor.)And, to gain more insights into being a gay woman who also belongs to the LDS faith.

    Thank you for bringing this film to my awareness.

    Love and respect, always.

  3. @Martin - Thanks for sharing that story from the Journey to Manhood weekend. Beautiful.

    @This blog author - That's a neat story about your Jewish ancestor. I think you'll really enjoy this documentary.

  4. I saw this movie a while ago, and I was deeply moved. I remember one scene where one of the gay men featured (I don't remember his name) passes by an orthodox man and they start having a conversation about observing the sabbath, and the gay man says "I'm queer." I just couldn't imagine what was going through that orthodox man's head, being confronted with something he's taught is evil in such a way, and yet he remained polite and loving, and simple called the man to return to orthodoxy. That was one of the most touching scenes for me, but I don't know why.

  5. I also enjoyed this film and found it to have profound relevance to the gay Mormon experience.