"Trembling Before G-d": Analyzing Homosexuality & Orthodoxy

"Trembling Before God", a documentary that investigates homosexuality and Orthodoxy, is a most troubling movie. Part of the pain one experiences in watching this movie is clearly intended by its makers. The anguish of the gay individual in his/her struggle to abide by the commands of the Torah, specifically in regard to the prohibition of homosexual activity, cannot be ignored. Another part of the viewer's pain, however, is, most likely, not intentional: the pain of watching the movie's false portrayal of Orthodoxy.

Aside from the pain inherent in the movie's central issue, there is pain in watching the movie ignore many important issues that are integrally-connected to, and indeed outgrowths of that central issue. For these reasons, the movie, ultimately, is disturbing. It is not simply disturbing because it supports an agenda that is outside the pale of Orthodoxy (as defined by the vast majority of Orthodoxy). It is disturbing because it portrays the entire issue in a manner that, I would contend, is outside the pale of Orthodoxy. The greatest sadness about this may be that the creators of this movie themselves may not have even recognized this, at least to its fullest extent. In other words, the greatest sadness may be that Orthodoxy unaware is projecting itself to the world an image of itself which is incorrect. It is certainly a problem if the movie was intentionally misleading but it is a greater problem if it was unintentionally misleading.

It is more specifically to address the latter problem that an in-depth analysis of this documentary is demanded. There is, of course, continued merit in investigating the substantial matter itself and, clearly, the issue of homosexuality and Torah must be one focus of these comments. The movie, however, serves a further role in that it may also be a mirror on Orthodoxy itself. Of course, this mirror may be -- and most likely is -- distorted. The
limited presentation in the movie of the words of Rav Aharon Feldman, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel of Baltimore, who has been involved in this issue and has demonstrated great sensitivity to the plight of the gay individual -- as evidenced in the recent publication (with names withheld) by Jewish Action of a letter Rav Feldman wrote to a gay individual -- leads the viewer to suspect the use of selective editing to skew the messages intended by interviewees. In spite of this problem, the movie has affected its audience, and this effectiveness can only have been achieved because the audience perceived some truth in its presentation -- and so one must wonder how Orthodoxy is perceived by others. More significantly, it is in the presentations of the individuals within the movie that one finds the greatest challenge. In hearing the various comments of the lesbian couple, both graduates of a Beis Yaakov in Brooklyn, I wonder what religion was taught in their school. This is not because of their permissive statements on lesbianism. In fact, some of these statements actually demonstrate subtle halachic reasoning, although ultimately falling short. It is in the presentation of Orthodoxy -- their understanding of Jewish thought, the mitzvot, the religion as a whole -- and, as such, the presentation of the conflict between homosexuality and Orthodoxy, that one finds the greatest problem. How can you deal with an issue if you do not understand the nature of the conflict? And the real reason this must be addressed is because the problem may be with us, in how Orthodoxy is seen but, more significantly, in how Orthodoxy is presented.

Over the next few weeks, I hope to present different articles on subjects that arise within the context of this movie. These subjects include:

1) The Nature of Orthodoxy - Beyond Ritual

2) Personal and/or Philosophical Conflict

3) Homosexuality in Comparison to Other Drives

4) Sexuality and Love

5) The Parameters of Marriage

6) The Gay Individual in a Same Sex Environment

Before dealing with these matters, however, I feel that I would like to give individuals the opportunity to view the movie. This is not to say that one who has not seen the movie will not benefit from these presentations but, I think, before continuing with this analysis, the opportunity to view the movie should be offered. I would ask, though, that if you do see the movie, have the topics mentioned above in mind. How is Orthodoxy presented? How is the conflict between homosexuality and Orthodoxy displayed? What are the variant issues touched upon, both intentionally and unintentionally, within the movie?

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht