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

In Part II, I presented the suggestion that Orthodoxy is mis-represented in the movie "Trembling Before G-d" as a system whose sole goal or, at least prime goal, is spirituality. My assertion is that this portrayal colours the conflict between the gay individual and Orthodoxy in a specific manner. In this section, we will, building upon these reflections, further investigate the nature of the conflict as presented in the movie and, what we may term the actual nature of the conflict as defined within the perspective of Orthodox thought.

Essentially, the movie presents the conflict in personal terms. From an Orthodox perspective, the conflict must be approached in philosophical terms. Unfortunately, this approach, while surfacing at points in the movie, is not fully addressed. As a result, "Trembling Before G-d" suffers in its function as a venue for addressing the many issues involved in this conflict, including many introduced by the movie itself.

Let us first acknowledge, without any qualification, that the struggle and torment that faces the gay individual attempting to follow the laws of Torah cannot be minimized. As Pirkei Avot 2:5 demands, one should not judge another until one is in the other's place. These essays on the movie "Trembling Before G-d" are not, in any way, intended to lessen our obligation of empathy. Yet, our responsibility to care must not distract us from dispassionate and clear-headed analyses and investigations, which are also demanded. "Trembling Before G-d" is not false in its portrayals of the anguished dilemmas faced by the various individuals highlighted in the movie. The hardships presented in the movie, indeed, are real and, in many ways, sad and tragic. It is the context in which these struggles are presented that is the difficulty. For any solution to a problem to even have a chance of being uncovered, one must first clearly define and articulate the problem or question. Failure to do so will actually skew or even derail the problem solving process. It is thus important to show how this movie is presenting the questions inaccurately. Our goal then is to formulate the questions and problems in a more precise manner.

At its most basic level, the fundamental question can be described in the following way: "the gay individual has a strong desire to act in a manner that is forbidden by Orthodoxy, resulting in a conflict that yields pain, tension and sadness -- how are we to respond?" The issue is how we further construct the conflict and understand the various details inherent in this broad, basic statement. For example, how one may respond to this dilemma may be strongly predicated on one's view of the desire that is prohibited. If one perceives the desire to be simply physical or inherently immoral, there is a lesser chance of empathy for the one suffering. If one has a desire to hurt others and is deeply upset by having to restrain himself/herself from hitting others, we may still recommend a psychiatrist but in no way would we feel bad as a result of the lack of satisfaction of this drive. If, though, the desire is more dignified, there is a greater chance of empathy. The agunah, the woman who has halachic bars to remarriage, is a case that is always met with great empathy; in fact, Halacha itself demands this empathy. How one defines the gay individual's desire is thus of extreme importance in defining the nature of the conflict. If one perceives the homosexual desire to simply be a physical interest in having sex in a specific manner, the question of conflict is coloured one way. If one, however, perceives the homosexual desire to be for love and companionship which can only be fulfilled with one of the same gender, the question of conflict is coloured in an entirely different way. In the movie, the chassidim who demonstrated against gay rights would seem to reflect a group of people who see the desire as wholly physical and thus show no sympathy for the homosexual individual. The theme of the entire movie itself, however, focuses on the issue of love and thus evokes greater empathy. While I inherently agree with the latter perspective, and thus also have similar empathy, I also recognize that this perspective supports the movie's agenda. How we define the nature of the prohibited action -- how we define the details inherent in the broad statement of the conflict -- affects our entire approach to the issue.

Just as there is a distinction in approach to the conflict dependent upon our view of the underlying drive or passion, our view of the nature of the prohibition can also have a great effect on our perception of the problem. Above, in presenting the broad statement of conflict, I stated that the conflict is caused because the act desired by this passion is "forbidden by Orthodoxy." How we understand the root, nature and essence of this prohibition is essential in defining our understanding of the conflict and in any attempt to formulate a possible solution. It is on this precise point that I find "Trembling Before G-d" to have failed. What does it mean to be "forbidden by Orthodoxy"? This question, in turn, can be approached in two distinct ways. What does the term "forbidden" mean? What are the modern-day consequences of breaching this rule? The former yields a philosophic and halachic approach to the conflict. The latter yields a personal approach to the conflict. It is this latter approach that dominates the movie.

It is at this point that our discussion on the presentation of spirituality in the movie has its foremost significance. If the goal of Orthodoxy is spirituality and a relationship with God, then for an act to be forbidden by Orthodoxy would imply that this act is seen by Orthodoxy as impeding spirituality. This is precisely how the conflict is presented, to a large extent, in the movie. We find individuals -- David, "Malka and Leah", Mark -- on a spiritual quest who have found a path to spirituality within Orthodoxy. This path, however, is blocked because the path itself, Orthodoxy, challenges their homosexuality thus causing tension. Do they abide by this path and thus forego the possibility of love and companionship? Or do they reject Orthodoxy and thus, like Israel, sadly forego this path of spirituality or, like Michelle, suffer the rejection of family and community? The conflict, as presented in the movie, reflects a tension, within the person, between competing desires that would be defined as positive -- spirituality, extended family, community and intimate love. Orthodoxy is maintaining that the path to spirituality demands rejection of the homosexual lifestyle. A further consequence of this choice is that Orthodox individuals -- communally, individually and as family -- may reject those who adopt a gay lifestyle. To dismiss this lifestyle, however, means to forego companionship and love.

Presenting the conflict in this manner allows "Trembling Before G-d" to present its agenda. Is it not possible to include gay individuals, even practicing gay individuals, in this path? The manner in which to consider this possibility would be to show that gay individuals are also spiritual and can advance greatly on the spiritual path of Orthodoxy. This is continuously demonstrated in the movie; we see gay individuals, sincerely, in a spiritual quest and finding spirituality in their practice of Orthodoxy. The question is then thrown back onto Orthodoxy -- why bar these individuals from this spiritual path? It is within this context that we hear the movie's presentation of the possibilities for leniencies, including, as presented by Rabbi Greenberg, room to change even the basic law.

Strangely, Rabbi Greenberg's suggestion in itself is not necessarily problematic. In the broadness of halachic discussion, there is room to consider almost any theory. Yet, it should also be recognized that just because some idea is considered does not mean it will survive the rigours of halachic analysis (and it is my belief that the arguments of leniencies, as presented in the movie, would not survive such a process). The real problem is the context. Rabbi Greenberg's statements are made at the conclusion of a presentation of the intense personal tension felt by one who wishes love -- sadly only available with someone of the same gender -- and spirituality through a path of Orthodoxy. The answer is simple: just change the law. What is missing is a true presentation of the halachic process. What is missing is what "forbidden by Orthodoxy" really means and the philosophical/halachic approach to this conflict that is demanded.

Ultimately, "forbidden by Orthodoxy" means forbidden by God. In turn, that which is forbidden by God is determined through the process of Halacha. Viewed in this manner, the elemental conflict that the Orthodox gay individual faces is not personal but rather halachic. At its core, it does not involve community and/or family. It does not involve spirituality. Simply, the individual wishes to perform an act that is forbidden by God as determined through the processes of Halacha. It is the fact that this philosophical/halachic approach is not really explored in any true depth that is the fundamental weakness of the movie. The concept of Divine prohibition qua Divine prohibition is really not investigated. The ultimate call of Halacha is not spirituality or ethics or nationality or a myriad of other positive pursuits. The ultimate call of Halacha is to follow the Will of God. That a gay individual is deeply spiritual and finds spiritual fulfillment in the observance of other mitzvot may even be commendable but has no standing in the process of Halacha. The conflict is simple: the individual wishes to do something that, as determined by the halachic process, God wills not to be done. Couching this primarily in terms of effects on spirituality or other projected values in the mitzvot misses this essence of Orthodox thought.

Presenting the conflict in a halachic manner in no way lessens its depth and the demand for further investigation. It actually increases this demand. It however changes the questions that will be asked and need to be asked. It is these questions that are missing in the movie. Of course, the fact that this drive is connected to love and companionship is of extreme import. The overriding question, viewed in a philosophical/halachic manner, is: Why would God wish to deny one the possibility of love? Interestingly, David does ask this question, but it is rhetorical and the demanded inquiry that this question initiates is overlooked. In turn, this question should lead to an investigation of the nature of love, its connection to sexuality and sexuality's connection to procreation (matters we will investigate in a later article). A belief in God the Creator means that we do not simply respond to a situation or set of facts; we must also contemplate the nature of this situation or set of facts.

Within such contemplation, one may also wonder why God the Creator would create such a drive given its obvious incongruent nature. It is interesting to note that various Orthodox responses to homosexuality attempt to circumvent these questions by declaring homosexuality a result of nurture. Thus God the Creator is not directly challenged and love is still available to the supposedly gay individual by correcting this desire. The incongruent nature of the drive can then also be used more effectively to support the ban on gay activity. Yet, to be honest, the argument that the drive is a result of nurture, in itself, especially when presented without the critical investigation of the evidence, may simply be an attempt to avoid the depth of the issue that would be encountered if the drive is a product of nature. The nature/nurture debate is also part of the demanded study.

Similarly, while observance of the Will of God is at the core of a mitzvah, value considerations, such as ethics and spirituality, still are important considerations in the overall theory of Torah. As such, one may still -- and, in fact, should -- wonder about how a mitzvah connects with the broad value determinates that we assign to the mitzvot and learn from the mitzvot. If we perceive mitzvot to possess an ethical factor, we may question why a certain mitzvah seems unethical. Avraham Avinu questioned God's justice at Sdom and so we must constantly question. If we perceive mitzvot to enhance spirituality, we may wonder why a certain mitzvah seems to impede spirituality. Such inquiry may uncover new insights into a Torah understanding of ethics and/or spirituality, and, as such, contain great value. In questioning God at Sdom, Avraham gained great insight into justice. The key is that a conflict open our minds to philosophical/halachic investigation with the possibility of new ideas. These new ideas, in turn, may open doors to solutions.

And it must be recognized that this analysis is not just philosophical, a theoretical investigation into thought and reasons. This type of investigation is deemed philosophical/halachic because it can have halachic consequences. I is possible that a conflict between a desire and a presented law can result in a new understanding of the halacha through halachic study. Already in the desert, the challenge of the daughters of Tzelafchad led to a new presentation in law. The presentation of new understandings of Halacha has occurred throughout history. Both within the communal and personal realms, when Jews found themselves in conflict and crisis, poskim delved into the world of Halacha to search for some solution in a new understanding of the law that would resolve the conflict. This occurs throughout the Responsa literature and it was, in fact, what Rabbi Greenberg was referring to when he reflected on God sometimes listening to human beings. It must be recognized, however, that this is not external to the halachic process but inherent to it. Halacha is dynamic; human reason and understanding is part of the process. But it must also be recognized that there are parameters. There are rules within the halachic process; not every presentation of a conflict results in leniency. Unfortunately, there is the agunah for whom no-one can find a heter, permission, to remarry. Rabbi Greenberg's optimistic theory that a heter may one day be found for homosexual behaviour is not, in itself, necessarily outside the pale but the implication that it is just a matter of communal attitude and easily accomplishable is extremely problematic. Halacha has rules and, in my opinion, Rabbi Greenberg's optimism is ultimately unfounded.

The assertion that "if there is a halachic will, there is a halachic way", to which Rabbi Greenberg would seem to adhere, is simply incorrect. There are many cases of poskim, intensely motivated by the circumstances to find a leniency, who feel defeat in not finding a heter. The perception that "if there is a will, there is a way" actually explains why the movie focused on the personal conflict. The key to movement, pursuant to this view, is to affect motivation -- develop sympathy for the gay individual's plight and change will necessarily follow. The fact is that the dynamic process of Torah is much more complex. There is a role for empathy but even the accumulation of empathetic feelings itself is subject to contemplation in Jewish thought. Empathy motivates one to further investigate an issue -- but the issue must still be studied and analyzed within the realm of Torah thought and Halacha. There are rules with the halachic process. There is the need to ask the philosophical questions, some presented above, that initiate the attempt to bring about integration of understanding. There is then the need to investigate Halacha, honestly, within the truth of its parameters.

Nonetheless, there can still be halachic implications attached to this investigation. Rabbi Norman Lamm's presentation of the concept of "psychological ones", psychological duress, in his seminal article "Judaism and the Modern Attitude to Homosexuality" (in Encyclopedia Judaica Yearbook for 1974) is an example of such a discussion. The very fact that even reference to this article and similar investigations is lacking in the movie is tragic. It is most interesting that Rabbi Aharon Feldman, who has written in this vein, is presented only briefly in the movie and then only in a most superficial manner.

Essentially, Orthodoxy's true deep approach to this subject is simply not found in this movie. This ultimately is a great disservice because, while it raises the issue, it does not provide the basis for how one should approach this subject from an Orthodox perspective. The answer to any conflict is to learn, for it is solely within the studious investigation of Torah that one may find the answer to an issue. "Trembling Before G-d" demands of us to empathize but it does not demand of us to learn. We do not even see or hear a call to learn. This is a fundamental failing.

In the next installment, we will further investigate the presentation of the conflict in the movie as we turn our focus to the issue of family and community.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht