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

In our last installment, we dealt with the distinction between philosophical and personal conflict. In the integration of a gay individual with Halacha, both types of conflict exist. Personal conflict, with its potential deep anguish, is the essence of the movie "Trembling Before G-d." As presented in Part III, though, there is the necessity of also moving into the realm of philosophical conflict. Unfortunately this is lacking in the movie. It is improper for the movie to simply present the pain and then seemingly stand back and allow the pain to stir change within the law. The inherent implication, that the only bar to change is some human bias that prevents us from being more open and tolerant to the gay individual, is wrong. Halacha has its own voice; thus the need for philosophical/halachic investigation.

Still the presentation of the personal conflict can have some value, not just in raising the issue but in investigating variant psychological issues that should be addressed. A personal conflict arises when there is a clash between two drives; in psychological terms, when there is cognitive dissonance. This friction is deemed to be extremely problematic when the two drives in conflict are deemed to have value. In our last segment, we focused on one aspect of this conflict: a gay individual is potentially torn between a drive for spiritual fulfillment through Orthodoxy and a drive for love and companionship that can only be met in a romantic relationship with a member of the same gender. My contention was that this specific issue should really be framed in its essence as a philosophical/halachic conflict. In this part, though, I wish to focus on another aspect of personal conflict. The movie, to a large extent, portrayed the anguish of many individuals caught between the desire for the sense of belonging and warmth of extended family and/or community and the desire for acceptance of their homosexuality. This conflict actually demands further investigation in the psychological realm.

The movie introduces various individuals who are suffering through strained relationships with their extended families because of their homosexuality. This is further complicated in the cases of Israel and Michelle because they are also no longer observant. These people are in pain because they had to choose the satisfaction of one drive over another yielding the pain of an unfulfilled drive. In more specific terms, they chose the satisfaction of their drive for gay love/companionship over the drive for extended family love and warmth. There is still anguish in the loss of the latter and this is portrayed. The question is: what to do?

The implication of the movie is that this pain is a result of Orthodoxy's intolerance of the gay individual. If Orthodoxy preached acceptance, the movie suggests there would be no dissonance thus no problem. That this may be true cannot be denied but is this an intrinsic problem inherent in the confrontation of homosexuality and Torah? The move sadly errs in this regard in two significant ways. First, the real issue is actually much broader and, while the gay individual may also be included in the dilemmas of the broader issue, to reduce this issue to a problem facing the gay individual in relation to Torah does not do it justice. The broader issue is how families deal with children who are no longer observant or not observant in the manner that the family wishes. Second, in even broader terms, the issue ultimately touches upon the vast psychological/sociological issue of family discord when children do not meet the standards or desires of the parents. The conflict is not between Torah and homosexuality but rather between children who have adopted distinct lifestyles and parents who are unaccepting of their children's choices. These gay individuals have similar dilemmas as others who have simply rejected Orthodoxy or, in a non-religious or non-Jewish context, others who adopt life-styles the parents reject. These issues are real but they cannot be reduced to the singular issue of Torah and homosexuality. It is the issue of parent-child relations when there is extreme dissimilarity between child and parent.

Of course, there is still a philosophical/halachic side to this matter, especially in connection to the first concern.. How is a parent to relate to a child who is no longer observant and how is a child who has become observant to relate to a non-observant parent especially if the parent ridicules this choice? These are intense halachic questions that demand investigation. In any event, as is the general case, the movie does not deal with this issue on any philosophical/halachic level. It shows the pain but does not deal with the variant philosophical/halachic discussions behind the pain. Nevertheless, in this case, it is the psychological/sociological realm that should be dominant. In the instance of the lesbian couple, for example, we are informed that the parents of one of the women were even told by a Rabbi that they should still connect with their daughter. Their inability to do so, at least to the extent necessary as shown in their last minute phone calls before Shabbat, is a reflection of their own personal perspectives, not the stance of Torah. It may be true that these personal perspectives are reinforced by their understandings of the teachings of Torah but, nonetheless, the issue is personal - and it is on this level that the concern should be addressed. What is demanded is counseling of the parents, not a call for change in Torah law. Yet, the movie still attempts to take this area of personal conflict and apply it to make a theological point about Orthodoxy. This is a major problem with the movie. It presents psychological issues as theological issues thus confusing the clarity of both issues thereby doing a great disservice to both. To correctly deal with either matter, it is important to maintain this clarity.

I have termed what the movie is attempting to accomplish as a "crossover." In a panel discussion on AIDS in which I once participated, I maintained a very empathetic view towards anyone suffering from this horrendous disease. This was, in fact, the message of the entire panel -- we must help people with AIDS. One member of the panel, however, attempted to take this feeling of empathy for AIDS patients and apply it to the promotion of gay rights. He was attempting a crossover. He was attempting to take the attitude developed in regard to one matter and directly apply it to another matter thereby promoting a specific agenda in this other matter. I interjected that we were not discussing the issue of gay rights at this time; I stopped the crossover. How one treats AIDS sufferers is a different matter than gay rights and although there may be some overlapping points between the two discussions -- which would be necessary to even attempt a crossover -- the two must be approached independently. The fact that I am sympathetic to an AIDS sufferer even if the disease was contacted through gay sex cannot be used to achieve my acquiescence to this individual's request to marry his lover before he dies.

Similarly, in regards to the movie, the fact that I am empathetic to the pain caused by family discord cannot be used to affect my response to the philosophical issue surrounding the Torah prohibitions in regard to homosexuality. The fact that this woman's parents are rejecting her cannot lead me to conclude that the prohibition against lesbianism (which we will discuss in a future segment) is wrong. There may be overlapping points -- it may even be true that wiping away this prohibition would remove the family discord -- but the matter of family discord and the matter of the Torah law are two different issues. One is personal - the problems of relating. One is philosophical - the problems of truth. If "Trembling Before G-d" was attempting to simply say that people, including family members, should be more sensitive to difficulties faced by gay individuals, I would share that opinion. I also maintain that people, including family members, must, in general, be sensitive to the issues surrounding one in the process of rejecting Orthodoxy. (A full discussion of this issue is beyond the parameters of this paper.) This movie, however, seems to be further proposing that because people do not have this sensitivity and, as such, gay individuals suffer, there should be some response in Halacha. Furthermore, it seems to imply that the problem is inherently in the Halacha. If a child totally rejects Orthodox practice but decries the pain experienced as a result of a subsequent rejection by family members, is the answer to be found in the blurring of Halacha? The movie is attempting a crossover taking an emotion of empathy for the pain of family discord and using it to promote a permissive attitude towards homosexuality. That is problematic and while Halacha does consider family discord as a factor, within certain parameters, in halachic decision making (through such concepts as shalom bayit), its use here would be incorrect.

I had great sympathy for the woman, in the lesbian couple, who feels rejected by her parents until her partner attacked the parents by stating that they were wrong for they have a frum daughter and they should look at the many mitzvot she does. When she plugged in that word frum, I was disturbed. What was meant by that term? If that term is to represent someone committed to Orthodox belief and practice, we have a problem for Orthodoxy declares much of this couple's behaviour to be forbidden. I am to be empathetic. I am not to judge. I am also not to distort the truth. No matter how empathetic and sympathetic I am towards one in violation of Halacha, I cannot state that there is no violation of Halacha. By use of the word frum, this was attempted. There was no questioning of why this woman felt that her and her partner were frum. There was no philosophical discussion what-so-ever. Within a context of empathy there was an attempt to secure an agenda. And this is wrong. "Trembling Before G-d" presents conflicts of a personal nature and for this it is to be commended. Yet it presents these conflicts in the context of a theological presentation and this is deceptive.

Yet, the movie, in depicting cases of family discord, can have value if these presentations are used correctly. A major cause of family discord is unfulfilled expectation. Expectation in itself is not the problem; after all, a strength of family bonding and closeness is expectation. It is the very fact that we can expect a family member to come through, when there is need, that forges this bond. This can be perceived to be the very essence of family. As such, when expectations are not met, family disunity is, and should be, the result. Does this mean that every expectation is appropriate or even realistic? To totally discard any and all expectations would ultimately destroy the very value of family closeness and unity; yet, this does not mean that every and all expectations are correct. The challenge is to determine an appropriate balance of expectations, with a similarly appropriate recognition of consequences. Sometimes family discord is the fitting result. If one cannot rely upon family members in various circumstances, there is no value in the connection to family. Sadly, the true and honest result will be a lack of closeness. Sometimes, however, family discord can be averted if there is communication of expectations and a discovery that the expectations are inappropriate or, at least, not so significant as to lead to problems. It is as instruction in this regard that the cases within the movie can be helpful -- not in providing a method of reconciliation but in demonstrating the problem.

Essentially, there are two aspects to the nature of relationships within family. One is personal. On one level, we relate as person-to-person, our individuality connects with another individual. This is the essence of friendship; it is defined solely by the personalities within the relationship. Expectations and the nature of the commitment, thus, arises from the people within the relationship themselves. This aspect of relationships also exist within families and explain why certain siblings are closer than others.

There is, however, another dimension to family and that can be referred to as the categorical. Within families, we relate in a method defined by our status within the family: parent-child, brother-sister, aunt-nephew; etc. The categorical creates a whole level of expectations that are not necessarily connected to the individuality of the people involved in the relationships; in fact, these expectations are defined from outside the relationship, not through the dynamics of the relationship itself. Every parent, even before the actual birth of a child, has an idea of what is expected from them in relating to the child and what they expect from the child over the years. Every sibling is brought up within an environment that subtly attempts to define the categorical relationship of siblings. This is not necessarily negative. It is the categorical that makes family unique. Yet it is also from the realm of the categorical that the greatest problems emerging from unfilled expectations emerge.

The need within family -- to ensure family unity and the value of this unit within life -- is to balance the categorical and the personal. What we see within "Trembling Before G-d" are family relationships overly defined by the categorical. The ultimate complaint of Michelle, Israel, "Malka and Leah" is that their individuality was not perceived. They were only seen within the categorical. As such, when they express aspects of their own being that challenged, in any way, the categorical, their existence within family was challenged. Family is not just about the categorical; it also includes the dimension of the personal. Family unity and closeness must, thus, be built upon the dynamic of its two foundations, the personal and the categorical. Ignoring either ultimately does not work but, furthermore, it destroys the very value of family. This is not to say that every issue can be worked out. Sometimes the rift between the personal and the categorical is so wide that family discord is the natural and only result. But more often, through the power of communication, a recognition of these axis and an implementation of their meaning will not only ensure family unity but strengthen the very bond of family. (I should mention that I would also expect the recognition of the personal to be extended to Israel's father. Within the movie, there seems to be an implicit criticism of Israel's father; how could a father act this way? Yet Israel's father is an elderly man brought up within a very rigid society. He must be understood within the context of his personality, as well. Such recognition could guide this relationship but it first must be accepted.)

It should be mentioned that the problem of understanding and implementing the dynamic of the categorical and the personal within family relationships is often magnified by incorrect teachings of Torah. The Torah often speaks to the categorical. There are laws in regard to the parent-child relationship. There are teachings in regard to the expectations defined by the categorical. What often occurs is that people present these teachings within a vacuum. What often occurs is that people present the Torah as defining relationships solely within the realm of the categorical. This is not only wrong but dangerous. The categorical teachings within the Torah are not meant to supplant the personal. The Torah understands that relationships must be built on the dynamic of categorical and personal, and its voice within the realm of the categorical must be understood in this manner. The Torah defines aspects of the categorical but, and there are numerous sources to support this contention, it also recognizes the realm of the personal and understands that the full definition of a relationship must emerge from the dynamic. If there is one thing that "Trembling Before G-d" shows is that there is a need for clearer Torah teachings in the realm of relationships. The problems of family anguish that are portrayed in the movie are more a result of weakness in Torah presentations on the nature of family and the family relationship than a problem in Orthodoxy's attitude to homosexuality.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht