"Trembling Before G-d": Analyzing Homosexuality & Orthodoxy
PART 8: The Gay Individual in a Same Sex Environment

One of the outgrowths of the homosexual lifestyle is the development of same-sex social environments and societal structures. Because same-sex groupings are -- in some circles to a greater extent, in some circles to a lesser extent -- commonplace within Orthodoxy, the structure of Orthodox society can be somewhat natural to the gay/lesbian individual. The implication is that the Orthodox world presents a most compatible environment for the gay/lesbian individual wishing to experience and foster spirituality. At the very least, a same-sex grouping within Orthodoxy would not seem to be out of the ordinary and would allow for groupings of gay men or groupings of lesbians to be formed without ‘raising an eyebrow’. The movie, it would seem, attempts to support this perception of reality and the extended conclusion that Orthodoxy is especially compatible with the spiritual aspirations of the gay/lesbian individual.

Throughout the movie, there are many scenes of all-male groups and all-female groups -- from the general Orthodox community -- involved in Jewish prayer and religious celebration. These scenes integrate well into the fabric of the movie and, because of their same sex nature, seem to present a positive message in regard to the ability of the homosexual individual to attain spiritual heights within Orthodoxy. In addition, the viewer of the movie who sees the group of gay men joining together to celebrate Succot does not, in any way, perceive a deviance in this grouping. This is simply because groupings of this nature, of only men, are common within the religion. There is the subtle message that same-sex groupings and couplings are already existent within Orthodoxy and do not hinder spiritual goals. The result is one of the reasons that the movie leaves a strong, lasting impression. The movie presents powerful, spiritual, already existent same-sex environments which are normative within Orthodox Judaism; the gay/lesbian lifestyle should thus not be a barrier to the attainment, within Orthodoxy, of spiritual goals.

Of course, this whole presentation is built upon false foundations and the integration of the homosexual individual into Orthodox society is actually further complicated by its same-sex nature. First, though, we should again direct the reader to Part II: The Nature Of Orthodoxy - Beyond Ritual of this series which argues that the movie is inherently flawed by the impression that the goal of Orthodoxy is solely the satisfaction of some human spiritual drive. Being an environment that is specially suitable for the satisfaction of some individual’s spiritual drive is thus not of major import within Orthodox thought. Yet what is specifically incorrect in this movie’s portrayal of the Orthodox same-sex environment is that the development of this societal structure is built upon diametrically opposite motivations than such development within the gay world is. Same sex societal structures emerge within the gay/lesbian community because of same sex attraction. The separation of the sexes within Orthodoxy and the formation of same sex societal structures within Orthodoxy is a direct response to heterosexual attraction. A complete absence of the actualization of sexual attraction is the basis of the same-sex environment of Orthodoxy.

To illustrate the significance of this distinction, we turn to the words of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, "On Seating and Sanctification", Sanctity of the Synagogue (ed. by Baruch Litvin) in explaining the need for the mechitza. Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that tefilla, Jewish prayer, must emerge from need, from the depths of anguish. The family pew, with husband and wife sitting together, does not foster such a feeling. It is the mechitza, with male and female separated, that fosters such an emotion. This insight is most significant. There is a general impression that religious communion should involve a sense of comradeship and family-binding. The desire for and value perceived within this emotion was the very impetus for the movement to introduce family seatings into synagogues. Rabbi Soloveitchik is stating that this precise emotion is exactly the one not desired within the confines of Jewish prayer. Orthodox communion in prayer is intended to foster a feeling of want, of incompleteness -- thus the absence of the other sex. A result of this analysis is a unique perspective on the same-sex environment of Orthodoxy. It highlights a lack in comradeship and family-binding that is the result of the absence of the other sex. It is an environment that includes some tension and is, by definition, not only incomplete but recognizes its incompletion. This is not the nature of the same-sex environment created by gay/lesbian individuals. Within this environment, there is a full sense of comradeship and family-binding. This is what is perceived on screen and, because of the general view that spirituality flows from such feelings, one is empathetic to the spiritual awakenings that seem to flow in such presentations as the group of gay men celebrating Succot. On the surface, they are no different than the group of Chassidim praying. In reality, the emotions within the groups are potentially very different. There is a difference between a same-sex group of gay men and a same-sex group of heterosexual men. The emotions within the group are different and Rabbi Soloveitchik’s words highlights the importance of this difference in the practice of Orthodoxy.

Of even further significance, and totally ignored within the movie, may be the effect of a full analysis of Halacha’s sexual guidelines upon the gay/lesbian individual. There is a scene in the movie in which Mark joins in a dance with other men. On the surface, this would not seem to be strange as Orthodoxy frowns upon mixed dancing and same-sex dancing is normative within Orthodox life. The very reason for this, though, is that any contact between men and women is deemed to be halachically problematic as such contact may elicit a sexual response between two individuals dis-allowed sexual contact. Given this understanding, it now emerges that there may be a real halachic problem in Mark joining in the dance. For Mark, who is attracted to men, the same concerns that the general population may have in regard to men and women dancing, may apply. Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer, chap. 24 states that two men may be alone in a room because we do not suspect Jewish men of homosexuality. The Vilna Gaon states explicitly that this exception only applies as long as there is no reason for suspicion. The result would seem to be that there would be a problem with Mark being alone with another man; the laws of yichud would apply. In the same vein, all restrictions that apply in general between men and women would also seem to apply to Mark in regard to being with other men. In the same way that there are halachic restrictions concerning physical contact between men and women, it would seem that these restrictions would apply to Mark in touching another man. To be honest, within the complexity of Halacha, there would be many issues that would have to be considered before rendering a psak, a halachic judgment of this matter yet this is a clear halachic issue. The very same-sex environment that the gay/lesbian individual may find comfortable within Orthodoxy may actually create a multitude of halachic concerns for the gay/lesbian individual wishing to fully follow the law.

This issue should not be approached without sensitivity. A gay individual once shared with me the tremendous agony he experienced in that he felt he had no place in the synagogue. He did not feel comfortable in the men’s section for these very reasons. He understood that his responses to this all male environment were not the intended emotions of the Halacha. He also understood the obvious inappropriateness of him being in the women’s section. He understood the tremendous solitude of his position -- and I felt for his pain. Nevertheless the application of Jewish Law to the gay/lesbian individual demands further analysis, specifically in regard to the application of the various extended rules of sexual propriety. The separation of the sexes that pervades Orthodox life in many different ways -- which many perceive to have an inviting nature to the gay/lesbian individual -- may, upon further halachic investigation, provide a powerful issue for the homosexual individual wishing to follow Jewish Law. It must be addressed with sensitivity but, certainly, it must be addressed.

This concludes our series on the movie "Trembling Before G-d." Our various critiques of this movie should not be seen as demonstrating insensitivity to the plight of the gay/lesbian individual attempting to connect with Torah. We must be sensitive and understanding of the tremendous challenges these individuals face. Nevertheless, sensitivity cannot allow us to pervert the nature of Torah and imply that there are solutions that, in reality, are not solutions. This movie misses the target and, in the end, may have done more of a disservice than a service to these individuals.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht