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It is no secret that many Gays and Lesbians have turned their backs on
religion because of its strictures against homosexuality, yet there are
still those that want to be both Gay and religious. This is the subject of
the poignant documentary, Trembling Before G_d directed by a Gay
Conservative Jew, Sandi Simcha Dubowski. The film examines the beliefs of
Orthodox Gay and Lesbian Jews who are struggling to bridge the gap between
their way of life and the teachings of their religion. The film, which
played for five months in New York and was named Best Documentary at the
Berlin Film Festival, has sparked debate between liberals and
Gay rights activists, the media and spokespersons for organized
Orthodox Jews hold that acts of homosexuality are punishable by death. The passage most quoted is from Leviticus 10:13: "A man who lies with a man as one lies with a woman, they have both done an abomination: they shall be p ut to death, their blood is on them". I do not know who wrote those words or what the circumstances were, but I do know that a just God who grants his love unconditionally certainly did not. Yet Orthodox Jewish Rabbis in their devotion to Jewish doctrine consider this the "truth", ignoring the humanity of the people they have been taught to serve. Even more moderate Jews believe that homosexuality is evil or, at the very least, a sickness. This is not far different than the beliefs of many Catholics, Mormons, or Muslims as well, but the film only concentrates on Jews, and only on those who are "orthodox" in their beliefs. [In the Jewish tradition, Orthodox means belief in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) as the written word of God, strict adherence to dietary laws, and following cultural restrictions such as not driving on the Sabbath].
Dubowski interviewed Gays and Lesbians in New York, London, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem, many coping with rejection from their families, issues of suicide and AIDS, and self-acceptance. It is unsettling to hear learned Rabbi's telling them that they must remain celibate, submit to therapy, or pray until their urges disappear. Some of the Rabbis do not even understand what is meant by oral sex and mutual masturbation. The urge to say, "please wake up" is overwhelming. One of the interviewees is David from Los Angeles, a bright and articulate man in his late 30s who, following the advice of a rabbi, tried for many years to change his orientation through therapy. He talks without bitterness about the advice given to him by various rabbis to eat figs, snap a rubber band on his wrist or bite his tongue whenever he feels the temptation to have sex with another man. Now twenty years later, David confronts the Rabbi who ordered him into therapy and tells him that his advice did not work.
There is also Michelle, a Hasidic Lesbian from Brooklyn who married under pressure from the family that now virtually disowns her. Many of the people interviewed are afraid to reveal their names and faces on camera because of fear of family and community rejection. Some openly state how afraid they are that their life style will prevent them from ever going to "heaven". One of the angriest is Israel, a 58-year-old man from New York who rejected his family after they forced him to undergo electro-shock therapy. Others interviewed include Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly Gay Orthodox rabbi and author of the book "Of Wrestling with God and Men". Greenberg talks with hope about God being lovingly open to questioning and to learning from man. He says there is an alternate way of interpreting the passage from Leviticus but we are not told what this is.
Trembling Before G_d is about being Gay but is also about the need to belong -- to parents, to community, to a set of rules. It is heartbreaking when Israel says, "I'm 58 years old and I want my Daddy" and extremely moving when he finally telephones his 98-year old father after twenty years of estrangement. In an odd way, the documentary celebrates Judaism even while pointing out its flaws and it got me back in touch with the Jewish experience -- the songs, the feeling of community, and the struggle to understand God and His purposes. The real sadness was thinking about centuries of intolerance practiced by those who themselves have been victims. Trembling Before G_d illuminates the problem but does not show us a way out, yet if given enough exposure it just might become a wake up call to those still tied to an archaic belief system that long ago ceased to have any relevance or purpose.
Few people realize the magnitude of the controversy surrounding this issue, mostly because they have not experienced this struggle in their own lives. This film delves into the lives of several members of the orthodox Jewish community worldwide who struggle with their see-saw lives, trying to find a happy balance between religious & sexual identity. There is a new hope of opening the orthodox Jewish community to the possibility of accepting this growing population. Anyone who has had difficulty with acceptance for any reason, be it religion, race, creed, sexual identity, will be able to identify with those who tell their story. Please support this cause and see this film. The word must be spread and these stories must be heard before the world as we know it can change. Although this film is of a very serious nature, there are lighter moments that lift the spirit and present an air of hope for a better future.
I had heard a lot about this movie before I saw it. I rented it and
watched it twice. I never watch movies twice! I think that this movie
should be watched by all. Being gay and religious is obviously not just
a Jewish problem. There are people all over the world right now from
many religions, ethnic groups, and ages that are struggling with
potential rejection and/or isolation if they come out. They feel
defective and guilty for being who they are. In come cases, the family
gets rejected and labeled as the "family with the gay son and /or
daughter." It is really sad and unnecessary. This type of reaction to
homosexuality is potentially chasing away good people who can make a
difference in our society. Additionally, many teenagers and young
adults find themselves with no hope. The only way out for them is
suicide. This is horrible.
Watch the movie and "Disc 2." It has good stuff on it! :)
There will always be oppression, there will always be bigotry, and there
will always be guilt and shame, because organized religion has given us all
of these and more. And now here comes a group of gay Orthodox Jews asking
their elders and family to deny millennia of religious writings and dogma
and accept them unconditionally? I am gay and a Jew and accept the fact
that not every person I meet will be happy with either of those
affirmations. To find people that will accept both at the same time is
rarer still. At least I had the good fortune NOT to be born into an
orthodox household. I would have written them off years
This documentary is a caring and touching look at several people caught in a moral and sexual dilemma. Whom do they deny, themselves, or G-d? If they proclaim their homosexuality to their world, they are dismissed or ignored, shunned or exiled. If they repress their feelings and accept the dogmatic teachings of their draconian faith, then they are driven to suffer in silence, or worse, suicide.
This is little more than a modern day inquisition with the parents, the rebbe's and the congregations turning the thumbscrews on these pathetic souls. My heart goes out to all of them, but in my opinion, it is a loosing battle. I would rather see them live as complete a life as they can, knowing they are doing the best that they can, and striving for a shift in attitude in general, not a change in religious doctrine, which will never come.
This documentary transcends any and every divisions there are in this world and shows the admirable strength a proud few who felt the need to communicate their struggle with the rest of the world. I was always taught that one should could not be religious AND homosexual, that we had to choose between being one or the other. This film proves that theory wrong. Its ultimate message is showing the power of love via humanizing and de-stigmatizing a sensitive, but very real, issue. God bless all who participated.
This is a very disturbing documentary. One can only congratulate director
Sandi Dubowski for the courage in dealing with the subject matter. Of
course, the study here was done among Orthodox Jews who are at the margin of
their religion. This film is universal because it could apply to
conservative beliefs as well.
How can the people in charge of a congregation reject anyone because they are different from what ancient texts tell? Aren't these gay men and women the product of legal marriages from religion abiding parents? These children didn't ask to be born gay, but the fact remains they are that way and no one, being the rabbis in charge, or the parents can reverse the fact. Love, nurturing, acceptance are lacking from all those in high places.
After viewing the film, I felt great sadness for the people that have to lead a life away from family and community for just being gay. Shame on the parents and the leaders for banning their children into oblivion. I salute their stand for being themselves.
As a gay Catholic, who has embraced celibacy to conform to the teachings
the Church, I can wholeheartedly identify with the efforts of the
Jewish lesbians and gays in this film to reconcile their spirituality and
sexuality, and to find acceptance in the eyes of God and their community.
is heartwrenching especially to see the havoc that this struggle has
in the life of Israel Fishman. On the surface, he responds with bravado,
rejecting the people and the faith that have rejected him. Yet, in one of
the film's most powerful scenes, he vents his sorrow and bitterness,
and rage, at what being gay has cost him, especially the love of his
The documentary is perhaps not slick and elegant in terms of production values. The constant subtitles, interpreting Hebrew and Yiddish terms for the Gentile viewer, are sometimes intrusive and annoying (especially if the viewer is at all conversant with the Jewish faith). It would have been useful, though, to explain that "Ha-Shem" means "the Name", i.e., God's name which may never be pronounced.
What it most interesting about this documentary, I think, is that it shows how the main problem may not so much be finding acceptance of onself as lesbian or gay, but rather finding acceptance of oneself as a spiritual person in a secular world.
Finally, although the film clearly documents the trials and difficulties of being a lesbian or gay Orthodox Jew, the joy of loving and being loved by G-d comes shining through. The lesbians and gays in this film suffer much at the hands of their families and rabbis, their synagogues and yeshivas -- but never, it seems, do they question that they are loved and accepted by G-d.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Trembling Before G-d" -- the very title needs to be explained if you are to understand the film -- is an exceedingly painful story about the difficulties faced by gays and lesbians from Jewish Orthodox communities. Although the Hebrew and (occasional) Yiddish expressions that crop up are adequately translated in subtitles, this is a story of what must be called "Gay Shame" as opposed to "Gay Pride." The sacred texts of the Jews condemn homosexuality, calling for the death by stoning of males who practice it. Lesbian sex is likewise forbidden. While gay Jews are no longer stoned, gays and lesbians who confess their sexual orientation are almost uniformly ousted from the communities in which they grew up and abandoned by their families as if dead.
"G-d" is the Orthodox way of avoiding reference to God's name in writing. Pronouncing the name of God is explicitly forbidden in the Torah, and when saying prayers a variety of devices/euphemisms are employed to address the Almighty without saying his (or her) name. The most familiar of these to non-Jews is often translated into English as "Yah" or "Yahweh" or "Jehova." It generally appears in Hebrew prayer books as a tetragammaton -- four consonants, often articulated as "adonai." In Moses' time, the high priest could pronounce the name of God once a year in sacred space, hidden from the congregation. Modern Jews have no idea what God's "real" name is. Indeed, in conversation outside the synagogue, Orthodox Jews frequently refer to God as "ha-Shem," which means "the name."
"Trembling Before G-d" allows a number of gay and lesbian Jews to tell their own stories. So difficult is the topic for most of them that few allow their faces to be seen, appearing mostly in shadows or behind curtains or in black profile. One of the most poignant of the tales told is that of a woman who has borne 13 children to a husband who acknowledges that he is incapable of truly loving her because he would prefer sex with men (he seems not to have acted on it). And then there's the married woman who has revealed her lesbian desires to her husband and now lives a celibate life with him and their children. And, although only one is interviewed, there are those who marry, already knowing that their sexual orientation is not heterosexual.
But the primary focus of the film is on gays and lesbians who have acknowledged their sexual orientations to themselves and, in most cases, revealed themselves to their parents and their communities. As a result, they've been excommunicated and, although they continue to feel Orthodox, they are prevented from practicing their Orthodoxy within a community. Many have tried unsuccessfully with the help of their rabbis and psychotherapists to shed their sexual desires -- and the rabbis and therapists are themselves interviewed in the film. In one case, a man in his forties returns to visit a sympathetic rabbi who had counseled him twenty years earlier and the gay man tells the rabbi that he was unable to overcome his desires but does not practice anal sex. The rabbi is astounded; he knew of no other way for homosexuals to have sex. When the gay man explains and likens his desire for his partner to the intense sexual desire that a married man feels for his wife, it comes to the rabbi as a revelation.
Having written all this by way of explanation, a few words of criticism: the film is too long and far too repetitive. Several of the people who have allowed themselves to be interviewed tell their stories, with small variations, more than once. And there is too little time spent with the few Orthodox rabbis who seem to understand the issue, exploring why the pain that follows exclusion is essentially unacknowledged and unaddressed in the world of Orthodoxy.
Jew or not, however,this is a film that should be seen. Unfortunately, I'm absolutely certain it will NOT be seen by those who need to see it the most. G-d forbid!
Today the question of homosexuality in the Jewish world is in the
forefront of the Jewish press. The Conservative movement just voted to
ordain gay and lesbian rabbis and allow for same sex "committment"
ceremonies. Call it what you will, but it's same sex marriage.
To make my position clear, I totally support equal rights under the secular law for gays and lesbians but feel the is no official place for it in religious law. The Orthodox community will SHUN such people (and I can understand that), The Conservative community will be kind of blase about it, the Reform community will openly embrace it.
To see the reality of the genuine suffering of Orthodox gay and lesbian people brought tears to my eyes when I saw this film. They are torn between 2 very strong and basic values, are being pulled apart emotionally. They strongly desire to be part of the Orthodox community which shuns them totally and they cannot chose one life style over the other.
For those of you shunners, this film should make it much more difficult to have the knee-jerk reaction to the problem.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I am not Jewish, but I am gay. Many of my gay friends struggle to find
religion in their lives and this film touched a note with me.
Aside from that, I believe the direction was compelling but did not force nor interfere with the events in these peoples lives. It was a portrayal as well as an enlightenment. I knew not the religion of the Jewish people and yet I felt the outcasts feelings and empathized with the homosexuals.
The director captured a range of emotions. The moment where my heart stopped was when a young gay man cried at the wailing wall. I cried, too. Hats off to the director.
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