"Trembling Before G-d": Analyzing Homosexuality & Orthodoxy
Part II: The Nature Of Orthodoxy - Beyond Ritual

During the 1980's, I remember reading an article, in either Time or Newsweek, on lesbians in the convent. It seems that the Catholic Church was becoming more vigilant in their enforcement of the vows of nuns, specifically in regard to sexuality and in particular in regard to homosexuality. As such, many nuns who were also lesbians were leaving the convent at this time. What interested me most in the article was the issue upon which the author of this article focused. The question posed to each former nun concerned what they now did to satisfy their need or desire for spirituality. And each woman who was interviewed had a ready answer! More than that, each of these former nuns seemed to have responded with great enthusiasm to this question. As the article stated, it would be expected that these women had a great drive for spirituality -- after all, they had become nuns -- so what they now did in regard to this drive must be an issue to them. I found myself somewhat perplexed. I thought that the most significant question would have been: what happened to their previous theological beliefs? After all, they were devout Catholics, even to the extent of becoming nuns. What did they now believe and how did these beliefs evolve -- these would be the questions that I would have asked. But the concern of the author and the nuns was their need for, expression of and satisfaction of spirituality.

In many ways, this displays the modern view of religion. There was a brochure produced by a Liberal Judaism organization in England that posed the following question: What is the difference between Liberal Judaism [England's term for Reform Judaism] and Unitarian Christianity [a liberal form of Christianity]? The answer in the brochure was: Nothing. Essentially the brochure stated that the beliefs of Liberal Judaism and Unitarian Christianity are the same. The distinction lies in methodology. Proponents of Liberal Judaism choose and/or are more comfortable using Jewish motifs in their religious expression. Proponents of Unitarian Christianity choose and/or are more comfortable using Christian motifs. While this presentation was somewhat extreme, it does reflect how most people perceive religion and religious devotion. A religion is now understood to be a method by which an individual satisfies the drive for spirituality. Disagreements in religion are thus seen as disagreements in methodology -- but the underlying goal of all religions is deemed to be the same. Similarly, the issue for the nuns who left the convent was how to now satisfy this drive for spirituality. Christianity was simply their method by which to satisfy this drive. When this option evaporated, the overriding question for that article's author -- and the former nuns -- was what to do now to satisfy this need.

This is essentially the same view of religion, and thus Orthodox Judaism, that dominates the movie "Trembling Before God." Orthodoxy, throughout this movie, is defined by its role as the satisfier of the drive for spirituality. The result is that Orthodoxy is portrayed in the movie within these parameters and the dilemma that faces the gay individual is presented within these terms. In the next article in this series, I will deal with the problems inherent in presenting the dilemma in this manner. In this article, I wish to deal with the portrayal of Orthodoxy in this movie as a method of spirituality, why this is a gross misrepresentation of Orthodoxy and why this, effectively, makes Trembling Before God disturbing and painful to watch.

It is ritual that dominates the presentation of Orthodoxy within this movie. This presentation of ritual is intensified by the many scenes of right wing and Chassidic individuals, both men and women, involved in openly religious acts. There are many scenes of prayer, religious singing and dancing. There is the scene of one of the woman in the lesbian relationship separating challah, the part of the dough that, in Temple times, was given to the priests. Even the references to and scenes of Torah study seem to be presented as religious acts within the modern context of religious devotion. The focus is not seen to be intellectual contemplation but rather spiritual fervour. The overriding theme of Orthodoxy, as presented in the movie, is a path of spirituality, i.e. serving and fulfilling the desire for spirituality within the individual. This is most poignantly presented, perhaps, in the singing of Shalom Aleichem by Israel, an older gay man who left Orthodoxy. He misses Shalom Aleichem, he misses the ritual, he misses the spirituality.

To define Orthodoxy as solely a path to spirituality, however, is a misrepresentation. To do so places great restrictions on the understanding and purpose of Orthodoxy and the very breadth of Torah study. Torah deals with every aspect of human existence and touches upon the method of achievement of many human goals, not only the development of our relationship with our Creator within a narrow context of spirituality. Theoretically, a person could immerse himself or herself in a lifetime of Torah study and being without even touching upon the issue of spirituality (at least, as its narrowly defined within the context of our world.) Many topics that would be perceived by the world as, in essence, secular are included in the purvey of Orthodox thought. Political science and judicial/legal systems are topics of Tractate Sanhedrin. Not simply business ethics but business, macroeconomic and microeconomic policy are topics of the three Talmudic tractates beginning with Baba. Of course, God is a continuous factor within all these presentations but it is a God that is defined very differently than the God pursued by contemporary spirituality. The God of Orthodoxy is a God that would demand of a society to implement an optimum transportation policy or energy policy, for example. As such, the God of Orthodoxy would demand the behaviour necessary to implement such policy. Singing, dancing, and the search for a realization of some spiritual feeling is not the sole purvey of Orthodoxy; in fact, it is a limited part of it.

This is true in terms of the individual as well. One may view Pirkei Avot as a compendium of lessons on individual growth but to read these lessons within the narrow context of modern spirituality would be a gross injustice. Pirkei Avot touches upon all aspects of individual human development. In fact, there are commentators who understand the prime goal of this work to be a presentation of standards on judicial conduct. A strong consideration of Orthodoxy is, in fact, the actualization of one's potential in all aspects of life. For example, the Vilna Gaon writes that, in the time of the prophets, one of the most important requests an individual would make of a prophet would be for an indication of what his/her ideal chosen profession should be. The goal of human actualization demands that one find the life tasks in which one will find fulfillment -- and this is an important goal within Orthodoxy. In fact, one of the major issues within Jewish thought is how we balance the various parts of our personality -- and the answer for each individual is different. Essentially, this all integrates within the concept of teshuva, generally translated as repentance, which is, at its core, a process of growth. This struggle of growth, which is basic to Torah, is not seen in the movie. There is clearly a portrayal of struggle, in many ways a most difficult and sad struggle, but it is not the struggle of growth. This is evidenced in the questions asked, the methods of response to the dilemma that are presented. There is, of course, the presentation, in the movie, of a mystical service performed in response to the sin of homosexuality -- again a focus on spirituality. In contrast, one should view the various responsa of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein when queried on how to correct a transgression. The key is that the spiritual dimension is not the only dimension of concern to Orthodoxy -- and Trembling Before God is greatly lacking because it projects Orthodoxy only within the dimension of spirituality, thereby missing much of the issue with which it is attempting to deal.

Perhaps the greatest travesty inherent in this narrow portrayal of Orthodoxy and the disregard given to the extended spectrum of Orthodoxy's dimensions lies in the neglect given to the concept of sexuality within Torah. How can one deal with the issue of homosexuality within Orthodoxy if one does first consider the concept of sexuality in general within this system? And sexuality is a major topic within Jewish thought. Of course there is an implied and assumed understanding of the religious attitude to sexuality but is that Orthodoxy's view of sexuality? Again, it is spirituality and spirituality's view of sexuality that is assumed but Torah's view of sexuality is much more extensive in its considerations. Torah's view of sexuality permeates our understanding of all aspects of the male-female relationship, in fact our very comprehension of the concept of male and female, as well as our perception of the individual's relationship to self and one's drives. Ironically, it is most interesting that the movie was able to present many images of all male and all female events and settings precisely because of Torah's attitude toward heterosexuality. How is homosexuality to be understood within the context of a system whose response to heterosexuality is, to various degrees, a separation of the sexes? Of course, as David points out to Rabbi Langer, the Rabbi has an outlet for his sexual drive via his relationship with his wife while the homosexual does not have any halachically sanctioned outlet. But the overall point is missing. Orthodoxy's view and response to sexuality in general is not fully investigated or presented in the movie. It is again Orthodoxy as a spiritual vehicle that is the only concern.

The strange thing is that I do not believe the makers of this movie to have intentionally intended to mis-portray Orthodoxy in this manner. They most likely believe their presentation of Orthodoxy to have been correct. The reality, however, is that this presentation is incorrect and, as such, the movie is distorted. It is this distortion that is painful to watch. What is even more painful is the very possibility that this distortion can be presented. Unfortunately it is not only the makers of this movie that have this lack of understanding of the true nature of Orthodoxy. Many others, even practicing Orthodox Jews, possess the same misunderstanding. The reasons for the development of these perceptions is beyond the parameters of this article. What is demanded is our vigilance to ensure that Orthodoxy is understood in all its dimensions and that such distortions of Torah are challenged. In the context of this movie, the presentations of these distortions are extremely tragic for the movie deals with a most important issue -- not just in the context of homosexuality and Orthodoxy but in its potential to deal with many issues of conflict within our human condition. Unfortunately, it misses the point because its portrayal of Orthodoxy and, as such, the nature of the dilemma is distorted. In certain ways, this distortion may have actually served the agenda of the producers of this movie but they could only have maintained this distortion if, to some extent, they perceived it as true and felt that the Orthodox audience they were attempting to influence would also perceive it as true. That is painful. It is painful to see Torah portrayed as it is within this movie.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

2004 NISHMA