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"How can you be
gay and Orthodox at the same time?" wonders Israel, a 56-year-old
gay, formerly-Orthodox Jew, in Sandi Simcha Dubowski's Trembling
Before G-d. The people profiled in Dubowski's documentary struggle
to find a way. As the film introduces us to a host of gay and lesbian
Hasidic and Orthodox Jews living in cities around the world, we learn
about the particularly difficult issues that a gay or lesbian person
faces when they don't want to give up a faith that they truly love, even
when that faith condemns who they are. There's David in Los Angeles, who
has spent the last couple decades of his life futilely trying to follow
his rabbi's advice to become straight, and remains anguished that a
religion that he loves so much refuses to love him in return; on the
other side of the globe in Israel are ultra-Orthodox lesbian Devorah --
wife, mother and grandmother -- and Mark, an HIV-positive young Londoner
who, after getting kicked out of yeshiva after yeshiva, has returned to
the Orthodox world that rejected him because he loves it so much. We
also meet Malka and Leah, a lesbian Orthodox couple living in Florida
who have been sweethearts since high school, and Michelle, a lesbian who
grew up Hasidic in New York before leaving both her husband and her
community once she came out. Along the way, Dubowski also interviews a
slew of psychiatrists and rabbis - including the world's first openly
gay Orthodox rabbi. The sum result is a revelatory examination of the
intersection between religious fundamentalism, faith and sexuality.
It's hard for me to
imagine what it's like to have a devout faith. I grew up in a godless
household, and have spent the twenty-some odd years of my life quite
happy in that state. I've had so little desire for religion in my own
life that I've never understood why it means so much to so many others.
So when I first started watching Trembling Before G-d, I found
myself feeling totally alienated from each of the people the documentary
features -- and not because they were gay, and I'm not. What mystified
me was why anyone would continue to embrace a religion that insists that
the way they love -- the way they are -- is somehow inherently wrong.
The issue that intrigued me most in Dubowski's sensitive,
thought-provoking documentary was not sexuality, but faith. In popular
media, we generally see religious conservatives throwing their ugly
invectives at gay and lesbians, all in the name of God; it's easy to
hate those folks, who show so much hatred themselves. Trembling
Before G-d doesn't boil anything down into such rigid
black-and-white, good versus evil distinctions. When David tells his
childhood rabbi that despite his best efforts, he cannot help but be
gay, the rabbi expresses kindness, even as he remains adamant in his
assertion that God cannot accept David's homosexuality. Dubowski's
documentary is, in many ways, a celebration of faith -- the beauty of
ritual, the traditions that unite people across generations, the
struggle to understand humanity and the universe, the sense of ties that
bind -- while at the same time, the film reveals the flaws in a religion
that refuses to adapt to fit the needs of those who just want to be able
to take part in it, and denies love to those who love it truly. Though
the movie itself does not offer any easy answers on how to transform an
ancient institution, the mere fact of the existence of Trembling
Before G-d points the way towards how a solution might be crafted.
In provoking thought and facilitating honest dialogue -- not the sort
where each side yells at each other, but where a real effort is made to
listen and understand -- empathy, love and acceptance just might be
by Yee-Fan Sun
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