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Jewish Journal

Dissembling Before G-d

by Rabbi Avi Shafran

February 21, 2002 | 7:00 pm

Mark, right, returns to the yeshiva world in Sandi Simcha DuBowski's "Trembling Before G-d."

Mark, right, returns to the yeshiva world in Sandi Simcha DuBowski's "Trembling Before G-d."

Orthodox Jewish homosexuals are the subject of a documentary film that achieved darlinghood at a number of film festivals over the past year and has now been similarly well-received at its New York debut. Many audiences and reviewers have found "Trembling Before G-d's" portrayal of the anguish faced by Jews who want to remain Orthodox but see themselves as homosexual to be compelling.

And on one level, the film might well be regarded as a tribute to the determination of heartfelt Jews who, despite the catastrophic clash of their desires and their faith, nevertheless find themselves simply unable to abandon the latter. The Jewish soul is indeed a hardy, holy thing.

Unfortunately, though, "Trembling" seems to have other intents as well. While it never baldly advocates the case for broader societal acceptance of homosexuality or for the abandonment of elements of the Jewish religious tradition, those causes are subtly evident in the stark, simplistic picture the film presents of sincere, conflicted and victimized men and women confronted by a largely stern and stubborn cadre of rabbis.

That picture is both incomplete and distorted. For starters, the film refuses to even allow for the possibility that men and women with homosexual predilections might -- with great effort, to be sure -- achieve successful and happy marriages to members of the opposite sex.

Though he interviewed hundreds of subjects for the project, producer Sandi Simcha DuBowski claims to have been unable to find any such people. Therapist Adam Jessel, though, writing in The Jerusalem Post, says there are many and recounts how he attended a screening of the film with precisely such a person -- a man, it turned out, who was actually interviewed by DuBowski but whose experience was not included in the film.

Jessel also quotes another man who reported that DuBowski, with whom he spoke by phone, "told me he doesn't believe in change. He didn't seem to be interested in meeting any Jews who were in the process of change either."

Such change is more common than most people realize. An organization -- JONAH (Jonahhelp@aol.com) -- has been helping Jews, both Orthodox and otherwise, who wish to overcome homosexual orientations, and has met with considerable success. Neither it nor any of its clients are featured or mentioned in "Trembling."

More importantly, while the film thoroughly portrays the challenges faced by its subjects, it simply does not allow Judaism to make its case. Several prominent Orthodox rabbis were interviewed at length by DuBowski, but only short excerpts are included in the film.

One of those rabbis, Rabbi Aharon Feldman, currently the dean of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, says that the film fails to convey the deep compassion with which thoughtful Orthodox Jews regard those who are challenged with a homosexual orientation. The film, he asserts, "makes us appear to be narrow and bigoted" when, in fact, "it is compassion, albeit without condoning" that accurately describes Orthodoxy's attitude toward homosexuality.

That attitude reflects the fact that no sexual orientation itself is condemned by the Torah. Axiomatic to Jewish law is that only acts and willful attitudes (like nurturing desires that are wrong) can be prohibited, not inherent proclivities.

Behavior, though, in every area of human life and endeavor, is carefully delineated by Jewish religious law. That is Judaism. And controlling behavior, even -- no, especially -- when difficult, is precisely what the Torah asks of its adherents.

That's not, however, the film's attitude, which is better summed up by one of its subjects, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, billed as "the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi." Addressing the Torah's strong prohibition of male homosexual acts, he suggests to the camera, without elaboration: "There are other ways of reading the Torah."

What Greenberg apparently believes is that elements of the Jewish religious tradition are negotiable; that the Torah, like a Hollywood script, can be sent back for a rewrite. That approach can be called many things, but "Orthodox" is not among them.

DuBowski has told the press that his experiences in making his film have made him more religious, that he has experienced Shabbat for the first time and laid tefillin. Such Jewish growth is no small thing, and is a true tribute to the man. May he continue to grow as a Jew and to learn more about Jewish ideals and observance. And may he also come to understand why his film, whether or not it is a critical success, misleads.

Because "Trembling Before G-d" wrongly answers the most important Jewish question imaginable: Is Judaism about what we'd like God to do to accommodate us, or about what we are honored, exalted and sanctified to do to obey Him?

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