Hidden Perspectives

Bringing the Bible Out of the Closet

Film Review: Trembling Before G-d

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Trembling Before G-d (2001) By LaDIYfest’s Hannah Kate Boast

Trembling Before G-d is a 2001 documentary by the American director Sandi Simcha Dubowski which records the stories of gay and lesbian Orthodox and Hasidic Jews in America and Israel. ‘The ‘G-d’ in the title refers to the Jewish practice of not writing God’s name out of respect. The film includes personal interviews with people from a variety of backgrounds, some who are happy to be identified and others who appear as anonymous silhouettes, who have had very different experiences of trying to reconcile their sexuality with their Orthodox Jewish upbringing and in most cases, their continuing faith.

David, an Orthodox Jew from Los Angeles, spent a decade trying to change his sexual orientation because of his belief, encouraged by members of his community, that it was in conflict with his Jewish identity. In the film David travels to visit the first person he came out to, a Chabad rabbi, who seems to have sympathy for David but repeats the same advice he gave twenty years earlier:

“You can’t lie to someone. You can’t tell a person that he can be a religious Jew and violate one of the mitzvot for which the Torah prescribes the death penalty and calls it an evil — calls it an abomination.”

‘Malka’ and ‘Leah’ are an Orthodox lesbian couple who met at their all-girls’ Orthodox school in Brooklyn and had been together for ten years. They seem in the film to live in happy and rather sweet domesticity, although we discover that Malka is essentially estranged from her family because they could not accept her sexuality. Poignantly, while Malka and Leah live fairly contentedly in the present, they confide their deep and unanswerable fear that they may not be able to be together in heaven if the Torah prohibits homosexuality.

The film also includes interviews with rabbis and psychotherapists who have very different interpretations of the biblical attitude towards gay and lesbian people.

One of these is the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi in the US, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, who argues:”There are other ways to read the Torah. Let’s learn.”

He adds that God loves and wishes to learn from human beings rather than to control lives according to specific doctrine. Because of this, Rabbi Greenberg believes, God would be accepting of gay people.

In January 2013 the director, Dubowski, wrote an article for the Huffington Post on advancements in acceptance of gay and lesbian people within the Orthodox Jewish community.  This has so far included a statement in 2010 signed by over 200 Orthodox rabbis and educators which, while still barring same-sex sexual acts, condemns homophobic bullying and recommends that gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews should not be pressured to marry members of the opposite sex.

Clearly, this isn’t anything like full acceptance of homosexuality within the Orthodox Jewish community, but it’s still tangible progress that has occurred since the film’s release. I’d recommend Trembling Before G-d to anyone wanting to learn more about the Bible, homosexuality and Orthodox Judaism.

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Author: Hidden Perspectives

A research project within the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) at The University of Sheffield.

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