This beautiful, moving, perplexing documentary describes the lives of Orthodox Jews who are lesbian or gay. Orthodox Jews, a minority among Jewish people, live deeply conservative lives centred on the Bible and the family. Their attitude to homosexuality starts from the biblical judgement that sex between men is an abomination. Members of the Orthodox establishment have opposed any mention in America’s Holocaust Museum of the fact that gays died in Nazi concentration camps.
Many Orthodox lesbians and gays face the kind of bigotry which most gays have not experienced since the 1950s. Their families disown them, they are expelled from synagogues and religious schools, they are forced to undergo ‘therapy’ to try and make them straight, they are forced into arranged marriages and years of living closeted lives.
Many of course reject the Orthodox faith, along with the communities in which they have grown up, and sometimes their families. This film shows those who are still Orthodox, and are struggling to find some accommodation between their sexuality and their religion. It’s a moving struggle which they carry on with courage, humour and passion. People reach accommodations in different ways–some struggle to be celibate, others interpret the Bible to mean that anal sex is forbidden but other forms of gay sex are allowed.
The heart of the film is the Orthodox men and women who agree to be interviewed. David, who has tried to change his homosexuality for 12 years, confronts the rabbi who initially told him to seek therapy. The rabbi says he can’t tell David to continue with therapy when it’s caused him so much pain, but he can’t approve of David being gay. Neither can see a way forward. Mark was thrown out of many yeshivas (religious schools) for being gay. He rejected his faith, became HIV positive and seriously ill, and has now become Orthodox again–though he’s not ashamed of his sexuality. ‘Devorah’ only agrees to appear in shadow with her voice changed. After 20 years of marriage, and numerous children and grandchildren, she feels that she is falling apart. Israel has not spoken to his 98 year old father for over 20 years, though they live only a few miles apart. He is finally filmed speaking to him on the phone, the pictures interwoven with images of Israel and his partner Carl celebrating their 25th anniversary.
The film makes clear the value their religion has for Orthodox lesbians and gay men, so that they don’t feel they can simply reject it to lead openly gay lives. Some of that appeal is perhaps foreign to many socialists–the attraction of prophecy, the certainty that god has a purpose for every life. Other aspects, such as the desire for dignity and a sense of community, are familiar, and beautifully represented by depictions of Orthodox ritual.
Despite its conservatism, the Orthodox community is not monolithic. Members of it are clearly trying to preserve a minority religion in a hostile world, trying to work out where they can afford to compromise with the mainstream and where they must remain inflexible. The rabbis interviewed are not people cruelly certain of their own righteousness–they know that the more they condemn homosexuality, the more lesbian and gay people will abandon their faith, and the more the Orthodox community will shrink. None of them wishes to cause human beings needless pain, or to claim that they are morally superior to anyone else. Yet they cannot accept homosexuality because the Bible forbids it.
Religion, said Marx, is characterised by contradiction. It is both the expression of real distress, of real oppression, and a protest against it: ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’ Orthodox Judaism provides a refuge from the world, yet is in some ways also a protest against it. ‘I live in my faith,’ cries Israel in the film, ‘I don’t know what my faith is.’
This film has been screened in a number of Orthodox synagogues, and others have sponsored discussions about it. Steve Greenberg, interviewed in the film, is the world’s first openly gay Orthodox rabbi. The courage of Orthodox lesbian and gay people may be changing things. More power to them. ‘Trembling Before G-d’ will be shown in cinemas soon, and on BBC television later this year. See it if you can.
Women between revolution and counter-revolution
Animated film retells Anne Frank’s story
A pick of the highlights