Trembling before God is a documentary that addresses the issue of homosexuality within the Orthodox/ Charedi community and lightly touches upon how it is dealt with in the Modern Orthodox community. It succeeds in sensitizing its audience to the plight and pain of those who are homosexuals and struggle to remain otherwise observant Jews, but it is also revolutionary in its promotion of acceptance and support for homosexuality in halakhic Judaism rather than mere tolerance.
The part that really tore me up inside was Israel Fishman's monologue.
- There was no reason in the world- the way I was treated by my family was a very abusive
Why? Because you were different than them?
That was only my- they may have sensed that I was different at a very early age, but even when I was- I was very observant when I was a youngster, five, six, seven, eight- I was a very good yeshiva bochur, I was much better than my brother, I know I live in my faith. I don’t know what that faith is, I don’t know what God is, I certainly know it’s not the God that tells me I shouldn’t do this, I shouldn’t do that; I’m not the God who stimulated that yeshiva bochur when I was in Ner Yisroel when I was fifteen years old to get me to confess that I had masturbated, that I had sex with my brother, and made me swear to Him that I would never do it again and drove me twelve weeks later to suicide and drove me to a mental hospital and drove me to have electric shock therapy that burnt out my brain. That’s not the God that redeemed Israel out of Egypt; that’s not the God that stood by me. You know, my sister won’t come into the house because I’m gay. Even though they won’t have anything to do with me, I know I live in my emunah. I know I live in my faith. I know and, and, and I come back here to redeem that part of me, the pintele yid that, the she’aris ha’plaita (saving remnant) within me, that part of me that should not have survived, that part of me that my father said, “What do you want? They didn’t make you a bar of soap.” You know, if my father said to me once, “You know, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I hurt you.” I wrote him a letter in 1988 was, I wrote him a letter outlining all the things, and I said, you know, I quoted from the Talmud and whatever and I heard nothing. I also took this same letter and took it to the gravesites of various people and I burnt it and I put it on the water and I did all kinds of mai’asehs and I heard more from the dead than I heard from the living. More from the dead than the living!
Israel Fishman is a distinguished-looking, fascinating man whose eyes blaze when he speaks. He's passionate and outspoken and hurt, and it's the hurt more than anything else that shines through him. He was obviously made to feel very guilty about his sexual desires, and the fact that he had been involved in an incestuous relationship with his brother could only have added to that shame and guilt. It is no wonder that he became ill. Everything he says is deeply moving. He says that he wants his Daddy; he wants to have his relationship with his father back, to have him sit at the Shabbos table with him and simply allow him back into his life. During one painful conversation- it is painful for us to watch- his father explains that he is very busy with "selikhos and work and building the sukkah" so he cannot meet with his son right now. The son asks whether he can meet with his father over Chol Hamoed Sukkos, but the father simply responds by wishing him good health. Fishman states that the father "doesn't hear...he doesn't want to hear."
I also connected to Shlomo Ashkinazy. Well-spoken, ostensibly modern, cleanly dressed, he explained that he had gone to see a prominent Orthodox sage to discuss his homosexuality. The Rabbi had warned him that anal sex was absolutely prohibited by Jewish law. Ashkinazy responded that he did not practice anal sex. The Rabbi was then at a loss as to what gay activity was and Ashkinazy was the one who had to inform him of such practices as hugging, kissing, mutual masturbation, and oral sex. The Rabbi asked him, "Why would a man want to put his shmekey in another man's mouth?" and Ashkinazy responded, using clear medical terms, "Why would a man want to put his penis in a woman's vagina?"
The insinuation there, of course, is that this Rabbi who was so well-versed in halakha and Talmud and is an obviously learned man, was not up-to-date when it came to issues affecting those living in the modern world. It shows this particular Rabbi to a disadvantage, of course, but it is also deeply affecting. It is quite clear, of course, how important it is for religious leaders to be aware of issues like these within their communities, and to be able to address them clearly and responsibly in proper medical terms.
That having been said, the film was balanced, on a whole. The Rabbis who were interviewed came across as compassionate but in a halakhic bind, as they truly are; the Torah says what it says and one cannot, as Rabbi Steven Greenberg suggests, simply reinterpret the verses in question. The Rabbis on a whole explained that they felt compassion toward those who were suffering and realized that these people were in pain, but they were not at liberty to change Torah law. I believe this to be a fair approach.
The only problem with the movie was its focus. There is a difference between understanding the pain and suffering of homosexuals and between claiming that this is a perfectly acceptable lifestyle and that everyone should happily applaud it, a difference between informing Jews that there are indeed homosexuals in the Orthodox community and that they must be treated with love and kindness, as one would treat any Jew, and between passionately supporting them and their lifestyle. There are parts of the extended features that are simply unacceptable when it comes to the halakhic religious approach. Here are two examples.
- 1. The director of the film explains that Rabbi Steven Greenberg met his partner because of the film's success. He makes a statement that there's an idea that after making 3 shidduchim one goes straight to Olam Haba (the World to Come). "Well, I've got one down, two to go," he says, laughing. Obviously, the intimation is that pairing Rabbi Steven Greenberg up with his male partner was a mitzvah, and that the director might actually be rewarded with a share in the World to Come for this.
2. The film is interspersed with sections that feature silhouettes of people engaging in holy activities-keeping Shabbos, observing the holidays. The director explains that one silhouette, showing a gay couple (male) ushering in the Shabbos is a vision of a "world to come" in which this would be acceptable, and the intimation to me seemed to be, preferable.
The film is extremely successful, however, in bringing the humanity of others to the fore. Homosexuals and lesbians are people, and those who are born into Orthodox or Charedi communities are faced with an extremely difficult choice. One man, David, tried everything from reciting prayers to eating certain foods to flicking a rubberband on his wrist every time he had thoughts about another man and none of it helped him. That having been said, what is his lot in life? To remain celibate, alone, childless, to have friends as his only comfort? Is this really God's wish?
On the other hand, and infinitely more disturbing to me, were the people who, trapped within the confines of the Orthodox community and knowing they would be shunned for admitting that they were gay or lesbian, actually married others and have even raised families- people who have children. There are frank interviews in which one woman, Devorah, explains that she even broached the idea of a "platonic marriage" to her husband, who understandably, was not pleased with the idea. There's another woman who is married and is having an affair with a married woman, is completely Charedi, and who absolutely cannot "come out" to others. The community in which she lives would shun her, might take her kids away from her, hurt her...
Obviously this is not a good situation. People cannot be made to feel inferior and guilty and ashamed of something that is integral to them. Neither can they be made to feel so powerless and trapped that they submit to another's will or society's will for them to marry, as that is (in the situations mentioned in the movie) deeply unsatisfying for them and cruel to their spouse. They must have the ability to speak up without fear of being shunned and hurt. Shuls must open their doors to gay people; they must be retained, be part of the community. There is a difference, however, between tolerance and agreement. The approach that I advocate for is the tolerant approach. This is the approach that states: The Torah states that homosexuality is a sin. We cannot reinterpret the Torah or rationalize it to make it say things it does not say. You are homosexual; that does not make you bad or unworthy or unclean. It means that you are caught in a terrible, painful situation and no one but God can judge your actions. This is not a social sin- you are not hurting me. You are not stealing from me or killing others or kidnapping anybody. This is something you do in the privacy of your home, and perhaps you act on your sexuality and perhaps you do not, but either way, it is not for me to judge, because I am a human and not God. And as a human, I shall treat you as I would treat any other human being, with dignity and respect and kindness. But that does not mean that I necessarily approve or agree or believe in your ideals, and neither is that something that I ought to have to do.
The extra material on the second disc demonstrates a very fair-minded approach in that the director did not shy away from including dissenting opinions, objections, or disappointments. The spokesman for JONAH ,for example, explained that he felt the film had been one-sided in that it had not addressed the topic of change (that homosexuals could become heterosexual.) He felt that the film had actually derided the concept of change and dismissed it as laughable because of its association, in the film, with "eating figs, snapping rubberbands, or electric shock therapy," none of which is helpful.
Rabbi Meir Fund is heard in a phone conversation where he explains that he feels misled- he thought the point of the film was to demonstrate the "pain and anguish" of Jewish homosexuals but instead sees that it had an agenda and has sparked a gay-rights movement within the Jewish community, which he personally believes will fail.
So they were very good about including opinions other than their own, extremely fair-minded, in fact.
The film's ultimate importance for the Orthodox Jewish community is best expressed in a statement by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who teaches sex education at Ramaz (or did at the time.)
"...and one of them is the whole issue of how we respond to people who are gay. And I think what I'd like to say to Sandi and Naomi and Steve and everybody else who had anything to do with this film is that, the next group that I have; I will have to speak differently. When the Torah speaks about abomination, it speaks about an act; it doesn't speak about a person."