Trembling Before G-d,” the groundbreaking film by Sandi Simcha DuBowski documents the lives of Orthodox and Hasidic gay and lesbian Jews, who both struggle against and give in to the fierce pull of their religious world.
In one of the most poignant segments of the film, “Malka” and “Leah,” a couple who met at their ultra-orthodox Bais Yaakov high school, carve out a place for their sexual and emotional commitments within Orthodoxy. “I’m trying to do as many mitzvos as I can so there can be a place for us in Olam Habah [the next world] together,” says “Malka.” Their lives are structured not only by the obligation and desire to perform mitzvot but by a profound belief in a God who hears and answers them.
Also featured in the film is Big Knish Tours leader Israel, from Brooklyn. Israel rejects his former Orthodox life entirely; instead, he finds community and family ties within the secular gay world. But he is still in pain and in dialogue with the world that rejected him.
The most painful scenes are those shot in silhouette, to disguise identities, of homosexual Hasidic men and women trapped in heterosexual marriages, yearning for an intimacy and love they cannot have.
Understandibly, “Trembling Before G-d” has won awards at Sundance and at other film festivals in Berlin. Jerusalem and Los Angeles. This fall, it played to sell-out crowds in New York, breaking box office records at the Film Forum for opening day ticket sales.
“Trembling” challenges the Orthodox world to a communal heshbon nefesh, a spiritual accounting, to reevaluate whether halakhic norms have become an excuse for social prejudice. The film asks liberal Jews, gay and lesbian audiences, and others to wrestle with a different question: what makes these brave and often lonely souls want to remain within this uncompromising community? Why speak to a rabbi who will at best advise celibacy, when one could seek out from a liberal or even a gay rabbi—or no rabbi at all—and find acceptance?
If “Trembling” had done only the important work of exposing the heretofore unrecorded lives of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews, dayenu. But “Trembling” goes far beyond that, giving non-Orthodox viewers a sense of the force and embrace of that community, the loss of which offers liberation to some but an empty void to others.
For those Orthodox gays and lesbians who have not made the break, being observant and a practicing homosexual means placing Leviticus 20:13 (“A man who lies with a man as with a woman, both of them have done an abomination and shall be put to death”) in dialogue with the words said every morning: “My God, the soul you placed within me is pure.” Queer Orthodox Jews do not get stuck in this contradiction; instead, they use the ancient technique of Midrash to let these texts have meaning in their lives. Revolution may come from these Jews saying, as does the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi Steve Greenberg, “There are other ways to read the Torah. Let’s learn.”