Sunday, December 14, 2008

Trembling Before G-d, seven years later

It was February 2002 when I was invited by our local Jewish Community Center’s “Jewish and Israeli Film Festival” to speak after a showing of the then-new film, Trembling Before G-d. (For those who don’t know, Trembling is a documentary interviewing homosexual Jews who feel a closeness to Judaism and who are trying, in various ways, to live halachic lives... or who have given up because of their alienation.)

I was invited to speak tonight at a screening of the film, and I must admit that I didn’t expect to say anything different from what I said that first time, almost seven years ago:
*I am in awe of people whose faith in Judaism is so strong that they commit themselves to this struggle;
*Our shuls and communities are obligated to do everything we can to welcome them as Jews and as human beings, without sugar-coating the Torah’s view on homosexuality;
*Yes, even if homosexual desire is genetic/hard-wired it can still be prohibited;
*Recognize that the film does have an agenda, and portrays reality through a lens; it cuts off the interviewed rabbis, and doesn't give us any real insight into the relatives, particularly those accused of shunning, at all.

I didn’t even enter the room to watch the film; I stayed in the next room, preparing a gemara shiur while semi-listening to the familiar voices of gay men and women telling their stories.

But as I was semi-listening, I did have a thought crystallize for me. I knew it on some level before, I’ve certainly applied it before, but I never really understood it as clearly as I did tonight: That this issue of homosexuality in the Orthodox community is really much more a matter of sociology and community than it is a matter of religion.

The voices of outraged people, pained people, isolated people, sad people, resigned people, emancipated people, are not unique to this situation. This particular crisis is more intense and painful and intractable than others, but, fundamentally, their voices sound just like the voices of people disinherited by family and community for a whole host of reasons - religion, economics, personality, whatever.

I’ve heard these voices in my office, on the telephone, at kiddush at shul, from homosexual and heterosexual, from teenager and senior citizen, from Jew and non-Jew; these are the voices of people who are dealing with years, lifetimes, of self-doubt and emotional pain, because they have been told by people they love and respect that they are defective.

Therefore: The comfort we can offer people by telling them, “We don’t think you’re evil,” and “Of course we’re your friends,” matters a great deal, even if we cannot provide the heter (leniency) so many seek. Far more important than validation as a gay Jew is validation as a Jew and human being altogether.

I am convinced that the damage wrought by telling a vulnerable adolescent he/she is immoral, evil or deviant is far worse than allowing him/her to remain gay.

To my mind, most of the voices in that film and in life are not really asking, “Tell me you think it’s all right.” Rather, for most of them it’s about, “Tell me you think I’m all right.”

Which is something, I think, that we in the Torah-observant community can and must do more often.

[Haveil Havalim, hosted by the illustrious Jack, is here!]


  1. First of all i love your blog title that cracks me up. Second this post is great i love what you wrote here and really summed up how i feel. A Jew is a Jew no matter what. My husband was once asked to do a website for a frum person. When he saw the existing sight he immediately backed down. It was a Frum anti-gay website and he said it looked like a KKK or white power site. Jews are Jews and real Ahavas Yisroel is to love each and everyone.

  2. To my mind, most of the voices in that film and in life are not really asking, “Tell me you think it’s all right.” Rather, for most of them it’s about, “Tell me you think I’m all right.”

    Which is something, I think, that we in the Torah-observant community can and must do more often.

    Well said. How many lives have been terribly damaged because people are told that they are fundamentally flawed.

  3. Sheva, Jack-
    And, yes, I am very uncomfortable with Jewish groups who insist on positioning themselves as anti's... ony many issues.

  4. Wow - excellent insight. I wish you luck in conveying it to your fellow community leaders.

  5. Tzipporah-
    Thanks... but who excused you from being a community leader? your fellow community leaders indeed...

  6. I wanted to come back and say again that I really appreciate this post.

  7. Thanks, Jack. I was actually kind of surprised that this topic didn't get more interest... but it's been submitted to HH, so maybe the interest will come next week.

  8. For me it's been easier to accept homosexuality because I don't belive in Torah and halakha the way many more observant Jews might. I believe a Divine power inspired the human writers of the Torah with infinite grace and amazement.
    That said, this is one of the more compassionate and understanding takes on homosexuality I have ever read from an observant viewpoint. I don't agree with your take entirely, but I absolutely respect such a cogent argument. Looking forward to seeing you on the HH circuit.

  9. Shtetl Fab-
    Thanks. I can certainly agree that removing literal Divinity from the authorship would make this a lot easier to handle... although I wonder, then, how anyone could decide what was Gd and what was human...

  10. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful and well-crafted perspective. Truly, this is one of the best responses to the thorny issue of Judaism and homosexuality that I have come across.

  11. I am impressed by your ability to find the universal in the particular here- and I think you are right that many of the difficulties that Orthodox glbtqai people find in their communities are common to Orthodox jews in general. I also hope you can recognize that some of us are not asking the community whether we are all right. That is a question for g-d, that we may choose to explore with our religious authorities and close friends.

    What we do ask the community is- will the Orthodox jewish community be there for us as we strive to live honest and fulfilled lives? Will it support us as we, our partners and our children seek to observe the mitzvot and serve g-d? Will my partner and I feel comfortable at shul? At community members shabbat tables? Sending our children to jewish day school? Will we be as respected, understood, welcomed and valued as we hope to be? In other words- will the orthodox community be all right towards us?- and if not- what does that say about Torah? About g-d? How, without the support of our communities, will we be able to stay as religious as we want to be?

    People who are able, as you are, to say "of course we're your friends" make it easier for us to imagine that the answer, at least sometimes, is yes.

  12. QYM-
    Thank you for visiting and commenting.
    I do recognize that not everyone feels this need for the community's "you're not evil," and I tried writing those paragraphs a few different ways before I settled on what's in the piece. I certainly don't mean to say that GLBTQ (what's ai?) are any more naturally insecure than anyone else.
    I do think that there are many in the Orthodox community - rabbis as well as laypeople, although more of the former than the latter - who are willing to help people live a halachic lifestyle, knowing that this lifestyle may not be 100% in line with what we understand as a halachic lifestyle. Kol yisrael arevin doesn't come with caveats.

  13. The ai part stands for Allies and Intersex.