January 5, 2002 -- "Trembling Before G-d" is the kind of documentary that makes you wonder why nobody thought of doing this before. It is a documentary that squarely takes on the issue of tension between homosexuals and the religious establishment. This issue is touched upon in some other documentaries about gays, including "Shades of Gray," "License to Kill" and in the semi-documentary play and film, "The Laramie Project," but this film really concentrates on the issue. The title refers to the fact that certain Orthodox Jews do not believe in spelling out the name of God.
The key issue, of course, is the condemnation of homosexual activity as being inherently sinful by conservative elements in the major monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The religious belief that homosexuals are sinful by nature causes tremendous problems for gay believers who want to retain their lifestyle and their faith at the same time. In most cases, homosexuals are allowed to remain active in their faith only if they refrain from having proscribed sex. For male gays, this includes anal, and perhaps other kinds of sexual activity. There are, of course, more liberal Christian churches, and more liberal elements of Islam and Judaism that don't enforce these same proscriptions. This film deals specifically with strict, conservative ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism, but the themes are the same with any conservative element of any religion which actively condemns homosexuality as being inherently sinful.
One of the real issues of religious contention dealt with in the film has to do with the concept of free will versus determinism and the belief that God cannot be the author of evil. It is commonly accepted in the gay community that homosexuality is a biological trait which is "hard wired" into the brain. This belief leads to the conclusion that God is the author of evil, since he is the one doing the wiring. In order to avoid that conclusion, religious thinkers hang their arguments on free will. They argue either that homosexuality is a matter of choice, or that it is a temptation, like any other, which must be overcome. One hears this argued both ways, sometimes by the same believer.
In the film there is a an Orthodox gay man who has tried to stop being homosexual for more than a decade. He has tried prayer and other techniques, including therapy. Despite all this effort, he is still gay. In the film, David travels to meet the first person he came out to 20 years ago, a Chabad rabbi, to confront him with the dilemma of his therapy and sexuality. This is the same rabbi who urged David 20 years ago to overcome his sexuality. It is a moving moment when the rabbi tells David that he cannot be accepted by his faith and still have a gay relationship. The rabbi offers no real hope for David. He simply cannot have both his love and his faith at the same time.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is an interview with the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Steve Greenberg. There are also interviews with both Orthodox and modern rabbis in Israel, New York, and Los Angeles. There are also interviews with "Malka" and "Leah," who have been lovers for 12 years after meeting in Brooklyn's Bais Yaakov, an ultra-Orthodox girl's school. Like some of the people in the film, their faces are never shown. There is also an interview with psychotherapist Shlomo Ashkinazy, who has run a confidential support group for Orthodox gay men for over 15 years.
In addition to Malka and Leah, there are a number of other faces hidden in the film. Sometimes, people are shown in silhouette, other times, faces are obscured using photographic or digital blurring techniques. Sometimes, this is done for people who wish to be in the film, but don't want their identities revealed. At other times, it seems to have been done to hide the faces of those who may not want to be associated with the film in any way. There are a lot of hidden faces in the film, evidently due to the controversial nature of the film's subject matter. The techniques used to hide the faces of Malka and Leah, showing parts of faces, backs of heads, or using household objects to block their faces, was annoying and distracting. One nice touch was the use of subtitles to explain the numerous Hebrew and Yiddish words and phrases interspersed throughout otherwise English coversations in the film.
Overall, the film is impressive in its scope and sensitivity to both sides of the issue. The number and variety of interviews is impressive, as was the amount of travel necessary to obtain the interviews from both the east and west coast of the U.S. as well as Israel. While the film is not quite as thorough as it might have been from the spiritual or philosophical perspective, it certainly covers the human perspective of the issue well. This is a very thoughtful presentation of a very thorny issue. This is the best documentary I have seen in 2001 (I didn't get around to doing the review until 2002 because of the necessity of seeing so many films in the last three weeks of 2001). It rates a B+.
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