Although "Trembling Before G-d" has enjoyed a successful theatrical run in Los Angeles, drawing in theatergoers is only part of the mission of Sandi Simcha DuBowski’s documentary about gay Orthodox Jews struggling to reconcile conflicting parts of their identities.
"Dialogue is what the film is about, ultimately," said Dr. Mark Kramer, the national education outreach coordinator working for "Trembling." In terms of using the film to start a dialogue with Orthodox rabbis and their congregations, Kramer said, "Los Angeles has been a tough nut to crack."
The film, which broke box office records for a documentary in New York, was also well received there by nearly a dozen Orthodox rabbis, who hosted post-screening discussions of the film with congregants. When Congregation B’nai David-Judea hosted a screening of the film on March 9, it became the first — and so far the only — synagogue in Los Angeles to do so.
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea, the only Orthodox rabbi who did agree to the screening, originally planned to take a more conservative approach, screening the film privately with the synagogue’s board of directors. "There was a lot more interest in viewing it as a synagogue community than we anticipated," said Kanefsky, who agreed to congregants’ requests. Approximately 200 congregants filled the synagogue’s auditorium to watch the film and discuss its implications with their rabbi.
After a closed-door session, three of the film’s subjects joined the group to answer questions. Los Angeles resident David and Florida couple Leah and Malka — who only go by their first names in the film and in person — addressed an audience as curious about the individual, personal questions the three faced, as the halachic possibilities for Orthodoxy and homosexuality.
Congregants’ reactions to the documentary reflect Orthodox Judaism’s opposition to the issue of homosexuality and a desire to show compassion, especially for homosexuals who live otherwise Torah-observant lives. "The film was persuasive for me in defining homosexuality as not a choice," said one woman at the B’nai David-Judea screening, who declined to give her name. "Where people are struggling with who they are, that was important to me as far as, I don’t want to say accepting, but as far as understanding," she added.
Not everyone in the audience was swayed by the film, however. One man spoke to the widespread concern that gay Orthodox Jews are trying to change halacha, or Jewish law. "I think there’s things in life you just can’t reconcile," he said. "It was a good film, but I don’t know what they want from us. Do they want a sign outside, ‘We Welcome Homosexuals’?"
But even among those in the audience who remained troubled by homosexuality, the individuals from the film who addressed them were warmly welcomed. "I think I’ve always had a concern about the gay subculture, not gay people," said one congregant. "The subculture troubles me. But the people here tonight, they’re part of our subculture. Tonight helped me separate that out."
Some people involved in promoting the film in the Orthodox community believe that fear of judgment from their colleagues explains rabbis’ resistance to the film, rather than a perceived anti-halachic message. "Rabbis are very concerned with the political ramifications of getting involved with the film," said Yehiel Hoffman, who volunteered to help promote the film within the Orthodox community in Los Angeles.
Though Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the director of Project Next Step for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, has not seen "Trembling," he did consult with Rabbi Avi Shafran on Shafran’s article in The Journal that called the film "incomplete and distorted." "It quickly becomes apparent what tack the film takes," said Adlerstein, who believes the filmmaker and advocates of "Trembling" want to reinterpret halacha to make homosexuality more acceptable. "The notion of reinterpreting is anathema to halachic life," he said.
"Trembling" subject David sees the goals of the film’s outreach program differently. "At the very most we want halacha to be reexamined," he says, "But at the very least, I want families not to reject their children, and kids not to reject themselves and commit suicide. For a rabbi to say he’s not going to screen the film, I think that’s disgraceful; I think that’s not Jewish. It’s saying we don’t want to discuss this, we want this to go away."
Adlerstein explains his opposition to the film: "On one hand, there is value in an educated laity, and open discussion, but it can also be seen as liberalizing some of the rules, and that’s where you get into trouble. Some will say, see, the Orthodox community is already changing."
"Even before the movie was released, I felt we ought to be doing something," Kanefsky said. "The law is the law, but there are a whole slew of attitudinal issues to deal with." But he adds, "The purpose of the screening and discussion was not to kick-start a process of changing halacha."
For DuBowski, who like his documentary subjects is both devout and openly gay, the discussion is the purpose. "The Orthodox community has the compassionate resources to deal with this," he told The Journal.
But as David says and all involved can certainly agree, "This is a very touchy subject."