Friday, March 07, 2008

Trembling Before G_d (2001)

Swift once reportedly claimed that satire is a mirror in which we see every face but our own. Trembling Before G_d is not a satire, but it does contain a critique of a way of thinking and living.

I bring this up, because while watching this documentary about orthodox Jews struggling to come to terms with their own (and each others') homosexuality I thought at times that perhaps it was the sort of film that would be good for a Christian audience. On the one hand, the fact that it was about another religious tradition might make it easier to grapple with questions that tend to provoke a fight or flight reaction when raised about one's own tradition. On the other hand, perhaps seeing and hearing the words of one's own community in the mouths of others might make some stop and listen rather than just recite dogma as a knee-jerk response.

But that's a bit idealistic, I suppose. The capacity we have to compartmentalize what our hearts and minds tell us when we witness behavior in others and how we respond in our own lives is generally greater than the ability of any one work of art or argument to slip in the back door.

Then again, as George MacDonald said, God sometimes approaches us from behind, so we don't always know he is gaining on us or is closer to us until that moment in which He overtakes us. Trembling Before G_d is a sensitive, compassionate, and possibly fruitless portrayal of gays and lesbians, most of whom realize that their orientation is at odds not just with their community's beliefs but also with their own.

If there is an argument here (beyond the basic one for tolerance towards those who are different) it is one against the idea that being homosexual (or heterosexual) is a choice. Most interviewees claim to have tried to change their orientation through various methods--prayers, rituals, mitzvahs, marriages of convenience, talk therapy, aversion therapy, hormone therapy. To act or not act on a sexual orientation may be a choice (though, as one interviewee points out, it is a choice between a lifetime of loneliness and frustration and a lifetime of rejection by the community), but is the orientation itself a choice? Try telling that to the man who, as related by his therapist, struggled for 40 years against a homosexual orientation, never once (according to the interview) acting on the inclination, but eventually having to give up teaching in the yeshiva because of his attraction to other men.

The film doesn't idealize or lionize its subjects, which goes a long way towards its effectiveness. When one lesbian is shown "counseling" a still in the closet lesbian over the phone, she doesn't seem to be aware (while on the phone or after) that she is nearly shouting and that her tone is one of anger and frustration at her advisee than it is one of compassion. She, like many who appear in the film, is carrying deep emotional scars from painful rejections and (as she later admits) self-doubt. The teaching of childhood is internalized and is hard to simply abandon. Thus the special pain of gays and lesbians raised in orthodox communities (I imagine this is true of those raised in fundamentalist communities as well) is that they can no more imagine not being Jewish (or Christian or whatever) than they can imagine not being gay.

One could quibble, I suppose, at a few of the interviewees who are "out" but remain anonymous via silhouette or creative editing. One could claim that there are other reasons besides religion than parents and children have conflicts and that (perhaps) there is a "more put upon than anyone" tone in the film that threatens to turn victimization into a contest or hierarchy. One could even claim that the documentary lacks the courage, insight, or ability to examine the alternative point of view from anything other than a scolding perch of moral indignation. [If it is hard for those who are themselves gays and lesbians to reconcile their orientation with what they've been taught, surely it must be hard for those who are not to try to reconcile these two things. How much choice is there in their actions?]

All of these nitpicks may be valid to some extent, and the nits themselves may keep the film from being particularly complex or gripping, but on the most plain level the film works because it illustrates on an experiential level what an argument can't convey--that believing something about homosexuals is one thing, but looking into the eyes, face, heart, and life of an actual person who is homosexual and acting on that belief is something altogether different. The film accomplishes what I imagine it set out to do: it makes you confront the fact that the person sitting opposite you is not a hypothetical, abstract homosexual construct about whom an impersonal debate can rage but another human being.

It's probably sad that we need to be reminded of that in the mirror of intolerance and fear we see every visage but our own.

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