Life’s tough for gay Orthodox Jews. Ancient Hebrew law sees homosexuality as a deliberate rebellion against God and equates gay sex with murder, adultery, and incest. Even the more tolerant Orthodox Jews believe homosexuality is caused by negative social influences or an illness that can be “cured” or married away. Sandi DuBowski’s 2001 documentary Trembling Before G-d took a close look at the collision between Orthodox Judiasm and its gay adherents almost a decade ago. And almost ten years later, Orthodox scholars, an openly gay rabbi, and other Jews still struggle to get the community to at least acknowledge its gay members instead of actively reviling them.
The Old Testament verses against same-sex love came about at a time when the newly freed Jews found themselves wandering the desert surrounded by enemies. They needed to keep their tribe numbers up and couldn’t waste valuable energy on non-procreative sex, so voila! Homosexuality got put in a category of social taboos that people should rather die than commit. But the ancient Hebrews knew nothing of modern homosexual love, leaving Orthodox Jews (who consider biblical law as the literal word of God) to either embrace its gay members or reject them, even if that gay member is a rabbi.
Meet Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi. When he came out in 1999, Rabbi Moshe Tendler commented that Greenberg’s announcement was “the exact same as if he said, ‘I’m an Orthodox Rabbi and I eat ham sandwiches on Yom Kippur.’ What you are is a Reform Rabbi.” And while Greenberg acknowledges the uniqueness of his position, he says people don’t commit suicide, take Prozac, or undergo electroshock therapy to rid themselves of a desire to eat ham sandwiches; “[depriving] a human being of love and companionship is not to deprive them of a [ham sandwich].”
Greenberg kept his ordination and has since published his 2005 book Wrestling With God & Men which urges Orthodox Jews to re-examine their assumptions about anti-gay biblical laws. He also founded Open House, an Israel-based organization that reaches out to gay Orthodox Jews and their families—a big deal for a community so steeped in “strong traditional values and deeply rooted religious commitments” that gay and lesbian Jews find themselves spied on and harassed by vigilante “modesty police” who threaten to expose and ostracize them for any “unchaste deeds.”
Irit Koren, a PhD student in the gender studies department at Bar-Ilan University, wrote about the “modesty police” in her book A Closet Within A Closet. The illegal underground groups target any woman who wears “provocative clothes”, dates secular men, has extramarital affairs, or are lesbian. The group rarely targets men and regularly shames women into conforming into marriage rather than shaming their family and facing expulsion from their lifelong religious communities.
Koren estimates that there’s about 3,600 Jewish Orthodox lesbians and though many see their homosexuality as God given they still struggle against confusion and guilt. Some refuse to give their names or numbers when they call the Open House help line and others “invent self-prohibitions, such as limiting lovemaking with their partner to once a week” as a way to reconcile the non-sin of homosexual attraction with the sin of homosexual acts.
Some of these women appear alongside Rabbi Greenberg in the documentary Trembling Before G-d with their interviews filmed in silhouette or their faces pixelated. Rabbi Greenberg has since shown the film around the Orthodox community with the help of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a prominent Orthodox rabbi in New York. Their aim is not to promote homosexuality but rather to get the Orthodox community to start acknowledging and speaking openly about gay members of their community rather than just ousting them.
Greenberg says, “There is a process under way here in which Orthodox individuals, too, are looking for greater compatibility between the Torah and their human experience. After they have discovered that their humanitarianism is ready to accept some things that the halakha [the collective body of Jewish religious law] doesn’t agree with, they also want their religious world to be able to coexist with those things. It started with Orthodox feminism, which has been a process for many years already, and it is continuing now with regard to homosexuals.”
He continued , “If you’re told that religion is the problem, and if you’re rejected from the religious environment, then the response has been to reject religion and religious communities. But increasingly people are insisting on not abandoning those communities and marking them as unchangeable, but instead forcing them to become real visions for humanity rather than clubs for heterosexuals.”
Of course, Trembling Before G-d is just one of a handful of films about the collision of religious tradition and homosexuality. DuBowski the director went on to make A Jihad For Love to highlight the struggles of gay Muslims and one can look to The Bible Tells Me So and 8: The Mormon Proposition to understand how anti-gay Christians and Mormons are fucking over large swaths of the non-religious LGBT community. The real question is how LGBTs can challenge these institutions without being treated as a threat to their very existence.