A rare moonstruck moment in the documentary Trembling Before G-d comes when a young man, Mark, looks out over a sea of people at a rave in Jerusalem as fireworks sparkle in the sky behind him. Mark’s face looms large in the shot, as large as his drag persona — purple lipstick, long curled lashes and bouffant feather wig. In the next shot, Mark‘s party ensemble has been replaced by a different kind of drag, as he reverently bobs his tallith-covered head in prayer at the Western Wall. From the space between these two images emerges the purpose of writer-director Sandi Simcha Dubowski’s remarkable exploration of sexuality and the Jewish faith: to erase the apparent incongruity of that cut.
Gay and Jewish himself, Dubowski gains intimate access to the lives of half a dozen gays and lesbians devoted to Orthodox observance of Halakah, or Jewish law. (The film comes with its own glossary in the form of occasional subtitles that translate certain Hebrew terms.) Though spread around the globe — Miami, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Jerusalem — each of these men and women has wrestled with the internalized divisions planted by a larger Orthodoxy that views homosexuality and the practice of Judaism as an eitheror proposition.
Dubowski, on the other hand, emphasizes the holistic. Whenever he can, the filmmaker introduces his subjects at their homes, where Jewish liturgy shapes and gives meaning to every aspect of their lives. In Los Angeles, David‘s morning prayers open onto a series of domestic scenes — cooking, laundry, walking the dog — while, in voice-over, he recounts the conditioning he once put himself through to “rid myself of my homosexuality and be the Jew I felt I should be.” In Miami, “Malka” and “Leah” prepare a Shabbat meal and field a call from a friend, an Orthodox lesbian trapped in a loveless marriage. “You’re not alone,” Malka advises. “God is always there to talk to.”
Such openness, however, has its limits. The whole film feels charged by risk. Many of Dubowski‘s subjects requested anonymity for fear of being shunned — or worse — by family and friends. Though we spend time in Malka and Leah’s kitchen, we never see their faces. Neither do we see “Tamar,” a young Israeli lesbian. When she tells of a friend in a similar situation who committed suicide, she appears only as a shadow cast on a lace curtain.
The kind of ferociously small minds that perpetuate such fear also appear in the film. At a New York City protest, Dubowski‘s camera pans across a crowd of angry Hasidic faces before resting on its spokesperson, who sputters, “Homosexuality is a revolt against God.” The film responds to such hostility — and to the more reasoned but inadequate wisdom of rabbis who advise celibacy in cases such as Mark’s — with eloquence, respect and a few bitter tears.
Trembling Before G-d doesn‘t provoke a confrontation with Judaism, in spite of the trauma and pain on view. Instead, Dubowski celebrates the Torah and expresses deep reverence for God’s laws and prayers. As Mark puts it, “At the end of the day, just being a Jew is such a nice present to receive.”
Dubowski carries the beauty of that sentiment into the structure of the film through a series of ceremonies performed in silhouette. Against an umber light, an arm is bound with tefillin for prayer, a rabbi blesses a bride, hands are washed for Seder. Early in the film, Malka argues that homosexuality “is more shunned by the Jewish people than Jewish law.” In these scenes, Dubowski gives us a warm ideal of Jewish practice. In turn, these shadows of divine essence and those other shadows, of anonymity, complete a circuit of identity: the incomplete in search of the whole.
It is such sublime construction, along with the sincerity of Dubowski‘s faith and that of his subjects, that makes Trembling Before G-d so moving and, ultimately, hopeful — a hope that extends further than most documentaries allow. “The demonstration that human beings can influence even God is all over the Torah,” says Rabbi Steve Greenberg, America’s first openly gay Orthodox rabbi and the film‘s best advocate for inclusion. “That’s what the covenant is all about.” The idea that God wants to communicate with — and learn from — human beings burns especially bright in the context of these gay and lesbian lives.