Bright Lights Film Journal

Trembling Before G-d: or Die Volkschmiere

Who will judge the judges trembling before sex? The atheists!

“Some have made the love of God the foundation of morality. If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such being exists…Diderot, D’Alembert, D’Holbach, Condorcet, are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.”

— Thomas Jefferson, from a letter to Thomas Law, 1814

Unfortunately for us, the rationalistic, upper-class deisms of Jefferson, Paine, Franklin, and other Founding Fathers had little far-reaching influence on the unimaginatively fundamentalist, God-fearing Christianity of the poorly educated masses who fought their Revolutionary War. Jefferson’s comments on atheism remain sadly relevant today, when the overwhelming majority of nationally visible elected politicians, regardless of their party affiliation, have openly branded nonbelievers as un-American infidels,1 and even our few agnostic statesmen are afraid to publicly admit to the existence of a godless morality. We know the American right has self-justifyingly pretended the Founding Fathers were not post-Enlightenment rationalists but foaming-at-the-mouth fundamentalists as dependent on mindless, irrational ecstasy (what Freud called the “oceanic feeling”) as they are themselves — just as Christian capitalists, conveniently forgetting about that Biblical image of a camel unable to squeeze its ass through a needle’s eye, have (mis)represented Adam Smith as a pioneering robber baron rather than the inherently moralistic philosopher he was. But because the irrationalism of such extremists renders them mentally immobile and tragically uneducable, to engage them in deadlocked debate would not only be fruitless, but would further perpetuate the illusory right-left binaries the news media manufactures to stifle genuinely Socratic exchanges of ideas. Anyone who has witnessed or participated in a theosophical debate between a believer and nonbeliever knows a priori the inevitable, embarrassing result: the atheist will want to push her argument to its logical, apocalyptic conclusion, but the believer will reach a ceiling of irrational, intuitive faith beyond which he2 cannot proceed, at which point both parties throw up their hands in stalemate. The glowing, oceanic believer remains satisfied; the nonbeliever, saddened that the muddleheaded multitudes are unmoved by the roster of Sadean, Nietzschean, Freudian, and even simple Sartrean arguments, swears off such debates, perhaps seeks refuge in cloistered academia, and knows she exposes her atheism at her own peril.

If religious extremists are by definition irrational, they cannot be blamed for their crippling manias and metaphysical fevers, just as infants cannot be blamed for misbehaving or puppies thrashed for their wanton defecations. But American theocracy is not built solely from the evangelical arrogance of puritans, vice squads, moral hygiene patrols, or local societies for the negation of lewdness and harlotry. This theocracy also stems indirectly, yet more insidiously, secretively, from centrists, those unwitting hypocrites who claim rationality yet fail to go far enough or follow through on moral or civil rights imperatives, who propound feeble tolerance in lieu of boundless love, who timidly revert to moderate positions that grant limited, Uncle Tom rights to three-fifths citizens. Centrism is merely a cowardly reaction against extremism, and neither necessarily nor rationally represents a logically correct civil rights position based on true equality across all spheres. Only through half-hearted phases of centrist “tolerance” have minorities been granted their faltering civil rights — often first through military service, for three-fifths minorities must demonstrate they are capable of conforming to the bloodthirsty, morally straight nationalism required of full citizens. (Those who are denied full participation in the social contract must uphold it more perfectly than those who take the contract for granted.) That Bill Clinton’s gay rights agenda began with “gays in the military” (as opposed to, say, health benefits for same-sex partners) is therefore not even centrist but depressingly conservative — the Band of Thebes weeps for us.

It is both the tenuous victory and miserable failure of the moderate American civil rights movement that being gay is now more acceptable than being an atheist.3 This is no accident — anything, even sexual transgression, can be tolerated when framed within the totalized, overarching rubric of religiosity. Bill Clinton was crucified because he denied the public the confessional, born-again apology they expected. However, the smooth nomination of George W. Bush — whose simian visage neatly disproves Creationism — was ensured the moment Jesus personally forgave his cocaine addiction, thus approving not only his candidacy but also those drug laws which, were they functioning democratically, should have prevented Bush’s ascendancy to military-industrial buffoonery in the first place. If only we Americans had some good atheist propaganda! While our multiculturalized industrial cinema has birthed practically every genre, subgenre, demographic, and category imaginable, we still lack the “atheist cinema” Europe once enjoyed, and even our atheist auteurs — like the late Kubrick or even Woody Allen — squandered their time creating stylistic universes of auteurist tics instead of fashioning a revolutionary political cinema. Our next best option, “queer cinema,” grows more reverent with age, more moderated with every step of its assimilation. Our new American cinema will have its inoffensively humanist covenant with the bourgeoisie, just as God will have his victorious covenant with the faithful over the dead atheist bodies of Pasolini and Fassbinder.

In this frame of mind, I nauseously approach Sandi Simcha Dubowski’s unfortunately praised (and disconcertingly titled) documentary Trembling Before G-d (2001), an enragingly, spinelessly centrist attempt to reconcile Orthodox Judaism’s dogmatic irrationalism with the democratic sexual choice the gay rights movement demands. The film’s many gay Hassidic interviewees — often portrayed in silhouette reenacting Jewish rituals they dare not perform on camera without anonymity — continually beg for acceptance from ashamed parents, intractable, sagaciously bearded rabbis, psychiatrists who never mastered their own neuroses, and from other claimants of Abrahamic authority. A typical interviewee, Dr. Yaakov Meir Weil, a sadistic, Dr. Strangelove caricature of a psychiatrist, proposes that one of his patients, a closeted, married Orthodox teacher frantically besotted with one of his barely bearded yeshiva boys, can be forgiven as long as he nobly, masochistically, and eternally represses his sinful desire, even if his long-suffering wife knows he “can never love her as much as [he] love[s] those boys.” The wife goes further to defend him: “He’s a saint…he’s been fighting his desires for years…he’s made me twelve kids.” For the faithful, it is impossible to surmount the Christlike connection between sainthood and masochism; the supplicant, continually bowing before a dominant Orthodoxy whose intractability must be appeased with pain, embraces that deathly cold, anti-life spirit of ressentiment against which Nietzsche spied his Zarathustra.

One of Trembling‘s main foci, David, a handsome, thirty-something gay Orthodox poster boy, tells of a mad rabbi who recommended a steady, diarrhetic diet of dates and figs to unblock his latent heterosexuality, and who instructed him to deflate his passions by aversively flicking a rubber band against his wrist whenever he became aroused by another man — which he did for two years, to no avail. Later in the film, David returns to Israel to confront the rabbi, to whom he had come out twenty years before, and bluntly, though respectfully, reveals the folly of his advice. The rabbi, of course, despite an admission that he would no longer recommend antigay “therapy,” refuses to liberalize his views — presumptuously reinterpreting the Talmud would surely invoke the loving God’s wrath. For a moment, David plays the psychoanalyst, asking the self-depriving rabbi if he does not also sublimate his sexual desires through the oceanic aesthetics of Hassidism; the rabbi quickly assents, but he, not understanding the universality of desire, fails to see that one sublimation is no worse than any other if one doesn’t live in trembling fear of s-x.4 But, despite a flabbergasting section where we hear of a clueless rabbi who (unlike some Christian conservatives) could not conceive of gay sex beyond literal acts of sodomy, the film balks at seriously undermining the hypocrisies of rabbinical authority. The closest the film comes to a serious critique of Orthodoxy is a sequence where Jerusalem Jews participate — anonymously, of course — in a self-flagellating “Atonement Ceremony for Sexual Sins,” where penitents pray for salvation only in the abstract because, of course, none of those present would be so fearless as to actually indulge. “Heaven forbid there are such sinners here,” reassures the overseeing rabbi, while the demented, chanting Hebrews present engage in psychotically superstitious rites — performance art, really — whose aesthetic perversity is far more intense and otherworldly than anything Masoch could have ever devised.

Almost immediately, the film’s rote, nudging humanism — the sophomoric hallmark of our “indie” film movement — becomes an insurmountable flaw. Of course, we cannot help but sympathize with closeted queers pressured into loveless marriages, or be affected by the superbly moving sequence where fifty-something Israel extemporaneously pours forth to a strange passerby a confession about his religious disillusionment and the homosexuality that drove a wedge between himself and his estranged, ninety-eight year old father (“I’m fifty-eight years old and I want my daddy!”), with whom he is finally reunited at the film’s teary-eyed close. But the film’s centrist, whitewashed liberalism never indicts Jewish law itself, only those heartless, literalistic practitioners who fail to overlook the Talmud’s intolerance and excavate the warmhearted mush beneath. (A long literary heritage of light clerical satire has made us soft and vulnerable to this kind of moderated liberalism: even Chaucer’s “Friar’s Tale” gently mocks the corruption of practice but not the foundations of belief.) Rather than properly discarding irrational texts entirely, Trembling‘s centrism instead argues (unlike that madly antigay rabbi) for freer exegesis of religious text. But director Dubowksi, then, should (but does not) tellingly compare Orthodox to Reform Judaism, whose secularized emphasis on the mitzvah champions modern ethics (relativism) over received morality (absolutism). Indeed, Orthodox lesbian interviewees Malka and Leah dearly hope, in a manner more befitting Reform Judaism, that their earthly good deeds will compensate for their indulgence in a practice for which the 16th century Shulchan Aruch — still the official legal manual for Orthodox Jewry — prescribes lashes with a whip. The only brand of Judaism for them, however, is strict, unforgiving Orthodox, though the film never explains why; perhaps it is because for Dubowski Orthodox hypocrisies are at least internally consistent, while non-homophobic Reform Judaism hypocritically adopts secular humanist ethics while still insisting on the moral necessity of God. Malka and Leah’s Orthodoxy, like Dubowski’s, presumably, is internal and immutable — this is the fundamentalist ideology of anti-Semites and Zionists, who believe Jewish culture is neither an institutionalized religion nor even a semi-voluntary calling, but is inextricable from one’s ingrained, pseudo-racial identity.

Nevertheless, Trembling longs for an Orthodox Judaism innocuously recast as an avuncular cultural heritage rather than a patriarchal terror, particularly every time John Zorn’s simplemindedly nostalgic klezmer noodlings intrude on the soundtrack to undergird those anonymous silhouettes going through their ritual paces, or accompany Malka and Leah’s preparation of a Sabbath challah. Again, the film’s tepid, pleading humanism is totally inadequate, for while Dubowksi generates sympathy for the lesbian couple he utterly fails to critique Hassidic Jewry’s proudly medievalist, “back of the bus” misogyny,5 which still prevents women from becoming rabbis, separates infectiously immoral female congregants from their morally male superiors in synagogue, and forbids festival dancing in mixed company. Furthermore, Hassidic misogyny affords the men precious few sexual advantages, trapping them in the gaol of mandatory monogamy.6 Apparently, there lies no secret romance in the asexual Hassidic boys’ club, none of that allegedly subversive homosociality into which queer theorists love plunging their sticky fingers, nor any of that romantically reactionary eros through which monks, inmates, English schoolboys, and other institutional captives discover both sublimated desires and straightforward buggeries. We will never be able to convince archconservatives their misogynies are merely standardizations of historical, millennia-old error, stemming from the outmoded, arbitrary tribal governances of diluvial clans and petty Mesopotamian despots. Modern corporatism, meanwhile, has simply recast these oppressive legal errors into the newly standardized (if equally patriarchal) mold of slang-infested bodily commerce. I am reminded of Nagisa Oshima’s suggestion, during his In the Realm of the Senses obscenity trial, that “municipal police headquarters” should replace “mound of Venus” as conventional, pulp slang for female genitalia, such that a newly coined vulgarism like “she was fucked in her municipal police headquarters” would metaphorically expose the truly immoral institution. But I digress, slightly.

We should not excuse the false consciousnesses of Jewish lesbians who defend an Orthodoxy centered around gynephobic values, even if they are doubly excluded by both male Hassidim and mainstream secularists. One closeted lesbian interviewee in Trembling describes her nervousness at attending her first Israeli gay pride march, where, among a throng vehemently condemning the right-wing political minority controlling Israel, she felt more uncomfortable as an Orthodox Jew among indignant secularists than as a lesbian in a country run by religious extremists. “It’s not secular versus religious values,” she says, though neither she nor the film offers to define the problem in any other terms. But even these “secular values” mean neither atheism nor agnosticism but, at best, a separation of church and state conspicuously lacking the Jeffersonian acknowledgement of godless morality; I cannot speak for modern Israelis, but today Americans separate church and state only by assuming they are equally important halves of a harmonious whole. Yet this female interviewee is also ironically correct: the issue is not “secular versus religious values,” but, more correctly stated, “rational versus irrational values.” We are disinclined to frame the issue this way, however, because the definitive irrationalism of religious faith has been so consistently equivocated, euphemized, and camouflaged: George W. Bush’s “faith-based initiatives” sound more plausible than “irrationality-based initiatives.”

This equivocation is epitomized by the incorrectly standardized use of the word “hate” in phrases like “hate speech” and “hate crimes,” which misdirect our criticism from something innately bad (irrationalism) to something basically neutral (hate or dislike). Whether or not “hate speech” is harmful or antisocial depends entirely on whether its predications are rational or irrational; if someone hatefully yet rationally argues against Nazism, an irrational threat to civil society, then it is beneficial hate speech acting in the public interest. Apologists who deploy euphemisms like “hate” cannot use the more accurate verb, to persecute, for that would too clearly reveal who is empowered, who is active and not merely reactive. When conservative sophists call even rationally pointed criticism “hate” or “bashing,” they use a fallaciously borrowed premise of egalitarianism to deceive us into thinking all hatreds, and all causalities, are democratically equal, allowing the mightiest hegemonies to play the victim and accuse the powerless of “bashing” it simply because they refuse to submit to its authority. I recall gay conservative Andrew Sullivan chastising homosexuals for “bashing” the Church, as if civilly disenfranchised minorities actually had power enough to dent the Church’s governmentally reinforced armor, as if hatred alone had insurrectionary power regardless of the sociopolitical power of those who wield it.7 By this logic, hating Nazis is the equivalent of being an anti-Semite — for both hatreds can be quantitatively equal in their negativities — and even rational criticism is indistinguishable from irrational prejudice.

The right’s irrational claims to sweet victimization, and its failure to distinguish between (rational) critique and (irrational) persecution, were most recently echoed in Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s dissent from the Lawrence v. Texas (2003) decision, wherein Scalia worried that, were states now disallowed to legislate sexuality, provincial standards prohibiting bestiality, pedophilia, and masturbation would be disastrously “called into question.” At least Talmudic law’s sanctions against lesbianism are unambiguous; American law, born of Puritan misogyny, reverts to outlawing “sodomy,” supposing that female homosexuals, because they have no penetrative organs, haven’t even the power to pierce the immaculate conception of the theocratic social contract.8 Obviously, archconservatives’ smokescreen use of the word “morality” is merely a euphemism for tremblingly fearful sex, for many genuinely immoral acts, such as cheating at cards, betraying a friend, or breaking a promise, are not only wholly legal but are promoted as “healthy” ingredients of American capitalism, competition, and manly victory.9 But this aside, even a first-year biology student would wince at the embarrassing categorical error of lumping masturbation together with pedophilia and bestiality.10 While pedophilia is often culturally determined, as it was in ancient Greece, and while bestiality is a rare taste cultivated through specific detours in an individual’s environment or psychosexual development, there is no more universal act than masturbation, the most primal expression of natural curiosity and exploration. Scalia, whose religion places him immaculately above the masturbating orangutan George W. Bush so resembles, and delivers him safely into a higher species so pure it remains untouched by its own worldly hand, would, if pressured in an argument, never admit to having ever masturbated himself. But if we believe his denials, it is then undemocratic and illogical for one who has never explored his own nature, and who by his own admission lacks natural curiosity, to pass judgment on others’ curious natures.

Does the Godlike judge, the lawgiver, wish to outlaw masturbation? Should there be a referendum on this issue, what would the voter turnout be? Of course, if J. Edgar Hoover was compelled to ensconce his morally upright genitalia in tightly constricting women’s lingerie to fulfill sensual, psychic, or moral purposes — for indeed, sexual rapture and gratification have moral implications — we may safely assume Scalia, along with William Bennett, Jesse Helms, and other State dinosaurs, have at various stages of their boyhoods irresistibly fondled, oiled, stroked, pumped, and punished their big guns, tremblingly or otherwise, even if not to ejaculation, and even if this libertarian act of “self-abuse” later caused them shame or disgrace. But while the conservative elite have indubitably primed and lubed themselves for autocratic autoeroticism, they have figuratively lubed us, too, with politicized, legalized incarnations of their own masochistic shame. A German neologist might dub this Die Volkschmiere (“the lubing of the people”), to conjure the metaphorical image of the oligarch projecting and recycling his sexual shame (or other moral failings) in order to grease a farcical, provincial moral hygiene policy designed to disguise his own shortcomings.11

However, Scalia would never confess to masturbating not because the act is sexually shameful but, contrarily, because the act apotheosizes sinful pride: to masturbate oneself is to reenact the loneliness of the creation myth. God’s loneliness, imperfection, and lacking — for the very act of creation implies a lacking, a hole, a need to be filled — prompted him to create a male other, Adam, narcissistically created in his own image. This creation was for God an exquisitely empty masturbation, a morally pleasurable act whose dripping residue was as worthless and immoral as mankind turned out to be. Before God fashioned Eve from some bony scraps (perhaps to prevent Adam falling homosexually in love with Him), lonely Adam most likely masturbated himself (perhaps with the snake’s assistance). So what is the difference between God’s masturbatory loneliness and Adam’s naturally curious masturbation in the Garden of Eden? Not much — each time we masturbate, we retread that most natural act of seminal creation, that onanistic big bang, whose self-serving agenda quickly became politicized into a self-serving, masculinized religion desperate to conceal its onanistic origins and advance a paradoxically asexual creator God. The ways in which the Church has controlled homosexual conduct follow the same pattern of paradox and self-concealment. The supposedly homophobic Church craftily recruits homosexuals into its fold by using guilt and shame to turn them celibate and asexual, then convinces them the priesthood is their only salvation, and then finally, belatedly, allows them behind confessional doors to lube the altar boys in open secrecy. (Thus, evangelical homophobes’ idea that homosexuals recruit unwilling boys conceals the fact that the Church itself has been the most historically effective homosexual recruitment agency.) The masses have no right to be surprised at clerical sex scandals — forbidden homosexuality has always been the priesthood’s foundation, and barely suppressed pederasty its raison d’etre.

Knowing the masturbatory, neurotically sexual, and often homosexual functions of organized religion, we cannot believe Trembling Before G-d‘s centrist ideology represents progress for gay Jews, or believe the false consciousnesses of pleading, illiberal gay fundamentalists are any different than, say, the false consciousnesses of impoverished filmgoers whose purchase of overpriced ticket stubs subsidizes the immoral salaries of manufactured, multimillionaire celebrities. The dark side of multiculturalism is that its celebration of diversity, and its legitimizing of essentialist cultural identity, pretends all cultures are equal regardless of their rationalism or irrationalism, encouraging the identity-hungry to passively pride themselves in accidentally received heritages rather than finding themselves in choices as actively rational as atheism.12 We must reject multiculturalism’s pretentious objectivity,13 and insist on a terribly ruthless rationalism more stubborn than the slaveholding Enlightenment of our elitist Founding Fathers. We cannot prevent moderate liberals and pseudoprogressives from praising Trembling Before God, but the least we can do — as I have just done in this sentence — is to refute the delusional filmmakers’ wishes by rejecting their repellently reverent spelling of the film’s title. When the demystified word can be read clearly, our defiance becomes the first step toward freedom.

  1. A notable exception is Minnesota’s Independent governor Jesse Ventura, a vehement critic of the Church. However, as an amateur (as opposed to career) politician, he enjoys this rare freedom. []
  2. Here, I use the male pronoun intentionally, for this religion is made by misogynists. In fact, the only interesting point of comparison among Islam, Judaism, and Christianity is seeing how their brands of misogyny historically overlap and diverge. []
  3. In America, it now seems only critical obesity, gross physical deformity, and mental retardation remain as stigmatized as atheism; indeed, primitive societies will make the equation between physical abnormality and heresy. []
  4. This is not to say, as would Freud, that all religions are sublimations of sex; indeed, sex is often a sublimation of creative impulses, as a behaviorist would argue. In this case, however, the Freudian idea seems correct. []
  5. Is “misogyny” the correct word? I cannot say “phallocentric” or “phallagocentric,” for Orthodoxy does not fully acknowledge the phallus. []
  6. In the medieval shtetl, boys would be married at thirteen or fourteen to quickly satisfy their sexual cravings; once appeased, they could return to their studies, and hopefully forget about sex altogether. []
  7. This very evening, as I was returning from a typically evil shopping mall, a group of young black males was boisterously revelling adjacent to my car. As I opened my car door, I heard one of them angrily shout behind my back, “Fuck you, whitey!” Unprovoked as it was, I would never call this attack “bashing,” however, for its expression of unorganized frustration was directionless, and thus impotent to undo power structures. True, instead of happily absorbing their barb, I could have explained to them that my skin color did not automatically make me a pawn of the white power elite, but I doubted they would have accepted my queer or atheistic arguments, even if they might have been open to my socialistic ones. []
  8. It is unclear if dildo-wielding (or fruit-wielding) lesbians can perform sodomy as defined by American law; because Lawrence v. Texas regards only male homosexuality, the distinction between gay rights and lesbian rights was intentionally blurred. []
  9. During the Supreme Court debate, one non-homophobic Justice asked Scalia if “lying at the dinner table” would also be considered an immoral act states should be empowered to outlaw. Scalia, stunned by the logic of the question, was speechless — and as unconvinced as an Orthodox rabbi. []
  10. What is the offense of bestiality? Forget about the perpetrator — lonely with his sheep, billy goats, or cattle, he is a rational actor. Council instead the animals, who cannot consent to their buggery. Sending the shepherd to prison will find him a partner, but, wanting a woman, he will have to sublimate again when he, a penitent, assumes the sheep’s position. []
  11. This metaphor is compounded by the fact that the German schmiere is also a slang term used to dismiss bad farces or provincial dramas that are quickly “smeared” or “scribbled” on paper. []
  12. My criticism of multiculturalism has nothing to do with Eurocentrism; on the contrary, we’ve clearly demonstrated that Western culture almost has the market cornered on irrationalism. []
  13. This objectivity often reveals itself in ludicrous understatement. I recently saw a jaw-dropping BBC newscast that euphemistically deadpanned, “Liberia has strong historical ties to the United States.” One might as well say Jews have strong historical ties to Pontius Pilate. []