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Orthodox Judaism, Homosexuality In The Film Disobedience

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Disobedience is a romantic drama starring Rachel McAdams, Rachel Weisz and directed by Sebastian Lelio. Lelio teamed up with Rebecca Lenkiewicz to write the film based on the novel of the same name by Naomi Alderman. In this review, I will discuss the plot and how the film portrays Jewish identity through the lens of Orthodox Judaism, homosexuality and the struggle of having to choose between the two identities.

The film is set in an Orthodox Jewish community in North London. It begins with Rav, the community’s beloved rabbi, giving a sermon about the freedom to choose. While he is speaking to the congregation, he collapses. The Rav’s estranged daughter, Ronit, is played by Rachel Weisz. She left the Orthodox Jewish community she was raised in to be a photographer in New York. No longer conforming to her religious upbringing, her character is seen living alone, drinking and having casual sex. After being informed that her father had passed away, she jumped on a plane to fly back to London. Ronit’s first stop is at her childhood friend Dovid’s house. Dovid had become the Rav’s prodigy at a very young age. People have gathered at Dovid’s house to mourn the death of the Rav, but Ronit doesn’t fit in. There is obvious tension between her and the people from her childhood that have shunned her for leaving the community. She is shocked when she finds out that Dovid is married to Esti, a childhood friend they shared.

When Ronit meets with her uncle to discuss selling her father’s house, he shows her the Rav’s will. With no mention of Ronit, he had left his house and everything in it to the synagogue. Her uncle hands over the keys so she can visit the house and get any of her personal belongings. Esti, played by Rachel McAdams, tags along with Ronit and they roam around the house reminiscing about their childhood. After a while, Esti passionately kisses Ronit and tells her that she was the one who called to inform her of her father’s death.

The Rav caught Esti and Ronit hooking up when they were teens. Esti disclosed that she was mentally ill after he caught them and Ronit decided to leave. The Rav thought marriage would cure Esti so she put her connection with God and the Rav’s advice over her own feelings and married Dovid in an effort to abandon lesbian temptations. After they both admit that neither of them have been with other women since they were together as teenagers, Esti admits to only being attracted to women and to not being happy with her life. On the way home, Ronit and Esti stop in a park where they shared their first kiss many years ago. They begin to kiss but are interrupted by a couple who recognizes them from the congregation.

Esti is worried about her reputation because she teaches at a local Jewish school. She is called into the office at work the next day and finds out that the couple who saw her with Ronit at the park had made a complaint against her. Overwhelmed with pressure, Esti and Ronit take a train out of town. They get a hotel room together where they can be alone and spend the night making love. After Esti returns home, Dovid tells her that the couple told him what they saw and Esti admits to kissing Ronit. Dovid yells at her saying, “What’s wrong with you?” and “You’re blind!” (Lelio, 1:14:58). Esti responds by saying that she has always had feelings for Ronit and that “It’s always been this way” (Lelio, 1:15:44).

Ronit is about to board her flight back to New York when she gets a call from Dovid who is worried about Esti because he can’t find her. Ronit decides to stay in London to help Dovid search for Esti, who eventually returns home to tell Dovid that she is pregnant and that she wants her freedom. She doesn’t think they should be together and she wants to give her baby the chance to decide to be in the Orthodox community or not. At first, this is difficult for Dovid to understand.

Ronit and Esti go to the Rav’s eulogy reading that is to be read by Dovid. It is clear that Esti’s decision is weighing heavily on Dovid’s mind. He stands up in front of the congregation and begins to read. Troubled by his own thoughts, he puts the paper down and starts speaking on his own, continuing the sermon about the freedom of choice that the Rav was giving right before he died. He looks up at Esti and says, “We are free to choose. You are free” (Lelio, 1:40:56). Esti meets him outside afterward and they hug each other. Soon after, Ronit joined in their embrace. Having reconciled her friendships with both Esti and Dovid, Ronit is finally ready to head back to New York the next day. She says her goodbyes and hops in her cab. Esti chases her down, stopping the cab in the street. She gives Ronit one last kiss and promises her that she will tell her where she decides to live. On her way to the airport, Ronit makes one final detour to say goodbye to her father’s grave.

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Orthodox Jewish identity is a very strong theme in this film. According to Merriam Webster, Orthodox Judaism is defined as “Judaism that adheres to the Torah and Talmud as interpreted in an authoritative rabbinic law code and applies their principles and regulations to modern living.” The denomination is conservative and I think, very accurately portrayed. Some of the many ways this can be seen is in the synagogue where men and women are separated, in the traditional wardrobe and wigs, in the way they mourn the Rav’s death and in the way Ronit is criticized. It was clear that Ronit disagreed with many aspects of Orthodoxy. For example, she doesn’t want to have children, she sees marriage as an “institutional obligation” (Lelio, 34:23) for religious women and she’s bisexual. How could she be a part of a community that she doesn’t fully identify with? Both Ronit and Esti struggle with this aspect of their Jewish identities because “Orthodox tradition only supports heterosexual relations and only within the context of heterosexual marriage” (Human).

Because of this, queer Judaism can be seen as contradicting by conservative Jews. Though the majority of Orthodox Jews strictly adhere to religious law, individual rabbis may personally decide to welcome LGBTQ members. “ In 2010, more than 150 Orthodox rabbis and educators signed a declaration calling for the welcoming of LGBTQ Jews in the Orthodox community” (Human). But in strict communities like the one Ronit, Esti and Dovid grew up in, this is next to impossible. Even though her own father had died, Ronit was not welcomed back to the community. Esti had to secretly call her and when she landed there was no one there to pick her up from the airport. The first thing Dovid said to her was that nobody expected her to come. This signifies the very deep separation between Ronit and the Jewish community she grew up in, all because of her sexual identity.

Early in the film, you can tell that Dovid is worried about this part of Ronit getting in the way when he sternly reminds her that “Honor is the most important thing” (Lelio, 16:15). Not only was he putting pressure on her to honor her father’s death, but he was also scolding her for failing to honor Orthodox Judaism. This is when it became clear to me that no matter what Ronit and Esti do, their actions are disobedience. If they choose to honor their religious identities, they are disobeying their sexual identities and if they choose to honor their sexual identities, they are disobeying their religious identities. In this film, Jewish identity is portrayed in their fight to connect who they are with where they come from.

For Ronit and Esti, the two did not connect. They both had to make the painful choice between their sexual and religious identities. Right before Ronit leaves to catch her flight back to New York Esti asks her, “It’s easier to leave, isn’t it?” Ronit replies, “No, it isn’t” (Lelio, 1:22:12). Just because Ronit had already disconnected herself from the community she grew up in, doesn’t mean the choice between her two identities was easy. She started a new life without any support from friends or family and struggled to come to terms with the meaning of her relationship with Esti.

Esti, on the other hand, felt trapped. She was deeply rooted in a community that viewed her sexual identity as an abomination. Not only was she married to a respected rabbi, but she also taught Jewish children. During a dinner scene, Ronit is being criticized for changing her name. Esti chimes in saying, “Women… Women change their names every day. They take their husband’s names and their own history is gone” (Lelio, 31:54). I think this was a direct reflection of how she felt. She was bound by a religious marriage and who she truly was had been wiped away.

This was very difficult for Dovid to understand as a devout Orthodox rabbi. At the end of the film, he reflects on why the Rav chose to discuss the ideas of choice and freedom. He says there is “nothing more tender or truthful as the true feeling of being free” (Lelio, 1:40:02). He had come to the realization that Esti deserved the power to choose freedom from the strict rules of their Orthodox community, even if he could not fully understand or agree with her desires. Esti chose freedom for herself and her children. Dovid chose to accept this, to not take on the role of the Rav and to reconcile his friendships with both women. Ronit chose to tell Esti that she loves her and to make peace with her father.

Overall, Disobedience portrays Jewish identity from within an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community where homosexual identities are not accepted. Dovid acknowledges Ronit and Esti’s power to choose their sexual identities over their Orthodox upbringing but he does not acknowledge the possibility of them existing as one Jewish identity. Queer Judaism exists, but not within the context of this film. There are many organizations in both the U.S. and the U.K. that work to foster environments where people like Ronit and Esti don’t have to choose between their LGBTQ and Jewish identities. KeshetUK, The World Congress: Keshet Ga’avah and Congregation Beth Simchat Torah are just a few examples. At the same time, there are many Orthodox Jewish communities that do not support LGBTQ identity and therefore, many Jewish men and women that have to choose between their religious and sexual identities. This film does a great job at shedding light on this difficult aspect of Jewish identity. Just like Ronit and Esti, there are queer Jews that must search for a balance between self-definition and assimilation. Ronit, Esti and Dovid’s stories teach us one thing that Orthodox and queer Jews can agree on: the power of choice.

References

  1. Human Rights Campaign. “Stances of Faiths on #LGBTQ Issues: #Orthodox Judaism.” Human Rights Campaign, 1 Aug. 2019, www.hrc.org/resources/stances-of-faiths-on-lgbt-issues-orthodox-judaism.
  2. “KeshetUK.” KeshetUK, www.keshetuk.org/.
  3. Lelio, Sebastian, director. Disobedience. Bleecker Street, 2018.
  4. “Orthodox Judaism.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Orthodox%20Judaism.

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Orthodox Judaism, Homosexuality In The Film Disobedience. (2022, February 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/orthodox-judaism-homosexuality-in-the-film-disobedience/
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Orthodox Judaism, Homosexuality In The Film Disobedience [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 21 [cited 2022 Dec 1]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/orthodox-judaism-homosexuality-in-the-film-disobedience/
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