A Face-Off Between Notions of Judaism

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With the question “What is a Jew?” as much of a politicized hot potato these days as it’s ever been, “Sabbath Queen” adds plenty of fuel to an already fiery debate. Like director Sandi DuBowski’s prior documentary “Trembling Before G-d” (2001), this long-aborning followup puts a spotlight on LGBTQ protagonists struggling to make a place for themselves within — or despite — the cultural and religious strictures of the Orthodox Judaism they were raised in. But principal subject Amichai Lau-Lavie has gone well beyond that to publicly promote notions of gay and interfaith marriage, among other progressive concepts considered heretical by many. His critics include members of his own family, whose rabbinical lineage can be traced back to the 11th century.

Shot over the course of 21 years, with archival materials going back much further, this is the kind of activist portrait whose sides seem so diametrically opposed, it’s hard to imagine reconciliation is even possible. (And as noted here, conservative Orthodox communities are the only Jewish ones whose population keeps growing, leaving liberal secularist ones increasingly marginalized.) But this Tribeca premiere is sure to stir considerable dialogue as it travels the festival circuit and beyond.

Lau-Levie is introduced in 2017 New York City, where he’s lived since 1997. He’s officiating over a Jewish wedding between two men who are professed Buddhists, something he admits “all the other rabbis will consider… a breach,” particularly as he’s recently earned the title of rabbi himself on graduating from Manhattan’s Jewish Theological Seminary. That institution has changed with the times in some respects (it admits gay and female students), but in others remains staunchly traditional, to the point of being regarded as the centre of U.S. Conservative Judaism. 

Following this boundary-pushing ceremony with his own personal Tashlich, or Ritual of Atonement, middle-aged Amichai is aware that he “broke the law” according to teachings he’d pledged to uphold. But then, he enrolled in JTS largely to become “a virus inside the system,” saying, “Not everything that we’ve inherited is worthy of being passed on — we need to look the 21st century in the eye.” Further, “The change agent that I want to be in the world needs to come from the middle, to approach increasingly divisive voices in Judaism.” 

The multicultural, even “God-optional” spirituality he’s advanced in prior endeavors, like “pop-up synagogue” community Lab/Shul and educational theatre group Storahtelling, appalls some observers now that he wears the official mantle of a rabbi, however. On the flipside, others deeply involved in those endeavors are appalled he’s now officially part of a rigid old guard. His brother Rabbi Benny Lau, one of many prominent Israelis he’s related to, expresses carefully worded disapproval: “I think he is playing a game with Judaism.” 

But the role of embedded provocateur and status quo challenger that Lau-Levie has now assumed — to some strong pushback, including published cries that it represents an “existential threat” to Jews — only becomes fully clear well into “Sabbath Queen.” Jumping back and forth in time, the documentary spends its first hour cramming in an array of subtopics that are all interesting, but feel rather arbitrarily structured by four credited editors. They include the story of our protagonist’s Polish grandfather, who perished in the Holocaust; his father’s starry political career (he’s seen photographed with both Kissinger and Liz Taylor); and latter-day footage of Orthodox protestors hurling abuse at women in Israel who seek access to traditionally male institutions. 

Amichai’s own backstory encompasses non-consensual outing in the Israeli press, which led to his 1997 emigration; subsequent self-discovery via the NYC gay club scene and the Radical Faeries’ queer spirituality; the career of drag persona Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross; his co-parenting with a lesbian couple; a long-term lover who passed away from HIV complications; involvement in the Occupy Wall Street and anti-occupation movements, and more. There are also brief animated sequences by Yaron Shin — a welcome addition, though also one that further makes “Sabbath Queen” feel so stuffed with material, we can’t always get a secure grasp on it. 

Oddly, the film rushes past the six years of Lau-Lavie’s JTS studies, when his simultaneous attempt to infiltrate and dismantle the high fortress of traditional, patriarchal religious practice should snap its central conflict into sharp narrative focus. Though this subject’s life certainly has room for contrary messaging, DuBowski heightens a slightly chaotic overall impression with the same organizational issues that afflicted “Trembling Before G-d” (and “A Jihad for Love,” which he produced). The potency of the themes addressed is not ideally served by their editorial assembly.

Still, this fast-paced, well-shot doc does place its finger on the quickening pulse of an ever-wider gap between liberalizing Western social values and the Orthodox sphere that believes they are antithetical to Judaism. It’s a painful divide, but one that “Sabbath Queen” helps keep at least partly in the realm of civil argument. 

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