Disobedience as a Path to God

Disobedience | Bleecker Street
Bleecker Street

My crisis of faith started in Red Robin. A little banner hanging from the ceiling read, “If loving burgers is wrong, we don’t want to be right,” and, maybe 12 at the time, I found the concept unsettling. What would I do if indulgence in something as apparently pure and good as a burger was deemed arbitrarily vile by a higher moral authority? I wondered if I could forsake the progenitor of my own gastronomic enlightenment (the A.1.® Peppercorn Burger, God rest the soul of that crispy-onion-laden lump of hormonally-enhanced beef) if the Lᴏʀᴅ, via special revelation, commanded me thus. Would I have the strength?

That a playful Luther Ingram reference could send me spiraling into a Chidi Anagonye-calibre ethical crisis says everything you need to know about the evangelical tradition in which I was raised. As in any fundamentalist religion, emphasis was always placed on certainty and moral stringency, the assumption being that every divine statute existed for our own good. But the genuine fear I felt upon reading that Red Robin catchphrase cuts to the quick of a tension I’ve carried most of my life—a simmering need to make sense of the sketchier Biblical commandments. All the “love thy neighbor” stuff held up, obviously, but gender-and-sexuality-related proscriptions like “women can’t lead” or “don’t be gay” sparked some cognitive dissonance; as far as I was aware, those mandates never resulted in any observable good. They had to be good, though. That’s the thing. They had to be good because God said so. The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was not mine to eat. My role was simply to obey.

Obedience itself was made manifest on the daily via discipline. “Discipline leads to desire,” was a common platitude. The “struggle” with doubt was celebrated, so long as you continued your disciplined pursuit of God’s capital-T Truth. Thus, a weighty tension settled onto the shoulders of the faithful—or at least on certain devout-yet-incredulous “I believe; help my unbelief” types. Faith meant trusting that the God you’d inherited was still good even when he seemed a bit petty, even when he seemed a bit monstrous. The discipline, the obedience part, was to recalibrate your moral compass to align with God’s.

The effort it takes to silence your own Jiminy Cricket is soul-crushing—a heaviness I’ve found to be shared by many, though its psychic toll on any given individual only comes to light gradually, if at all. It’s an experiential motif I’ve never seen articulated with such precision and profundity as in Disobedience, a film that’s as fluent in its rendering of the burden of orthodoxy as it is versed in the holy liberation of letting go.

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Disobedience | Bleecker Street

Adapted from Naomi Alderman’s novel by director Sebastián Lelio and co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz (who I choose to believe is the film’s secret sauce, as her involvement as a writer is the common denominator between this and Ida and Colette, two other extraordinary movies about transgressive women seizing freedom on their own terms), Disobedience is set in the world of Northwest London’s Orthodox Jewish community, where tradition reigns. The film opens with a sermon on free will. The old Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) orates on the unique ambivalence of being human, caught between the high ideals of angels and the carnal desires of beasts.

“Hashem gave us choice which is both a privilege and a burden,” he says. “We must then choose the tangled life we live.”

These are the last words he can muster before, beset by a stroke, he crumples to the ground. Yet as that admonition hangs in the air in the aftermath of the tragedy—as we meet the Rav’s presumed successor Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and his wife Esti (Rachel McAdams)—we don’t see the exercise of choice so much as the enactment of duty. For while their marriage is clearly undergirded by genuine love, something about it feels mandatory. We watch Esti perform her weekly wifely duties for Dovid with an earnest discipline that has not yet turned to desire. Desire lies elsewhere, off limits; it lurks in the past, banished along with the Rav’s daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz), Esti and Dovid’s childhood friend, who now lives in New York.

Ronit, upon learning of her father’s death, returns to London. There, she is welcomed by Dovid who, though he shirks her attempt at a hug (a religious prohibition), invites her to stay in his home despite the obvious displeasure of his friends. Ronit is stunned to discover that Esti and Dovid are married. In her absence, Esti has constructed a stable, if somber, life, soldiering away at heteronormativity and reaping the benefits of community. Ronit—free but lonely in apostasy—finds herself entirely cut off from her family, literally written out of her father’s will.

Esti lurks in the margins for much of the first half of the film, deprived of agency and yet the covert inciter of incidents. It was she, we learn, who informed Ronit of her father’s death, prompting her return. It is she who finally catches Ronit alone and goes with her to her deceased father’s home—where they reminisce of their romance as girls, the forbidden love that led to Ronit’s exile. Their attraction builds, though their confidence in their desires ebbs and flows. Esti is torn between liberty and family. She trades initiative with Ronit, first leaning into the relationship, then backing away.

Dovid, meanwhile, exists as a sort of patriarchal referee, tasked with keeping his wife in check. He assumes responsibility for Esti, insisting that he’ll prevent her from being distracted by Ronit; “Why should she be?” he asks, when pressed. “This is my house you are talking about. I keep it in order.” Yet as the word gets out that Esti is acting of her own volition, Dovid finds his position increasingly fraught. Ultimately, Esti asserts her will, revealing that she is pregnant and wishes to leave Dovid, to raise the child outside the confines of orthodoxy. “I was born into this community. I had no choice,” she says. “I want my child to be free to decide.”

At this point, I should admit that, as of writing this sentence, I have no idea if Disobedience is considered any good. I haven’t looked it up on Rotten Tomatoes. I haven’t read reviews. For all I know, the movie might suck.

What I do know is that I’ve never sobbed so disruptively in a theater as I did during Disobedience.

It was a kind of inexplicable release that utterly wrecked me, shattered me into a million fragments, melted those fragments down into a mucilaginous goo, and then poured that goo into a churning sea of catharsis. And so I flat-out avoided engagement with the film’s critical reception because, for me, this one was sacred. It was, I kid you not, a religious experience.

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Disobedience | Bleecker Street

Before I begin to unpack the moments in Disobedience that prompted such a reaction, I’ll expand a little more on my own religious heritage. Because no, I’m not Jewish, and all the wigs and yarmulkes were totally foreign to me. The weightiness of internalized religious rigidity, though—that was familiar territory. “Antagonism in the film comes mainly from the characters themselves and their own belief systems, not the community,” Lelio told PopMatters, although the burden of community expectation undeniably raises the stakes. We see the tension in Esti, who insists, “I do believe; profoundly,” as she wavers on the brink of her tryst with Ronit. We see the tension in Dovid, who sustains an adamant desire to honor tradition, to believe that he stands for something right and good—even when that becomes unbearable.

I know the feeling well. Reading the Old Testament (aka the Jewish Tanakh), Teen Me would get hung up on the parts where God tells his chosen people to dabble in genocide. You know, stuff like, “Go attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” First, the command not to kill, and now…this? A part of my certainty-craving soul would run the numbers time and again and always come up with an “Error! Does not compute!” message. Which is why, my junior year of college, I was thrilled to see that the evangelical university I attended was hosting a nice luncheon to specifically address the topic of mass violence in the Bible.

Ready to have this unsettling facet of God’s personality explained away, I turned up at the cafeteria-adjacent banquet room, anticipating some hemming, some hawing, and the ultimate concession that God didn’t really want the Israelites to do all of that murder. Not so. Instead, the speaker pointed the finger back at those of us who felt squeamish about God’s call for wanton slaughter. We were the ones who failed to understand that the Amalekites et al. had it coming. We were the ones so blinded by worldly values we couldn’t see that God was doing the victims of genocide a real solid by stemming the generational tide of their sinful ways.

That’s some chilling ideological shit, but it’s a logical extension of an unwavering obedience to a particular reading of the text. It sounds ridiculous from the outside, I’m sure, but from within, when you’re bound to scriptural inerrancy and infallibility, you have no choice but to bite the bullet and rationalize to the best of your ability. In the Bible, when Job complains that God is being a jerk, God basically responds with a 20-minute Doug Trumbull-assisted creation sequence highlighting the magnitude of his glory. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” The lesson, we assumed, was that our role was not to question, but to obey. That kind of obedience isn’t so much about following rules; it’s about ideological submission, intellectual assent. To call BS on even one thing, to remove one screw, would cause the whole contrivance to collapse.

This gut-wrenching tension is felt no more keenly than in the realm of sexuality. We would justify toxic theology by maintaining that LGBTQ people can be “cured” through prayer, or that a life of celibacy has its own spiritual perks. We did so despite the fact that conversion therapy consistently fails, despite the fact that gay folks are increasingly likely to attempt suicide the more intense their religiosity. We did so with—at least for me—this sick feeling in our stomachs that what we were doing was tragic but necessary. To claim otherwise would have required the dismantling of an entire epistemology. And so we lived with the thinly-veiled self-delusional desperation so apparent in the eyes of John Gallagher Jr.’s character in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, who works at a gay conversion therapy camp, clinging to the belief that his work is beneficial despite all evidence to the contrary. We willed ourselves to believe that the evil we propagated was coming from a place of love—that the whole agenda was rooted in a genuine wish for well-being and wholeness. Even when it seemed so obviously wrong, we were asked to stay the course in faith. We were asked, essentially, to be Abraham.

Abraham, if you recall, is commended by God for his willingness to kill his son Isaac. He gets wind that God wants him to sacrifice his only child, and he responds with obedience. He dutifully ascends a sacred mountain, binds his son to an altar, and raises a knife over his throat. He’s ready to strike when the Angel of the Lᴏʀᴅ intervenes and stays his hand. The whole ordeal was a test of faith, and Abraham passed. “Do what God tells you and don’t ask why—even if there’s no rhyme or reason,” was the obvious Sunday school takeaway.

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Disobedience | Bleecker Street

If you’ll allow a final digression, I want to talk about how that moment is echoed in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, because it taps into the feeling that makes the final moments of Disobedience so potent. The eponymous OT patriarch (Russell Crowe) spends most of the film steadfast in his allegiance to the decree of the Creator, even locking the doors of the ark despite the throngs of people begging for mercy outside. He’s intent on seeing this extinction event through to its end. So when Noah discovers his daughter has borne a child, he sincerely believes God’s wish is that he kill the child, too. Thus, Noah approaches the baby, draws his knife, and hesitates, blade poised over his grandchild’s head. No angel turns up to stop him. Noah wavers, tries to muster the will to do the deed. Then he caves. As he lowers the blade, he looks to the blank sky and says “I cannot do this.” He takes a leap of faith—or rather, a leap of disobedience. Abraham is rewarded for his willingness to kill at God’s request, but is there no reward for those, like Aronofsky’s Noah, with the audacity to flout God out of adherence to a deeper moral obligation? Is there not something holy about accepting the potential wrath of God so that those you love might live?

At the climax of Disobedience, Dovid finds himself similarly torn between his religious obligation and his love for his wife. In the tension-fraught lead-up to Dovid’s eulogy for the Rav, we see him sitting on a pew in synagogue, leaning forward—the entire right half of the frame behind him dominated by shelves upon shelves of religious text and commentary. Compositionally, the symbol of his entire religious inheritance rests on his back, weighing him down. When he finally takes the stage, he tries to fulfill his obligation by launching into a spiel about duty. He doesn’t make it far before crumbling. “I’m sorry. I can’t,” he stutters. Then, instead of continuing the eulogy, he picks up where the old Rav left off in the sermon that opens the film. And he finally lets go.

“There is nothing so tender or truthful as the true feeling of being free,” he says, looking into Esti’s eyes. “You are free.”

That was when I teared up.

With those words, my own years-long religious transformation was encapsulated in an instant. That moment of catharsis—weeping on my wife’s shoulder in a dark theater—closed a chapter of my life that also opened with tears: In college (again, my junior year), my church community was on the verge of disintegration over a pastor’s recent acceptance of LGBTQ people. I found myself torn between obedience and goodness. Clinging to my now-wife-then-girlfriend, I watched my tears spill one by one onto her high-waisted jeans. The first Jenga block had been removed from my theretofore unassailable tower of certainty. Real deconstruction happened later, gradually, in slow-mo, but it began in earnest there. It culminated in my ability to look out at people of all sexualities and gender identities, within and without religion, and say—without reservation—“You are free.”

Of course, in Disobedience, it isn’t really Esti who is liberated by the words, “You are free.” It is Dovid himself. Meek and submissive though Esti seems, she has already found her own inner freedom. “Hashem made me this way,” she says of her sexuality. “If He wishes to punish me, that is His right. But it is my right to disobey.” She’s the one who pursues her desire with growing steadfastness makes her demands clear. She’s the one who rekindles her relationship with Ronit. She’s the one who chips away at her own qualms until the dam breaks in a beautiful moment of consummation. She already embodies that sacrosanct defiance that Dovid is on the brink of discovering.

And when Dovid does discover it—when he releases his demands on her at the cost of his own rabbinic eligibility—Esti can then make the ultimate bittersweet choice of her own: to remain in her marriage, to raise her unborn child with Dovid. Esti hugs Dovid, who then opens the embrace to Ronit, the innocence of their childhood camaraderie renewed and deepened—their triune connection familial, their unorthodox love enabled by the freedom of disobedience.

That was when I started sobbing.

Because in the aftermath of disobedience, there is epiphany. It feels unfair—appropriative, almost—for a straight guy like me to cash in on the hard-won liberation of queer folks. But that’s how it works. To take that ideological leap of disobedience and affirm LGBTQ identities as a straight, cis person is to liberate yourself. You defy one conception of God, only to find that, perhaps, your understanding of the divine was too finite from the start.

Outwardly, the characters in Disobedience wind up in the same place they began. Esti remains with Dovid. Ronit returns to New York. Yet Esti and Ronit’s parting kiss reveals that nothing is the same. In caving, in lowering the sacrificial knife and saying “I cannot do this,” Dovid and Esti find freedom—the freedom to reembody their heritage, fundamentally changed. In the betrayal of their ideals, they find, paradoxically, the maturation of their religious tradition. The old Rav dies mid-thought, leaving Esti and Dovid to complete the story on their own. And they do, unconditionally embracing the apostate Ronit, re-inheriting her to the family she was denied. They eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, each of them, and they find it to be, instead, the tree of life.