A Moment Of Disobedience

What Does It Mean To Have Free Will?

In the stark opening moments of Disobedience, the film adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s 2006 debut novel, a weighty question is posed: What does it mean to have free will?

In an Orthodox synagogue in Hendon, London – the men draped in prayer shawls, the women wearing hats and sitting in the balcony above – the ailing communal leader Rav Krushka tells his congregants that God made the angels, beasts and humans. The angels operate purely on the word of God, with no will and no desire. The beasts operate purely on instinct.

“And what is this man and woman?” Rav Krushka asks. “We have the power to disobey. We are in possession of free will. We must choose the tangled life we live.”

Moments after delivering this sermon, the Rav collapses. His death plunges the community into a reckoning about what comes next – and brings about the return of Ronit Krushka, the Rav’s prodigal daughter who, years before, left the community under the taint of scandal and moved to New York.

Ronit, played by Rachel Weiss, is a stony, brooding figure. Returning to the religious neighbourhood in Hendon in which she was raised, she is greeted icily, and must face  the question of whether she, as the wayward daughter, is still counted as a mourner. There is palpable anger at her for not being present when her father was sick, but even more so, for not being who she was supposed to be.

Rachel Weiss as Ronit Krushka

“We weren’t expecting you,” she is told by Dovid Kuperman, her one-time friend, now her father’s chosen disciple, who has taken on the role of spiritual son. Ronit also learns that Dovid has married Esti, another close childhood friend with whom she was – to the shock and dismay of those around her – romantically involved. Despite the rumours of her lesbian relationship, Esti has remained inside the community and embarked on the life she was presumably supposed to have.

Esti, played by Rachel MacAdams, initially appears the weaker of the two women. In contrast to Ronit’s bold presence, she seems shy and tongue-tied, her face partially hidden behind the strands of her wig. Though Esti has done everything she can to fit into this life, Ronit’s return awakens in her a long-dormant passion. Among the greatest achievements of Disobedience is McAdams’s portrayal of a woman slowly erupting from within.

The essential humanity of all the characters is evident throughout – this is not a story of heroes and villains, and Dovid in particular emerges as a complex character wrestling with faith, loyalty, desire, and denial. Despite the fraught nature of his marriage to Esti, there is a tenderness between the two of them that blurs any simplistic notion of black and white. The community as a whole isn’t rendered as sympathetically, portrayed with a tense, claustrophobic sensibility, with a palette of cold blues and foggy grays. And yet the pleasures of belonging do emerge. In the aisles of the grocery store, a young mother thanks Esti for the food she made following the birth of a child – the helping net of community is present in times of need. At a Shabbat dinner, to which Ronit is brought as a guest, a woman notes that she has 37 grandchildren – another of the rewards for being within.

“Are you not married?” one of the women, Rebetzin Goldfarb, inquires of Ronit at that meal. “That’s the way it should be.”

Not one for pleasantries, Ronit replies that had she stayed in the community for another year, she would have been married off, only to awaken ten years later in a loveless marriage wanting to kill herself.

For those like Ronit, the rewards of leave-taking come in breaking free from this enforced conformity. Ronit seems too large to fit back into this well-ordered diorama – even when she dons a wig, she doesn’t quite look like she could be one of these women. Yet the question of whether she has actually broken free is more complicated. In New York, Ronit is a photographer – one of the few things we know about her life there – and just before receiving the news of her father’s death, she is shown photographing a man whose body is covered in tattoos. Beside the visual power of this scene – deriving in part from the fact that tattoos are prohibited by Jewish law – this moment is a reminder of the indelible markings imprinted on the psyche.

Esti meanwhile appears to be in possession of genuine belief – a scene of her praying fervently, her lips moving, is among the most moving in the film. “The words of the Torah are my life,” she tells Ronit, caught between the dictates of her religion and her body.

“It’s easier to leave,” Esti says to Ronit.

“No, it isn’t,” Ronit counters.

Neither is an easy choice. Nor are they always stark opposites. Even when you leave, you don’t necessarily leave all at once or entirely. Even when you leave, the imprint made by a life of religious observance isn’t easily shed.

When I first read the novel Disobedience years ago, I was part of a Modern Orthodox community, intent on quieting a constant press of questions. Could you will yourself to believe in the theological assertions with which you were raised? And if you couldn’t, could you – should you – force yourself to remain inside a world in which you do not believe, for the sake of community, for the sake of family, for the sake of upholding who you were supposed to be?

Alessandro Nivola as Dovid Kuperman

For many years, I tried to live with this unresolved tension; reframing where possible, ignoring when necessary, living with the dissonance of trying to belong while not quite being able to believe. Esti and Ronit’s debate as to whether staying or leaving is easier was also my own. To leave would upend the life I had built on top of this seemingly solid ground. To stay would be to chisel away some essential internal authenticity and live with a second secret self. At the heart of my own debate was the question of whether, having been born into a family and a community, I was allowed what sometimes felt like an unfathomable act of separation.

When I did eventually leave the Orthodox world, it came from the recognition that I wanted the freedom to say what I really thought, to believe what I really believed. For me, as for so many who leave any kind of religious world, there was a reckoning with what it means to follow your own voice instead of a communal one, to suffer the loss of people close to you, to live without a fixed set of rules and ideals.

The story of the journey away from Orthodoxy is chronicled in a number of memoirs (including my own, The Book of Separation), by writers such as Deborah Feldman, Leah Vincent and Shulem Deen. In the case of Feldman, Vincent and Deen, they detail the move away from Ultra-Orthodoxy or Hasidism, requiring an entry into a secular world that is almost completely foreign, and resulting in searing estrangements from family members. These memoirs, sometimes dubbed “OTD literature,” (shorthand for “off the derech,” or off the path), each echo something Esti says midway through the movie. “I was born into this community. I had no choice.” Each pose a similar question: Are you allowed to choose for yourself?

For some, it seems that the answer to this question is, in fact, no. You can choose, of course, to become part of the Orthodox world, but to leave is inexcusable. Those who leave must have simply had a bad experience or merely want to taste the proverbial forbidden fruit. How hard it is to pull back, even momentarily, from our own iron-clad grip on what we believe to be true; to recognise that those who leave might act with the same amount of consideration and possess the same urge for meaning and authenticity; to grapple with the discomfiting conundrum that others believe different truths with equal certainty.

Yet to truly embrace the notion of free will is to recognise that there is indeed a choice to be made. For those who live inside a religious community, the knowledge that you have chosen this way of life can be powerful: to be inside not just because you were born to it, but because you believe it, because you freely choose it. But for free will to be truly free, it requires the acknowledgement that others too are free to choose differently. The angels might be indistinguishable, the beast might have no name, but what is this man and this woman? Creatures with the complicated capacity to hear the same idea or theological claim and interpret it differently; to live in the same situation and experience it in multiple ways.

In the years since my own leave-taking, I have relished the pleasures of autonomy and the opportunity to live, as best I can, in accordance with my own beliefs. I’ve also learned that to leave wasn’t just an answer to the questions that had long weighed on me, but was the beginning of a myriad of other, equally thorny questions. Was it possible to both leave and stay, to hold on to a sense of history and tradition, to forge a different sense of Jewish identity? How could I maintain a close connection to those who believed and observed differently? It was also to reckon with the fact that I could eventually cease to regard my choices as an act of disobedience and begin to craft another way of regarding myself and the world.

Is it easier to leave or to stay, Ronit and Esti debate, but there’s no firm ground here, no happily-ever-after to be celebrated and used as a rallying cry. Instead there are choices to be made, each offering its own challenges and possibilities. What is this man and woman? Beings who live tangled, complicated realities, who navigate a world beset by uncertainties, failings and frailties. To be human is to have the freedom to choose, and then to navigate the varieties of outcomes of what we choose.

And it is a world inhabited equally by those inside and out. To live inside a religious community offers no guarantee of an easy path; despite any wishful pleadings and persistent salesmanship, there is no panacea for happiness or goodness. Like other works in this genre, Disobedience offers a rejoinder to all the Rebetezin Goldfarbs who use self-satisfaction as a weapon and wishfully assert that that there is one way to live. Esti and Dovid appear to follow the path, but inside each of them, inside all of us, there are stories taking place that people can barely imagine. In the depth and richness of its humanity, Disobedience insists on the simple yet sometimes radical notion that membership in a religious community doesn’t shield anyone from the varieties and complexities of being human. No one gets to make it through unscathed.

In the film, as in the novel, questions of whether Esti will end up with Ronit or stay with her husband, and whether Ronit will leave once again create a sense of tension and momentum. But the fact that the movie and its source novel pose alternate endings is another reminder that there is no single answer. The power of this story lies in knowing that to be free is not to be free of pain and entanglement; to have the freedom to choose is not to necessarily have a clear choice set out before you.

In the end, one of the most riveting moments of this film comes not in any grand explosion, but in the quiet power of Dovid standing before the assembled community to eulogise the Rav. This is supposed to be Dovid’s defining moment, as he assumes the mantle of leadership – truths affirmed, answers given. What he offers instead is a powerful, essential note of uncertainty.

“You are free,” Dovid says with pain and bewilderment to Esti and to the community members gathered. “You are free,” he repeats, to all of us.

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