New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino may have picked a Chassidic backdrop to deliver his over-the-top, homophobic screed, and it may have been warmly received in that setting. There are anti-gay Jews just like there are, somewhere I’m sure, anti-Semitic gays. But I thought there was something surreal about Paladino’s speech.
Before going any further, I should clear up a few things about my own background. First of all, although I’m not by any means supportive of the Tea Party movement, I actually had a thought about voting for Paladino. That had more to do with what I thought of the status quo in Albany than what I thought of the GOP contender. I’ve reconsidered and will probably vote for a minor-party candidate for governor. Second, although I no longer consider myself a religious Jew, I did for quite some time, easing up only about two and a half years ago. I still have Chassidic friends and understand where they’re coming from. So I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if some of those bearded, black-frocked men standing around Paladino were embarrassed beyond words at certain points in the speech.
Chassidism — and Judaism more broadly — does not embrace homosexuality. Few Western religions do. Even so, it’s been said that the only thing you can get two Jews to agree on is what a third Jew should give to charity, and that characterization holds in this case as well. Reform Judaism, just as some liberal Christian denominations, has found some ecclesiastical figleaf to allow its clergy to preside over same-sex marriages.
And even if you’re an Orthodox Jew and cannot abide gay marriage, you also could conclude that you cannot abide discrimination or violation of civil rights, either. We make certain decisions as Jews and other decisions as Americans. Even if our scripture is dead-set against homosexuality (and it isn’t), we have to recognize that not everyone has to keep our religious laws. Paladino, being Italian, has eaten prosciutto ham at some point in his life, I presume. The Chassids had nothing to say about that.
So if the Jewish proscription against homosexuality doesn’t apply to non-Jews, then how many people does it really effect? Let’s turn on the filters. First, out of a world population of 7 billion, there are only around 15 million people who identify themselves as Jewish. Thing is, a lot of people who are Jewish aren’t necessarily, by the strictest definition, Jews. Although Reform Judaism holds that any child born of a Jewish parent is a Jew, all other expressions of Judaism insist on matrilineal descent. And as for converts, no Orthodox community would recognize anyone who was converted by a Reform or Conservative rabbinical panel. They’re too busy deciding which other Orthodox rabbis are qualified to preside over conversions. So let’s say, in round numbers, there are 10 million people in the world who are Jews by any and all definitions.
Of them, half are women. There’s nothing I know of in Torah to suggest that lesbianism is forbidden. So we’re down to 5 million. Of them, roughly half are Jews of unquestioned lineage but who identify with the Reform movement and don’t believe that the rules against gay sex, eating pork or turning on a light switch on the Sabbath apply anymore; even if the the rules did apply, there’s no way they could be enforced among that crowd. Now we’re down to 2.5 million.
Let’s weed out those who are either too young or are otherwise not sexually active. That brings us down below the 2 million mark, but let’s say 2 million just to keep the numbers round. So, of the 2 million male, sexually active Orthodox Jews in the world, let’s assume 10% are gay. That’s probably a high estimate but, again, let’s stick with round numbers. So there’s 200,000 people in the entire world who would be inconvenienced by the Torah’s prohibition of homosexual acts. And “homosexual” isn’t an either-you-is-or-you-ain’t proposition. This high-side figure includes not just through-going gay men, but also those who have experimented or are curious. So let’s guess that half of these people still under consideration would at some point come to be content in a heterosexual marriage.
So that’s it. Out of 7 billion people in the world, about 100,000 are wrestling with the Jewish strictures against being gay. Maybe half are of those are in America — 50,000. Maybe half of those are in New York State — 25,000.
Not to minimize the pain of those who are effected — and there’s really nothing to be done about it — but there are more pressing problems in the Jewish community, the gay community and New York in general. Honestly, whatever the Chassids think about homosexuality in their own world, they really aren’t — or oughtn’t be — concerned about it in the public square. And as for Paladino’s proposition that gays shouldn’t be allowed to teach in the public schools, I’m wondering why the Chassids gave that line a round of applause. Politeness is the only reason that springs to mind.
After all, when was the last time you saw one of their kids in a public school?